Mandatory CPD or enhancements to the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) are needed to address skills and knowledge gaps left by the disruption to social work education caused by the pandemic.
That was one of the key recommendations from research for Social Work England into the state of education and training, which found that the pandemic had significantly disrupted practice placements and posed significant challenges to students’ learning and wellbeing due to the shift to online working.
In the light of this, the report called on the regulator, course providers and employers “to develop mandatory CPD modules” for graduates education had been affected by the pandemic. Alternatively, ASYE programmes should be boosted to fill in gaps in learning, it said.
The report also called on employers and course providers to do more to support students and graduates’ emotional resilience and promote self-care, in the light of the pandemic’s impact on their wellbeing.
The study also called for more content on social work programmes on equality, diversity and inclusion, after focus groups identified there was little on offer currently, and action to tackle indirect discrimination within the profession, which several participants reported experiencing.
The research team also said Social Work England should consider the introduction of student registration – something the regulator said it was mulling last year – in order to help trainees develop a sense of accountability and professional identity, and ease their transition to practice.
As reported previously, the Covid-19 lockdowns brought significant disruption to social work education and students, notably in relation to practice placements.
Of 166 students surveyed by researchers for this report, 60.6% said their placement was disrupted, paused or delayed due to Covid-19 related restrictions. And though a small sample (40), 72% of practice educators surveyed said they found it difficult to support students on placement, with one saying they felt students had been “cheated” out of their learning.
In line with guidance from Social Work England, courses made adjustments to placements, including by shortening their length – or redistributing days from the first to second placement – or allowing students to count days spent working in related health or social care roles towards their placement hours.
However, the study found concerns with both these approaches. Shortened first placements raised “concerns of whether a student would be able to demonstrate the high demands of the professional standards in such a short space of time before progressing to a final placement during which the requirements are even more advanced”. And the second approach raised the question of how social work standards would be assessed, and by whom, when a student was being expected to carry out separate work-related objectives for their employer.
‘Great unease’ regarding remote working
As well as interruptions and delays, the study found concerns about remote placements and working more generally. Practice educators expressed “great unease” about the preparedness for practice of students who completed placements online, because of the lack of contact with people with lived experience.
In response to researchers’ call for action to fill gaps in learning among graduates, Social Work England said: “Our priority as the regulator is to ensure social workers are able to meet the professional standards and complete the required continuing professional development (CPD). It is not our role to assess access to learning and development, however we do work closely with organisations and employers to provide advice and guidance on the professional standards and CPD.”
Action to tackle learning gaps ‘must not be punitive’
Jade Daniels, chair of the British Association of Social Workers’ students group, said: “It’s important that any learning gaps are addressed to ensure they don’t impact those who we work with negatively, but any action cannot carry any punitive measures because retention of the next generation of within the profession is vital as demand for services continue to increase.”
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services said that employers had taken action to address gaps in knowledge among NQSWs.
“It is important that social workers entering the profession are able to develop practice in their first year in employment and local authorities have adapted to meet their needs, such as providing additional support and time to mitigate any lost learning during successive lockdowns,” said ADCS president Charlotte Ramsden.
However, the research found that NQSWs joining the workforce in 2020 had themselves faced disruption to their ASYE programmes. Of the 56 NQSWs surveyed, 69.7% reported “numerous disruptions in their practice and assessed work in the ASYE programme”. A separate focus group held with NQSWs said supervision was not as accessible as otherwise would have been the case due to remote working and increased workloads.
Need to build emotional resilience
Meanwhile, most of the students surveyed said that they struggled to maintain a balance between student and personal life (79.5%) or that personal circumstances and difficulties interfered with their course progress (69.8%), in the context of online working.
Participants expressed concern about the social isolation arising from online practice and the lack of contact with colleagues.
In the light of the pandemic’s impact on students’ and graduates’ wellbeing, the report called for course providers to develop strategies and content to “prepare students and future practitioners to respond to adversities…by developing emotional resilience”.
This should include learning how to set boundaries between personal and professional life, reflective skills and fostering self-care, all of which had been affected by the pandemic.
Researchers added that employers should also promote self-care, including by enabling practitioners to disengage from work and take part in reflective exercises that were independent of their case work.
On behalf of BASW, Daniels added: “Feedback from our students and newly qualified social workers shows that help is needed in skills and a broader pastoral sense.
“Students feel that they have had very limited opportunities to develop and practice key skills such as communication and observation, for example. In addition, a lack of pastoral care is leading ASYEs to develop their skills in a vacuum, juggling the demands of being a new social worker, while completing portfolios all at home where the vital emotional support of co-workers in an office is missing.”
Lack of equality, diversity and inclusion content
The research also explored concerns around a lack of content on equality, diversity and inclusion on courses.
Strong majorities of students and graduates said their courses prepared them for anti-discriminatory, anti-oppressive and culturally sensitive practice. However, researchers found that “data from the focus groups support that there is little to no mention of anti-racist practice in student learning, and nor is there any particular focus or examples on identities other than race”.
It recommended that course and placement providers increase the content devoted to equality, diversity and inclusion on the curriculum.
The study also asked participants about their own experience of discrimination. Though most students with protected characteristics said they had not experienced discrimination or oppression during their course or placement, a third of graduates said they had during their practice.
The research also found “highly concerning” evidence of ‘indirect discrimination’, as a result of organisational policies, procedures and practices and lack of cultural understanding.
To tackle this, it recommended courses and employers appoint equality, diversity and inclusion leads to examine organisational rules and practices to identify risks of indirect discrimination, particularly against students.
“Placement providers have the responsibility to ensure a discrimination-free environment to their students,” it added.
In response, Social Work England said its education and professional standards “embed[ded] the principles of equality, diversity and inclusion”, and pointed to current work it was involved with in relation to tackle racism in the profession. This included carrying out a survey on the extent of racism experienced by professionals, in partnership with the two principal social worker networks and What Works for Children’s Social Care, the results of which will be published shortly.
Researchers also called on Social Work England to consider introducing a student register to enable trainees to develop their professional identity, feel a sense of belonging and of accountability, support their adherence to the regulator’s professional standards and ease their transition into practice.
Majorities of all four groups backed the idea, with 78% of students in support, though concerns were raised about the potential cost. The research team said fees would have to be minimal or zero, and registration should be provisional, with transition to the main register on successful completion of their course.
Social Work England said last year it was considering the introduction of student registration, which applies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and was in place in England until 2012, when the Health and Care Professions Council replaced the General Social Care Council as regulator.
In response, Social Work Engand said: “We will consult with our stakeholders, including social workers, on our strategy relating to social work education and training. Student registration may form part of this. It is being considered as part of the whole professional journey of social workers, from initial training to advanced practice. Any extension of regulation into student registration must be delivered in a proportionate, cost-effective and consistent way with clear benefits for students, providers, employers, the sector and the public.
Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee chair Janet Melville-Wiseman said JUCSWEC was pleased that the study backed its view that student registration should be reintroduced in England.
However, she added that it was “disappointing that this project recruited such a small number of respondents, including only 39 academics, and this does essentially limit the applicability of the findings”.
In that context, it was right for Social Work England to be “cautious in terms of how it responds to each recommendation”, she added.