Training of Children and Families Social Workers - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

4  Practice placements

95.  To achieve either the Bachelor's or Master's degree, students must undertake 200 days of assessed practice. This must include placements in at least two contrasting practice settings with two different client groups, and experience of statutory social work tasks involving legal interventions in at least one of their placements. Just under half (48.4%) of placements in 2006-07 were in local authorities; 24.4% in a voluntary agency; 5% in a private agency; 3.7% in health settings and 2.8% in education settings.[226] On the definition used by the GSCC, however, 58% of placements were classified as 'statutory' because they gave students some experience of statutory tasks.[227] In terms of the social work focus, by some way the largest category of practice placements is children and families work, accounting for more than a quarter of all placements in 2005-06 and 2006-07.[228]

Supply of practice placements

96.  The current requirement for 200 placement days is an increase from 130 days under the previous Diploma in Social Work qualification. Combined with the 37% increase in students that has taken place since the degrees were introduced, this has placed considerable strain on the supply of good quality placements, particularly in the statutory sector.[229] Bridget Robb recalled that

The Government then put a lot of money into sending people out to create placements to meet the need, but they created the placements by going to all parts of the children's and social care work forces. We have seen the results of that and have learned about the disadvantages, so now we are challenged to rethink how we support local authorities.[230]

97.  We heard about the difficulties posed by under-supply of placements from the recently-qualified social workers we spoke to. Several had been offered placements that were not only outside the statutory social work arena, they were not even supervised by qualified social workers. These included placements in schools and GP surgeries. In these circumstances, some students were so concerned about the learning they would get from such a placement that undertook to arrange their own. One social worker characterised the situation as "a total lottery".[231] John Barraclough of London Metropolitan University commented that universities continually have to "persuade, cajole and occasionally beg agencies to provide student placements." This makes it impossible to plan placements well, and every year a proportion of students cannot be placed at the right time.[232] Less than a quarter of respondents to a survey of heads of university social work departments thought that the supply of statutory sector placements is adequate.[233] The survey results also show that only 37% of universities were able to report that all of their students had at least one placement in a local authority in which they were taught and assessed by a qualified social worker.[234] Sue Berelowitz told us that because of the lack of placements, "people are desperate and take whatever they get".[235]

98.  There is a sharp contrast with how training placements are organised in some other professions. In social work, Cafcass argued, supply of placements "is overly dependent on the initiative and commitment of individual employers who may struggle to prioritise and fund this area with other competing demands", whereas in medicine and teaching, training new entrants and being involved in assessing them "is a more central part of the culture and structure".[236] Andrew Webb commented: "Why the profession does not make space in its daily delivery to bring on the next generation is a question that we are looking at—any good profession should do that."[237]

99.  The consensus view is that local authorities do not offer more practice placements because it is difficult to accommodate students in workplaces already under pressure from vacancies and high workloads.[238] Heather Wakefield of Unison told us:

I am sure that you know that there are very high vacancy rates. There are high levels of agency staff, with even higher turnover, in most social work departments in most local authorities across the land. That is a general picture. There are people out there working under absolutely enormous pressure. I absolutely agree that there should be a high statutory component within placements for student social workers, but I think that to expect departments—given the pressure that many of them are under—to give the requisite degree of supervision and adequate time and space to social work students is a very big ask indeed. I am sure that it is not unwillingness on the part of local authorities, which are struggling to meet, as we know, their own statutory commitments.[239]

These pressures, said Bridget Robb, bring about a widespread perception that taking on students is "a burden, rather than part of the solution".[240]

100.  Part of the role of the Children's Workforce Development Council, in partnership with Skills for Care (the adult social care sector skills council), is supporting employers to provide practice placements.[241] Rather than subjecting employers to a requirement to make placements available, Jane Haywood, CWDC's Chief Executive, reasoned that quality placements were more likely to be generated by "people who want to do it and see that it is important, not from people who are forced to do it."[242] The General Social Care Council argued that a formal requirement for partnerships between higher education institutions and employers would help;[243] in some parts of the country partnerships have already made important contributions to improving supply.[244] Incentives to employers was the favoured approach of Universities UK.[245]

101.  A performance indicator for social work practice learning was introduced for local authorities in 2003 but discontinued in April 2008; in the higher education sector there is a widespread feeling that its discontinuation has contributed to serious difficulties in some areas in securing enough quality placements.[246] Although the GSCC stated that there is "anecdotal" evidence that the availability of statutory placements has reduced, they reported having no evidence to attribute this to the withdrawal of the performance indicator.[247]

102.  Funding for practice placements was raised as a factor in placement supply by employers, who reported that the placement fee does not meet the substantial cost of providing supervision, training, and support for the student.[248] Practice learning funding is paid by the General Social Care Council to universities, who then pass it on to employers hosting placements. The rates since April 2005 have been £18 per day in the statutory sector and £28 per day in the voluntary sector.[249] Universities are obliged to pass on the fully daily rate unless there has been an agreement that the university will supply some of the assessment or supervision needed to support the placement. Although we heard an argument that universities are more reliable custodians of practice placement funding than employers,[250] Bruce Clark of Cafcass told us that institutions do not in fact always pass on the full sum to employers; he reported that some have offered Cafcass as little as £4 a day.[251] Although Cafcass make a loss on the placements they provide, they are willing to absorb this because of the "non-financial benefits" of hosting placements. For local authorities, these ought to include supporting local higher education institutions, to which they can send staff to gain qualifications, and from which they can expect to recruit social workers in the future.[252] Bridget Robb suggested that employers ought to correlate the number of placements they offer with the number of posts for new social workers they expect to need to fill two years hence.[253]

103.  Training future and current members of the profession must be seen as a core part of the social work task and a fundamental responsibility of employers. This should be reflected in performance frameworks; specifically, Ofsted should take into account how effectively a local authority provides for and delivers placements for social work students and further development of its workforce when assessing children's services.

104.  Workforce planning should provide a centrally-driven mechanism for judging the numbers of students for which a local authority should be providing placements. Employers should commit to providing placements as part of a comprehensive partnership with higher education institutions, and this must happen in advance of student intakes. It is unacceptable that students have to accept below-par arrangements at the last minute when universities are unable to persuade local authority employers to provide placements.

105.  Arrangements for funding placements should be reviewed to ensure that the amount received reflects the true cost and the division of responsibilities. Funding should be allocated to formal partnerships of universities and employers, rather than passed on from one to the other.

106.  The Department of Health and Department for Children, Schools & Families jointly established a Social Work Development Partnership in 2008. The Departments told us that the Partnership "is responsible for the development of appropriate, high quality practice education and continuing professional development opportunities for social workers. The primary focus on the work to date has been on developing quality measures for practice placements and developing additional capacity, particularity in the statutory sector."[254] The Partnership was mentioned only once in our evidence,[255] outside the Government's own evidence, which leads us to doubt that it has yet impinged much on the consciousness of employers or universities. We note that an initiative with similar aims, the Practice Learning Taskforce, was funded by the Department of Health to run from January 2003 to March 2006.[256]

107.  In the light of our findings about the remits of the various social work sector bodies, we question the wisdom of setting up another body, the Social Work Development Partnership, to oversee the development of practice placement quality and supply. We expect that the 'Social Work Development Agency' which we have proposed would be charged with overseeing the necessary changes.

Type of practice placements

108.  Placements make up half of students' time on qualifying courses, so the type of placements a student undertakes is a very important influence on the overall skills and knowledge they acquire through initial training.[257] Lord Laming highlighted the fact that, because of a lack of the right sort of placements, it is possible to start work as a new children's social worker without any practical experience of child protection.[258] Aware of this, employers are choosy about the placements a candidate has done when recruiting permanent staff. Eleni Ioannides, Director of Children's Services at Bury Council, told us that "in my authority, we will not employ social workers unless they have had not only a child care placement, but a statutory child care placement. Otherwise, we find that they don't stay and we can't use them."[259] There have been suggestions that some employers elect to carry vacancies rather than filling them with new social workers whose experience of statutory work is lacking.[260] Bruce Clark commented that

I don't think that any employer should employ as a children's social worker someone who has not had a final placement, not only in a children's social work setting, but in a statutory children's social work setting […] my experience as a social work manager over many years and in many agencies is that many social work placements are not in the mainstream and have little concept of the statutory construct within social work.[261]

109.  Both Unison and the British Association of Social Workers proposed tighter restrictions on the type of placements that make a student eligible for qualification.[262] There has also been some criticism of the GSCC requirement for a student's two placements to be 'contrasting'. Liz Davies, Senior Lecturer at London Metropolitan University, told us that "that is not good enough, because it means that students can do two adult placements—providing they are different—in mental health, older people and so on." She stated that in her opinion, the social worker in charge of Baby Peter's case had been "set up to fail" because both her placements had been in adult services, and she had no post-qualifying training in child protection.[263]

110.  The selection of new social workers according to the placements they have undertaken should not happen by default at the point of recruitment by local authorities: it should be an integral part of the requirements for passing the degree course. Although a case could be made for decoupling graduation from attaining the professional qualification, we consider that it would be more straightforward for existing requirements simply to be more strictly defined and more rigorously applied. It is not sufficient to stipulate that students should get "experience of statutory social work tasks involving legal interventions". It should not be possible for a student to achieve a Bachelor's or Master's degree in social work without having undertaken at least one of their placements in a statutory social work agency, and without being supervised and assessed by a qualified social worker in both of their placements. Information should be readily available to prospective students about any courses which have a poor track record in securing the requisite placements.

111.  In the interim, consideration should be given to reducing the length of individual placements, if this would help to ensure that every student has a placement in a statutory service. We consider that quality of placements is more important than the number of placement days.

Quality of practice placements

112.  Responsibility for ensuring that practice learning opportunities are of a good quality and that there are sufficient numbers of appropriate practice educators to support and assess students in their placements lies with universities—there is no direct quality assessment by the GSCC.[264] The GSCC and CWDC both expressed scepticism about higher education institutions' self-reporting that only 82 of the 11,500 placements provided in 2007-08 failed to meet their own quality standards.[265] Rosie Varley, Chair of the GSCC, noted that the formula for placement funding at present takes account only of numbers of students, not the quality of the placements provided.[266] CWDC argued that universities should be held accountable for "the quality and relevance of their arrangements" for practice placements.[267] In partnership with CWDC and Skills for Care, the GSCC are piloting a new 'tool' for assessing the quality of placements, with the intention of making it a compulsory part of the quality assurance regime.[268]

113.  The majority (86%) of heads of university social work departments responding to a survey considered that the quality of placements provided by statutory sector employers was either 'good' or 'excellent'.[269] Evaluation of the social work degree carried out for the Department of Health found that 78% of students rated their placements as good or better. However, it was also found that not all agencies could offer a useful range of work experience, that the quality of assessment was variable, and that some students received inadequate support and supervision during their placement.[270] The NSPCC claimed that efforts to raise and guarantee the quality of practice placements have been abandoned because of the difficulty of getting enough placements.[271] There is concern that in some settings, students on placements are overloaded with inappropriately advanced work to absorb some of the pressure in teams with vacancies.[272] Professor June Thoburn argued that "there is urgent need for the placement experience of each student to be more tightly monitored".[273]

114.  Quality assurance of placements should not be delegated to universities alone. The quality of practice placements must be taken into account explicitly in overall inspections of both university courses and local authority children's services.

Practice teaching

115.  Research commissioned by CWDC and Skills for Care has found significant differences between councils in the roles, qualifications and experience of practitioners who were supporting students on placements.[274] Some local authorities employ dedicated 'Practice Learning Co-ordinators', but others have no-one within the organisation to oversee placements, and some co-ordinators are located in general human resources teams where there may be less knowledge of training requirements specific to social work.[275] The Association of Directors of Children's Services argued that central Government funding for 'placement managers' in every local authority would protect the function from local budget cuts.[276]

116.  Department of Health requirements state that each student must "be assessed as competent and safe to practise by a qualified and experienced social worker" but do not stipulate that placements must be directly supervised by someone with those attributes.[277] Some practice learning takes place in settings which do not employ qualified social workers, so that a student's work is supervised by members of another profession.[278] Even when the supervisor is a social worker, they may not always be on site with the student.[279]

117.  The fact that those with responsibility for students on placement typically receive little in the way of status or remuneration to compensate for the extra time and responsibility was cited by several organisations as a factor restricting placement supply.[280] Professor John Carpenter noted that among the many things that doctors would find surprising about social work education are the fact that senior members of the profession are not expected or required to teach new entrants, and "the lack of recognition accorded to those social work practitioners who do teach […] Many of those who do take a student on placement do so only two or three times and so do not build experience."[281] Eleni Ioannides explained that her authority pays an honorarium to practice teachers, but "it is not seen as part of their career progression".[282] An independent practice teacher described how long journeys, low pay and long waits for payment lead to those experienced in this field withdrawing their services.[283]

118.  An expectation that teams and individuals contribute to the training of future generations of social workers should be supported by reforms to pay scales and structured career progression. Practice teaching must be built into job descriptions so that social workers are not expected to undertake practice teaching on top of their normal workload but as an integral part of it, with commensurate reductions in the caseload they are expected to carry. In theory these changes could be achieved by local authorities on their own initiative, but the evidence we have received shows that this is not happening to any great extent. We recommend therefore that the Government consider ways of developing these features of the workforce on a national basis. Later in the report, we will consider how this could partly be achieved by developing a national framework for pay and career progression.

119.  Because the social work qualifying degrees were only introduced in 2003, the majority of the current workforce—and therefore, the majority of potential practice teachers—qualified through a two-year Diploma in Social Work. The Deputy Children's Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, argued that "low thresholds" to qualification through the Diploma mean that current practice teachers have not been subject to the same academic rigour in their training as the students they are now supervising.[284]

120.  A Practice Teaching Award was introduced with the Diploma in 1992 to prepare qualified social workers for the task of supervising student placements. This award was superseded in 2005 by the introduction of the GSCC's new Post-Qualifying Framework, under which a five-day module on 'Enabling Learning' is included in every 'specialist' Post-Qualifying Award (the first of three levels). Views on the reasons for and impact of this change vary. Dramatically increased demand for placements may have made it unrealistic in the short term to expect all practice teachers to hold a relevant qualification.[285] Moira Gibb commented that the old Practice Teaching Award required a considerable commitment from hard-pressed social workers.[286] Mike Wardle of the General Social Care Council explained that the GSCC's reasoning for withdrawing the Award was that:

our evidence showed that most people who had taken that qualification only ever managed to supervise one student in their career after they got the qualification. It was a very good qualification for learning management and for learning how to supervise staff. […] but it was not delivering what it was intended to deliver, which was a cadre of people in the profession who specialised in being practice teachers and taking on students. Therefore, the direction that we have taken is that every single specialist Post-Qualifying Award in our new framework includes a module that is about supervising and mentoring others, whether they are students or staff, to try to achieve exactly that goal and so that the whole profession takes responsibility for supervising and mentoring, and the development of the future profession of social work. That is the intention. We are still in the early stages for that new award and we do not yet have enough evidence to say whether it has been a successful development. However, we think that it is a step in the right direction.[287]

121.  John Barraclough commented that "in the eyes of many, [the withdrawal of the Practice Teaching Award] constituted a downgrading of practice teaching."[288] Eleni Ioannides spoke in favour of a stand-alone practice teaching qualification; Bruce Clark suggested that it would be helpful if a single set of standards for practice teachers, and a single route to becoming a practice teacher, were adopted.[289] Professor June Thoburn argued: "no student should qualify who has not, for the majority of their time on placement (and specifically for their final placement), been taught as well as assessed by a qualified and experienced social worker who has undertaken training as a practice educator".[290]

122.  Requirements for placements should be amended to stipulate that all placements be supervised by qualified and experienced social workers who either hold or are working towards specific qualifications in practice teaching. Withdrawal of the dedicated Practice Teaching Award has given a damaging impression of the status of practice teaching in social work, and consideration should be given to reinstating it. Training enough of the current workforce to the right level will require 'pump-priming' with dedicated funding. This could be done while retaining the new 'Enabling Learning' modules in specialist-level Post-Qualifying awards.

226   Ev 52 Back

227   GSCC, Raising standards (February 2009), para 65 Back

228   GSCC, Raising standards (February 2009), p 14 Back

229   Q 125 [Mike Wardle]; Ev 28 Back

230   Q 46 Back

231   See Annex Back

232   Ev 152-3; see also Ev 198. Back

233   Ev 206 Back

234   Ev 207 Back

235   Q 274 Back

236   Ev 84 Back

237   Q 36 Back

238   Qq 37, 125 [Keith Brumfitt], 207, 314 Back

239   Q 45 Back

240   Q 47 Back

241   Ev 46 Back

242   Q 120 Back

243   Ev 53 Back

244   Ev 190 Back

245   Ev 26; see also Q 274 [Cathy Ashley] Back

246   Ev 33, 198 Back

247   Ev 52 Back

248   Ev 84, 87; Q 188 [Eleni Ioannides] Back

249   General Social Care Council Back

250   Qq 88, 92 Back

251   Q 190 Back

252   Q 186 [Bruce Clark] Back

253   Q 58 Back

254   Ev 127-8 Back

255   Q 46 Back

256 Back

257   Ev 50, 194 Back

258   Lord Laming, The Protection of Children in England: a progress report HC 330 (March 2009), para 5.10 Back

259   Q 193; see also Q 195 [Bruce Clark]. Back

260   'Students are undertaking practice learning without social worker supervision', Community Care, 10 December 2008 Back

261   Q 195 Back

262   Ev 12, 17; see also Qq 99 [Jane Haywood], 274 [Sue Berelowitz]. Back

263   Q 136 Back

264   Ev 52 Back

265   Ev 46 Back

266   Q 120 Back

267   Ev 44 Back

268   Q 125 [Mike Wardle] Back

269   See Annex Back

270   Department of Health, Evaluation of the new social work degree qualification in England (July 2008) Back

271   Ev 109 Back

272   Ev 104, 184 Back

273   Ev 181 Back

274   CWDC and Skills for Care, Sustaining Practice Learning (April 2009) Back

275   Ev 29 Back

276   Ev 87 Back

277   Ev 52 Back

278   Ev 171; Qq 71, 136 [Liz Davies] Back

279   Qq 136 [Liz Davies], 274 [Sue Berelowitz] Back

280   Ev 194; Q 188 [Bruce Clark, Eleni Ioannides] Back

281   Ev 171 Back

282   Q 188 Back

283   Ev 168-9 Back

284   Q 280; Ev 104 Back

285   Qq 73 [Hilary Tompsett], 275 [Enid Hendry] Back

286   Q 38 Back

287   Q 126 Back

288   Ev 153, 168 Back

289   Qq 208 [Eleni Ioannides], 231; see also Q 274 [Sue Berelowitz]. Back

290   Ev 181 Back

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