Social Work England has issued proposed statements of what students should know on graduation, to tackle inconsistencies in outcomes from training courses.
The 78 ‘readiness for professional practice’ statements – issued for consultation last week – cover knowledge, skills and behaviours that new graduates should be able to demonstrate to meet the regulator’s professional standards for registered social workers.
Once agreed this autumn, the regulator will establish an expert panel to develop readiness for professional practice guidance next year. This will then be used to inform its assessments of education providers from 2024 onwards, alongside revised education and training standards, which it also plans to consult on in due course.
Anti-racist practice and self-care among proposed skills
While the proposed statements – which are out for consultation until 21 September 2022 – are designed to demonstrate a graduate’s ability to meet the professional standards, they include a number of areas not explicitly covered by the standards.
These include applying the principles of anti-discriminatory, anti-racist and anti-oppressive practice, and understanding how multiple and intersecting oppressions affect people, the impact of social context in areas including food insecurity and migration, the effects of trauma and the concept of self-care for practitioners (see below).
The professional standards refer to “challenging the impact of disadvantage and discrimination, promoting social justice and helping to confront and resolve issues of inequality and inclusion”. However, in an article for Community Care in 2020, British Association of Social Workers professional officer Wayne Reid questioned why they did not reference anti-racist, anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice explicitly.
What ‘readiness for practice’ looks like
The proposed knowledge, skills and behaviours graduate social workers should be able to demonstrate include:
- How multiple and intersecting oppressions and disadvantages impact people, families, and communities, and affect the demand for social work services.
- The impact of the social context in which people live including: housing, deprivation, food insecurity, education, unemployment, poverty, homelessness, social justice, ecological and environmental issues, asylum, migration and ethnic segregation.
- The impact of trauma and loss on human development across the lifespan, and factors contributing to vulnerability including societal factors and social justice.
- How health and social care services operate in a diverse society including concepts such as social need, informed choice, personalised services, institutional and structural discrimination.
- The concept of self-care and how to maintain, or seek support to maintain, your wellbeing through periods of uncertainty, change and stress.
- The impact and implications of posting information online and how to use information and communication technology appropriately, demonstrating that you are able to apply the professional standards online and offline.
- Applying the principles of anti-discriminatory, anti-racist and anti-oppressive practice in your work.
- Managing your time and prioritising your workload, demonstrating specific skills in relation to caseload management and use of limited resources to ensure that people’s needs are met.
- Demonstrating an awareness of your own biases and prejudices, including the potential of unconscious bias to impact on decision making.
- Recognising when and how your health might impact your practice and taking steps to seek support, ensuring that you continue to practice safely and effectively.
Though its existing education standards are designed to ensure courses equip students to meet Social Work England’s professional standards, the regulator said it did not make explicit the “specific knowledge, skills and behaviours” that students should be able to demonstrate.
‘Inconsistent outcomes for students and graduates’
“As a result, we are seeing differing interpretations of how to translate the professional standards into course content,” said the regulator. “This is potentially contributing to inconsistent outcomes for students and graduates in their readiness for professional practice.”
In addition, its standards were part of a “crowded landscape” of frameworks that shaped social work course curricula or against which programmes were measured. These include:
- The professional capabilities framework, hosted by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), which sets expectations of social work students from starting their courses to graduation across the PCF’s nine domains, including professionalism, knowledge, skills and critical reflection.
- The government’s post-qualifying standards for child and family practitioners (PQS), which set out what all such social workers should know and be able to do.
- The government’s knowledge and skills statement for social workers in adult services (KSS), setting out what they should know by the end of their assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE).
- The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s (QAA) subject benchmark statement for social work, which sets academic standards that social work undergraduates should have achieved on qualification.
- The quality assurance in practice learning (QAPL) framework – also hosted by BASW – which sets standards for practice learning and placements.
‘A burden on providers and confusing for students’
Social Work England chief executive Colum Conway said: “Multiple frameworks, guidance and requirements from different organisations are posing an unnecessary burden on institutions and are confusing for students.
“This crowded picture has evolved over time, partly due to the absence of a specialist regulator. Now, as the holder of the standards for both social workers and initial education and training in England, we feel we are in a position to streamline the situation to make things simpler for everyone.”
The regulator said its readiness for practice guidance would be a first step towards simplifying and streamlining the landscape for providers and students, while increasing the focus on public protection in the oversight of social work education.
However, as it did not have ownership over the other frameworks, Social Work England said it would need to find ways to effectively integrate its standards with theirs.
‘Essence of existing frameworks must be retained’ – BASW
The British Association of Social Workers cautiously welcomed the proposed readiness for practice guidance. However, it raised concerns about the potential impact on the PCF, QAA subject benchmark statement, QAPL and the practice educator professional standards (PEPS). Like the PCF and QAPL, the PEPS are hosted by BASW.
Professional officer Wayne Reid said the association hoped this was an opportunity “to underline the importance” of these frameworks, which he said were “created by the profession, for the profession”.
“Social workers and educators were intrinsically involved in putting these together and updating them,” Reid added. “Therefore, as part of any integration or modernisation process, it is vital the core terminology and essence of these frameworks is maintained in accordance with the input of key stakeholders.”
Risk of added complexity
Academics’ body the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC) said it welcomed moves to streamline the multiple frameworks surrounding social work education, but was concerned the readiness for practice guidance may add further complexity.
Vice-chair Amanda Fitchett said: “Although we can see the need for social work programmes to have a shared understanding of what readiness for professional practice might look like, we would not want to see too many additional frameworks clouding the pre-qualifying landscape. JUCSWEC would welcome the opportunity to join the advisory panel look at developments in this area to ensure the higher education institution sector is represented in discussions.”
This was echoed by the National Organisation for Practice Teaching, who warned that the proposed guidance “could add confusion unless it complemented the PCF”, which already has readiness for practice standards.
Potential further education reforms
Alongside the readiness for practice consultation, Social Work England set out a broader approach to social work education and training that will inform further reforms over the coming years. This includes:
- Exploring how the regulator could have greater oversight of social workers at the start of their careers, to both improve support for them and public protection. This is in the context of variability in the uptake and quality of assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) programmes and disproportionate failure rates among black and ethnic minority social workers.
- Considering the case for registration of students – as happens in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and was previously the case in England – balancing the potential to improve public protection against the costs and potential burdens on trainees. The regulator first mooted the idea in late 2020.
- Promoting equality, diversity and inclusion in social work education, including in relation to admissions, achievement and course content.
- Having greater oversight of practice educators – including assuring their training, supporting their practice and ensuring their ongoing suitability – as recommended by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. Social Work England will commission research into the role later this year before consulting on any proposals.
- Looking at requirements regarding the registration of social work academics in the light of the children’s social care review’s proposal – vigorously opposed by JUCSWEC – that all registered social workers do 100 hours of direct practice each year.