Practice educators passionate about role, but lack of support risks pushing them out of it, finds study

Research for Social Work England highlights 'emotional labour' of being a practice educator and lack of workload relief, but also practitioners' strong motivations to develop next generation of professionals

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

Practice educators are passionate about supporting students, but a lack of recognition and support risks pushing some out of the role, Social Work England-commissioned research has found.

The study found that practitioners were sustained in the role by the motivation to develop the next generation of social workers, further their own skills and knowledge and, in some cases, redress their own negative experiences as a student.

But it also highlighted the hidden “emotional labour” practice educators experienced, particularly in working with struggling students, along with a lack of workload relief and insufficient pay as posing a risk to their retention.

Call for greater recognition and better pay

Practice educators involved in the research called for greater recognition of the role, including through some form of regulation by Social Work England, fair and consistent remuneration, clear, defined career progression opportunities and workload relief.

The regulator commissioned the study to improve its understanding of practice educators as part its wider objectives of strengthening the transition from education to employment and ensuring newly qualified social workers are equipped to meet its professional standards.

Social Work England’s education and training standards require course providers to ensure that “practice educators are on the register and that they have the relevant and current knowledge, skills and experience to support safe and effective learning”.

However, the regulator does not have a direct link with practice educators, unlike with approved mental health professionals (AMHPs) or best interests assessors (BIAs), who can voluntarily ‘annotate’ their entries on the register to acknowledge their specialist role. Also, unlike with AMHPs and BIAs, Social Work England is not responsible for regulating practice educator training.

What the research involved

  • A literature review of the existing evidence base relating to practice education.
  • Four focus groups attended by 127 practice educators, and individual interviews with 28.
  • Analysis of placement handbooks from 23 of the 83 social work course providers in England.
  • A focus group with representatives of nine course providers.
  • A survey of local authorities, in their capacity as placement providers, answered by 14 of the 153 councils.

Lack of existing evidence base

Researchers found the existing evidence base around practice education was limited, with existing studies often dated and local, rather than national, and some lacking methodological and analytical rigour.

While the research base primarily focused on the views of practice educators, there was a “notable lack of research on the views of practice educators from minoritised groups”, the study found.

Key messages from the literature included the complex web of relationships – with students, employers, course providers and, sometimes, on-site practice supervisors – that practice educators had to manage, and the “emotional labour” involved in the role.

This is defined as the process of suppressing or modifying your behaviour to manage workplace expectations and was particularly present when working with students at risk of failing their placement.

‘Emotional labour’ when working with struggling students

This theme was raised frequently in the study’s focus groups with practice educators, with practitioners saying they had to strike a “delicate balance” between addressing concerns and keeping the student’s confidence up, to enable them to make required changes to their practice.

“One practice educator vividly recalled a supervision where the student told her that failing ‘is going to ruin my life’ and spoke of the ‘weight of the damage, the emotional weight…’ that this placed upon her,” the report said.

In line with previous studies, practice educators described the experience as undermining their own confidence and wellbeing or making them feel shame, and the report warned that this created risks that they would “step away from the role”.

What mitigated against this was having support and the opportunity to debrief, whether with their team, their supervisor or the student’s course provider, as well as the provider offering personal, practice and academic support to the student.

Practice educators also said they were increasingly working with students with additional needs, such as mental health conditions, autism, dyslexia or ADHD, and needed more training to do so.

While they felt passionate about supporting these students, some practice educators felt underequipped and under-supported in doing so, meaning they had to do hours of research outside of working hours to identify helpful strategies.

The critical role of managers and teams

Practitioners said the support of their team, manager and organisation was critical to their success as a practice educator and the chances of them continuing in the role, however, this support was variable, the study found.

Practice educators said that having different members of their team provide support to a student, for example, by giving them shadowing opportunities or reflecting with them, contributed to the success of a placement. In some cases, these extended to a fellow social worker sharing aspects of the practice educator role.

Where this support network was not available within their team, practitioners looked outside, to workforce development colleagues, the local teaching partnership or fellow practice educators within the organisation.

Focus group attendees said they would welcome more opportunities to network with fellow practice educators.

Lack of workload relief

A significant issue identified in the literature review and also reported by practice educators interviewed for the study was managing a full caseload alongside a placement, because of the lack of workload relief they received when they took on a student.

This resulted in them often doing placement paperwork outside of working hours, and the conflicting demands on them were particularly acute when they were working with a struggling student.

Practitioners said that the lack of relief reflected a lack of recognition for the role, when compared to AMHPs and BIAs, and some said it was leading them to contemplate abandoning practice education.

Course providers, meanwhile, reported that practice educators’ lack of workload relief meant that students were commonly used as “an extra pair of hands”, resulting in some feeling “broken” before they even registered as social workers.

Insufficient remuneration

Some practice educators said they did not receive any additional pay for taking on a student, while more broadly, remuneration was found to be poor or inconsistent, again reflecting findings from the literature review.

Practitioners also saw this as indicative of a lack of recognition for the role. This issue was felt most acutely by independent practice educators – those not employed by the organisation hosting the student. They reported that this meant organisations were reliant on their goodwill, with some saying they were taking on fewer and fewer students because of the lack of pay.

“Several observed that when travel costs to placements and other expenses were factored in, their wage generally amounted to ‘a pittance’ and there was a sense of incredulity that this was tolerated,” the report said.

Institutional racism 

Researchers also interviewed 13 practice educators from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds (described as global majority in the report) and 16 who had a disability or identified as neurodivergent, for example, because they had ADHD.

Both groups expressed a determination to provide global majority or disabled or neurodivergent students, respectively, with a better experience on placement than they had experienced themselves while studying.

However, the report said that the “overriding theme” of the interviews with global majority practice educators was the “experience of institutional racism”, including a lack of training and development compared with white British colleagues and being exclusively matched with students from a similar background to them.

Some also experienced discriminatory attitudes from students, to which they strove to respond in a way that helped the student unpick their biases. While this was beneficial to the student, “confronting students’ discriminatory views was a painful, additional burden to global majority practice educators”.

Inconsistent support for disabled and neurodivergent practice educators

Some disabled and neurodivergent practice educators said they felt well supported in their role, for example through the provision of reasonable adjustments, which they generally attributed to having a good manager, rather than to the wider organisation.

However, others reported ineffective support due to unsupportive managers or high management turnover. As a result, some ended up championing not only their own needs, but those of neurodivergent and disabled colleagues and students.

Practice educators’ recommendations for change

Based on their interviews with practice educators, the research team identified six changes practitioners wanted to see happen:

  1. Social Work England enabling practice educators to annotate the register with their role.
  2. Fair and consistent remuneration for practice educators.
  3. Consistency of placement paperwork and student assessment frameworks across course providers (though this was not supported by course providers interviewed by the research team).
  4. Greater representation of diverse voices in practice educator training and a wider range of training and career development opportunities for practice educators.
  5. Clear, defined routes for career progression within the role including opportunities for ‘experienced’ status, and more equitable routes into practice education, especially for global majority social workers.
  6. Workload relief and protected time.

What Social Work England will do with study

On the back of the report, Social Work England said it wanted to “build a clearer picture of the practice education workforce” to inform future options for regulating them as a distinct group. It said these options included:

  • Annotation of the register for practice educators.
  • Setting additional professional standards for practice educators.
  • Developing new education and training standards for practice educator courses; the current standards – the practice educator professional standards (PEPS) – are overseen by the British Association of Social Workers.
  • Setting continuing professional development requirements for practice educators.
  • Amending Social Work England’s education and training standards for qualifying courses.
  • Setting new guidance for course providers.

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6 Responses to Practice educators passionate about role, but lack of support risks pushing them out of it, finds study

  1. Anna Borne April 11, 2024 at 7:36 pm #

    In my LA, it takes around 18 months to train as a PE and in that time you have to take TWO students fully through placement. So extra work. And extra course work. No extra pay. What is the incentive?

    • George April 13, 2024 at 9:34 pm #

      In my LA (like many I know ) you get a daily placement fee. £9 as a trainee and once you have completed Peps 2 , £12 per day. 100 placement student= £1200 before tax.
      The fees for peps 1 and 2 are paid for too which are post grad modules. Maybe your LA is just taking advantage ?

  2. Tahin April 12, 2024 at 9:28 am #

    When we felt valued, when we felt we were using our social work skills, when we felt our work was rooted in the communities we worked in rather than infront of computers, when our views were respected, when challenging management orthodoxies didn’t mean threats of disciplinary action, when managers listened rather than bark at us, when autonomy was trusted, when we had training that challenged our assumptions and channelled our expertise, we took students development as our responsibility to develop them, to grow ourselves and progress our profession. We did it with an open hearts and commitment rather than with dread and anxiety. I’m not a PE but have professional relationships with some. Enthusiastic as they are, in my experience, they are just another layer of the top heavy bureaucracy that inhibits growth and learning. The best PE, the most supportive manager, the most welcoming team are never going to win when the structures in which our work takes place dabotages any kind of creative social work.

  3. Vernon April 13, 2024 at 9:41 am #

    This spells the end of the PEPS as we know it…

  4. Rosson April 13, 2024 at 9:32 pm #

    I am a registered social worker and a highly qualified practice teacher since 1986. I have been an independent offsite practice ediucator since 2007 and have supported around 600 postgraduate /social work students in statutory and voluntary sectors. Also undergraduate students undertaking the joint degree in mental health nursing and social work.

    I earn BELOW the minimum wage! Around 8 years ago our salary was cut about 33% and no pay rises since. We receive £10 per day per student which equates to £700 for 70 days and £1000 for 100 days and have to wait until the end of the placement to be paid usually a month later. From this I have to pay tax and insurance on this, upkeep of my office and car.

    Supporting a failing student with additional supervisions, meetings, action plans and so on means in effect I am paying the universities for the priviledge of supporting their students.

    I am passionate about my job and often ask myself “what price social work education?
    Is it no wonder many are not interested in the role or simply giving up?

  5. MaxP April 16, 2024 at 8:21 am #

    Unfortunately the PE role is often a thankless role. In my LA they pay a pre tax £500 per student. We are still expected to have the same large case loads and and cover the typical team absences, urgent referrals, etc .. plus be named worker for people on students caseload which makes us typically first point of contact.
    If a failing student is seconded by the host LA it just makes a very difficult situation a complete nightmare for the PE; soft coercion from managers and often quite direct from those who know the student.