The key challenges facing practice educators today

Staff shortages, ongoing remote working and meeting students' diverse needs are among the difficulties practice educators face day to day. But the role remains a rewarding one, says Sally Scott

A social worker talking to a younger colleague to symboilse mentoring, coaching or practice education
Photo: Meeko Media/Adobe Stock

By Sally Scott

Some years ago, when I was working in a social work team in the Republic of Ireland, we were approached by a university in Germany looking for six-month practice placements.

The team were up for a challenge and Gabi arrived from Eichstatt, Bavaria, a few weeks later. It was the first time I had been a practice educator (PE) with a foreign student and it proved to be a steep learning curve.

Communication was initially stilted. We had staff from all over Ireland. I was from Yorkshire and the manager was Liverpudlian. It was clear no one spoke English the way Gabi had learned it.

The information sent from Eichstatt University was equally mystifying. I struggled to make sense of the assessment framework and the higher education institution’s (HEI) requirements. Telephone discussions with Gabi’s tutor were amusing but uninformative.

Time went on and things improved. Gabi was hardworking and had a great sense of humour. She forged good relationships with the team. We co-worked with the family support team downstairs to ensure she got a wide range of face-to-face work experience.

I got a colleague to translate the information from the university. By learning and working together, we overcame many challenges and learned a great deal. It turned out that our approach to social work education had many similarities with the model of social pedagogy used in Germany.

Since returning to the UK, I have continued to work in practice education as a placement co-ordinator at an HEI and, later, as a freelance PE and assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) assessor and Gabi and I continued to stay in touch.

A challenging and rewarding role

Practice educators are effectively the gatekeepers to the social work profession and it can be a challenging as well as a rewarding role. Over the years I have gained a lot of support from the National Organisation for Practice Teaching (NOPT).

NOPT is a voluntary organisation and free to join. Its aim is to promote high-quality practice education and represents the views of over 600 employed and independent PEs working in voluntary and statutory settings across the UK.

For this article, I asked fellow committee members of NOPT to share some of the challenges they are currently facing as PEs.

Support for practice educators

Community Care Inform has a wealth of resources to help practice educators succeed in their roles. Find out more by checking out our practice educator knowledge and practice hubs on Inform Children and Inform Adults, which are available to subscribers to each site.

Non-subscribers can find out more about Inform here.

Meeting needs of diverse learners

Diversity Equality Inclusion write on a sticky note isolated on Office Desk.

Credit: syahrir/Adobe Stock

The various qualifying routes into social work have attracted a wider range of students and apprentices, which means that those offering and managing placements have had to overcome different challenges.

International students may need support to overcome language and cultural barriers, while mature students may have to juggle their caring responsibilities alongside completing their placement.

Reasonable adjustments need to be made for learners who are neurodivergent and those who have specific physical, medical and emotional needs

Colleagues with experience of managing failing students point to the increasing commercialisation of HEIs and the resulting pressure on practice educators to “get students through placements”.

The increasing costs of education and living mean that many students work as well as study. Practice educators need time and the support of their own organisations to ensure these diverse learning needs are identified and met.

Remote working post-Covid

Young social worker working remotely

Credit: Anton/Adobe Stock

Practice educators across the country commented upon the continuing impact of Covid on working practices. In many areas, physical office space has been reduced with teams adopting a hybrid approach. More meetings (including some placement meetings and supervisions) are now held remotely.

Online working may save travel time and costs but a reduction in face-to-face working has its drawbacks. Practice education, like social work is a visceral experience.

Communicating online makes it is harder to pick up on the subtleties of interactions. Students have less opportunity to pick up the “soft skills” learned by shadowing and observing colleagues’ different ways of working.

As a PE working in the Isle of Wight pointed out, students’ ability to learn “by osmosis” is limited. It can also be more difficult for learners to access support quickly.

A PE working in London noted that students and ASYE social workers working at home find it harder to get an immediate response to a question, instead, having to wait for someone online to see the email and respond.

For many, interaction with colleagues in the office provides the opportunity to offload, share concerns and good practice. Team dynamics, disagreements and humour are best experienced face to face.

As colleague from an HEI says: “You don’t get a feel of the placement, a sense of what is going on, the dynamics between student and supervisor… you don’t see the nuances that give issues or problems away. It can mean that difficulties in placement can be missed early on.”

Shortage of practice educators

Old metal sign with the inscription Vacancies

Photo: Zerbor/Adobe Stock

Colleagues across the UK identify a national shortage of PEs. This can be attributed to a number of factors, notably a lack of workload relief, poor financial reward and problems retaining experienced SWs.

There is no established standard in practice education. Although we have the practice educator professional standards (PEPS), there is no consistency in PE training and the accreditation of PE courses and portfolio requirements vary considerably.

Since its inception over 30 years ago, NOPT has been involved in various consultations with the major bodies involved in social work education. This has included participation in the reviews of the PEPS and the refresh of the professional capabilities framework.

We are currently working with British Association of Social Workers on a joint project entitled, “Look after your Practice Educator”. Members of the NOPT committee have met with colleagues in Social Work England to develop national strategies to support and retain PEs.

As Jill Yates, the co-chair of NOPT, notes, all these issues impact on the student’s experience of placement and learning. This has a further impact on the PE and their role and on the social work profession as a whole.

Role of the NOPT

Our members understand the day-to-day challenges facing practice educators and the aim of NOPT is to promote high-quality practice education and represent the views of employed and independent PEs working in voluntary and statutory settings across the UK.

We are very excited to finally be able to link you to our new website and also inform you of our forthcoming conference, in Sheffield on 11 July 2023.

The NOPT conference is in Sheffield on 11 July 2023. This is a great way for PEs and others involved in social work training to network, find out about the latest developments and enjoy a shared learning experience with like-minded others.

It might even lead to a trip to Germany…

Sally Scott is a committee member of the National Organisation for Practice Teaching and a practice educator

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