Non-statutory placements make up over half of provision for students in Scotland, report reveals

    Lack of statutory placements, driven by inadequate funding and practice educator shortages, leaving NQSWs underprepared for practice and undermining students' mental health, according to research

    A practice educator or social work manager talking to a student
    Photo: Monkey Business/Adobe Stock

    Non-statutory placements make up over half of practice learning provision for social work students in Scotland, leaving some graduates underprepared for practice, research has revealed.

    The lack of placements in local authorities is driven by underfunding and practice educator shortages, said a report commissioned by regulator the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) and the Social Work Education Partnership (SWEP), an alliance of sector leaders that oversees the education system.

    Meanwhile, a Scottish Association of Social Work survey on students’ PLO experience has found that the lack of statutory practice learning opportunities (PLOs) is undermining students’ mental health and confidence.

    Decline in provision of statutory placements

    The SSSC/SWEP-commissioned report – based on written evidence from stakeholders, data analysis and research with councils, universities third sector bodies, practice educators and students – found the relative provision of statutory placements had declined in recent years.

    While councils provided about 54% of PLO days in 2018-19, this had fallen to about 48% by 2022-23, with the proportion offered by third sector agencies rising from 46% to 52% over the same period.

    The study said there were reported cases of students qualifying without any statutory experience, a point that was reflected in SASW’s survey of 344 students and newly qualified social workers, 17% of whom had not undertaken social work tasks during their placements.

    Placement rules in Scotland

    Under the 2003 Framework for Social Work Education in Scotland, course providers must ensure that:

    • Students spend at least 200 days in practice learning.
    • At least 160 days of this must be spent in supervised practice in service delivery settings and this element must be assessed.
    • The assessed element allows the student to gain experience of carrying out statutory social work tasks, involving legal interventions, and working in at least two contrasting settings and with at least two different service user groups.

    More NQSWs not prepared for practice

    As a result, councils were reporting more cases of newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) not being suitably qualified for practice in statutory settings, meaning they needed greater levels of support on taking up their post, said the SSSC/SWEP-commissioned report.

    One in five NQSWs who responded to the SASW survey said they felt “completely unprepared” to start their career in social work, while it also revealed that the lack of statutory PLOs was undermining students’ mental health.

    Overall, 59% of students reported that their placement experience had adversely affected their mental health, with students who commented further citing the fact that their PLO offered little or no opportunity to take on social work tasks as the main factor.

    “Students stated their voluntary sector placements left them uninspired, bored or frustrated which had a bearing on their confidence and mental health,” said the SASW report.

    The SSSC/SWEP-commissioned study, produced by regional PLO support and development body Learning Network West, said that, though third sector placements could be “extremely rich learning experiences”, graduates needed to be “comfortable with the exercise of statutory authority”.

    Practice educator shortages

    A key driver of the shortages of statutory placements was a lack, or unavailability, of practice educators to supervise students, said the report, entitled Social Work Practice Learning Funding: Research and Evaluation.

    Practice educators interviewed for the research reported barriers to them taking on students, including limited management support, employers not reducing their workload in their core role, vacancies in their team and the need to provide additional supervision to NQSWs.

    The 12-month length of the practice learning qualification (PLQ) course and limited provision was another factor limiting supply of practice educators.

    Also, some social workers were promoted to team managers after completing the PLQ, leaving them with no time for practice educator work.

    While practice educators said they would welcome financial remuneration for this work, some local authorities said they did not support this, seeing it as part of a social worker’s role to support students. Though some did provide a financial incentive, the level varied considerably, from £100 to £1,500.

    Some councils were turning to independent practice educators to fill the gap, though this was at greater cost. The SSSC/SWEP-commissioned study also identified an “increasingly problematic” trend of practice educators not supporting students in their own workplace while carrying out independent work for other employers.

    Independent practice educators ‘unregulated and underpaid’

    The report said that supervision by independent practice educators was now “the most prevalent practice for PLOs”, with self-employed practitioners generally used by voluntary organisations, who did not employ their own.

    While council-employed practice educators are registered with SSSC, by virtue of their social work roles, the report raised concerns about there being no requirement for self-employed independent practice educators to be so.

    “Thus, there are no CPD requirements or other regulatory processes in place,” said the study.

    By the same token, independent practice educators who contributed to the research criticised the lack of support, feedback and quality assurance they received for their work, while also saying they were significantly underpaid for the work that they did.

    Third sector agencies are paid £28 per day for PLOs, with £18 of this generally given to the independent practice educator.

    Self-employed practitioners told researchers that this did not account for costs including preparatory work, travel expenses and the need to provide additional support to struggling students, while they also pointed to the fact that they did not receive sick pay, holiday pay or pension contributions.

    Funding shortages

    Funding for PLO providers – which is paid by course providers – had been static from 2008-22, at £28 per day for third sector and private agencies and £18 for local authorities, though in 2022, councils’ rate for assessed placements was increased to £28.

    However, participants in the research said funding was inadequate to cover the costs of PLOs. These include pre-placement planning and administration, supervision and management of the student, practice observation, assessment and post-placement administration and quality assurance, as well as training of practice educators and link workers.

    The SSSC/SWEP-commissioned report also found there was a lack of financial planning in, and accountability for, the use of PLO funding, meaning it was not used strategically.

    Course providers, meanwhile, said the administrative fee they receive for placements – which is £2 per student per day, capped at a maximum of £40,000 per year per institution – was insufficient for planning, developing and co-ordinating placements.

    Calls to increase funding and boost practice educator payments

    The report’s recommendations included:

    • An immediate increase in PLO funding. The report estimated that a 38% uplift would be needed to account for ground lost to inflation.
    • Replacing the daily PLO fee with two flat-rate fees – one for each of students’ placements – paid directly to providers, not via universities. It said this would remove the administrative costs of monitoring how many days a student had done on placement, and shift the focus on to desired outcomes and results.
    • Replacing the administrative fee for universities with a flat-rate fee for sourcing, matching, co-ordinating and quality assuring PLOs and for supporting link workers and practice educators.
    • Creating a central system for administering funding to remove inconsistencies and improve data collection.
    • Requiring PLO providers to plan for, and report on, their use of funding, to ensure more strategic use of resource.
    • Councils and other employers providing financial remuneration for, and reducing caseloads, for practice educators and link workers.
    • Practice educators having contractual expectations in relation to supporting students.
    • Increasing payment levels for independent practice educators.
    • Independent practice educators being regulated by SSSC and placed on a national register to ensure they meet professional standards.

    Recommendations under consideration

    SWEP’s national strategic partnership group, which includes representation from councils, universities, the third sector, SSSC, government and service users and carers, is currently considering the report’s recommendations.

    In a statement, SWEP said there was general consensus that:

    • There was significant complexity around the funding of PLOs, partly due to the fact that individual agencies had differing responsibilities and accountabilities.
    • This could be seen as an opportunity to provide quality assurance of placements.
    • Consistency of approach would be advantageous.
    • The report provides the opportunity for investment in practice learning.
    • The system should be reviewed to make it “simple, centralised, standard, consistent and accountable”.

    Employers to face stronger practice learning responsibilities 

    For SSSC, acting director of workforce, education and standards, Laura Lamb, said ‘We are committed to supporting improvement in the provision of practice placements and student experience of these and will continue to work with other key stakeholders as a member of SWEP to progress the development of the action plan to address recommendations highlighted within the Social Work Practice Learning Funding: Research and Evaluation report.

    She said revisions to the regulator’s code of practice for employers, due to come into force in May 2024, “strengthens the responsibility of employers in providing learning and development opportunities to enable workers to strengthen and maintain their skills, knowledge and practice”.

    Practice learning requirements under review

    Lamb added that SSSC was also “currently reviewing the practice teaching and learning requirements which the university programmes we approve must follow”.

    “These specify the requirements for the number of days, the type of setting, who can assess the students practice etc,” she added. “This will be an opportunity to ensure greater consistency in the provision of practice placements and experience for students. We plan to have the revised requirements in place for the start of the new academic year.2

    Lamb’s colleague, Cheryl Campbell, SSSC’s acting head of education and standards, said this review would also address the role of practice educators, in the light of the report’s recommendations for the group.

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