If you thought that training to become a qualified social worker was an endless series of lectures, seminars and tutorials, think again. The new three-year social work degree nearly doubles the number of days that social work students currently spend on practice placements - that is, learning on the job - leading to a new total of 200 days per student.
"In the past, students and employers have expressed concern that newly qualified social workers do not have the confidence and are not properly equipped to practice," explains a spokesperson for the Department of Health (DoH). "The new social work degree is essentially a vocational qualification designed to ensure that on graduation the student will be competent to practise as a social worker."
Michael Leadbetter, president of the Association of Directors of Social Services (ADSS), says it's the best news that aspiring social workers could hope for. "Social workers tell us that a good practice learning experience - one that's positive and rich in learning - is one of the best preparations for a social work career," explains Leadbetter, who has recently been appointed as director of the new Practice Learning Taskforce. "The increasing focus on placements is also good news for qualified social workers who want to become practice teachers themselves. It means there'll be more opportunities for them to start supervising students as part of their day-to-day work."
Even better news is that there is also a commitment to increase the diversity of social work placements. "One placement has to be statutory, but the rest opens up a whole range of creative opportunities," says Leadbetter. "We're looking, for instance, at placements in the NHS, in prisons and in a range of voluntary organisations such as Barnardo's and Mencap. Some universities will offer one long placement in each, whereas others will offer several shorter ones in many."
Irrespective of where you do your placements, you can rest assured that the quality is constantly being enhanced. Placements should, according to new guidelines set out by the DoH, provide "high-quality, challenging practice and supervision which will address personal style, attitudes and behaviour". Because this has not always been the case in the past, admits Leadbetter, his task force is busy gathering ongoing feedback from social work students and practice teachers on how they think placements can be improved. "A project leader and nine 'change agents' have already been appointed to address this," he says.
Indeed, one recent survey by Care and Health magazine, found that the practice experience really does prepare people properly for a social work career. But it also shows that there is massive potential for the 80-day extension to make improvements.
Social work students who had good experiences spoke of a range of benefits. One said: "It was a residential placement which introduced me to a client group I had not previous thought of working with. It made me realise the area of social work I wanted to specialise in."
For others, the best things they'd experienced about placements were getting to grips with the day-to-day realities of social work, the opportunity to learn new skills and to work with service users and the teams they were placed in.
For those who hadn't had such good experiences, the worst aspects included poor teaching and poor support, a placement team who didn't value students' input or knowledge, and a placement where there were no social workers in sight. That's why, says Michael Leadbetter, changes are already underway to improve funding for placements, improve training for practice teachers and ensure practice teachers are on site.
Ann Schofield, an independent consultant on social work issues, adds that she welcomes current proposals to improve clarity about the role of a practice teacher. In one …