Placements and Practice

Last week, Community Care reported that a social worker, Ruth Hughes, was struck off the GSCC register after being found guilty of misconduct.

There were a couple of details about the situation as reported that struck me. Firstly, in the hearing, one of the criticisms made of her

her then manager Amanda Collinson told a General Social Care Council committee that she had had concerns about Hughes since the social worker joined her team in August 2004, with nine months’ post-qualifying experience.

Collinson said she had not shown the ability to put her training into practice and did not understand what constituted a crisis.

And she faced charges that

her handling of cases involving at least 10 children (she)  behaved more like a student than a qualified social worker, a conduct hearing was told

A few things come to mind immediately on reading this. But most importantly, what is the difference between being a student social worker and a qualified social worker. There is no requisite ‘post degree’ training before becoming registered and the expectation is absolute that when you finish studying – you are fit to practice.

Theories and textbooks aside, the competence to practice is reliant on the practice placements during the course and the management of this.

Placements are not practice in reality though. I was lucky with my placements – I was in supportive settings that provided me with a broad range of statutory and voluntary sector experience in areas that I wanted to work in – but I was working on a caseload which is a fraction of the work that I dealt with in my first job post qualification.

One of the downfalls of the social worker in question in the conduct enquiry was her lack of willingness to ask when she was concerned about specific cases or situations.

Sally Gillen, in The Social Work Blog, writes

It is easy to see how a newly-qualified social worker may feel overwhelmed by the transition from college to what is likely to be a busy, hectic department, particularly if they feel their practice placements have been poor. What this case shows, though, is how important it is to ask for help if something is unclear, rather than trying to muddle through alone.

And I’d say that ‘muddling through’ should never be an option. Practice placements should be exactly that and not smother a student’s learning needs.

Poor practice placements serve no purpose. There is a continual lack of ‘good quality’ placements. Perhaps the focus on tasks and figures is a disincentive to the senior social workers in taking students. When enquiring myself about moving towards this position, I was told it was not a department priority and that I could not be spared the time to undertake a practice teaching course or supervisory role.

I maintain this is a means by which the profession of social work lets itself down. Other professionals I work alongside, consultants, OTs, CPNs, psychologists, ward staff are all obliged to and thrive on the experience of having students train with them. It is a positive on both sides, providing the supervisor with some experience of supervising and sharing knowledge while providing a real and interesting working environment for those who are training.

We, the social workers, that is, are neither required, expected or provided the means to offer that level of support to social work students – unless we push really hard for it, justifying it at every level. At least, that’s how it is in the area I work in.

Then there is the expectation that this system of looking everywhere for creative placements will provide competent-to-practice professionals on qualification. The system works for many – works for most, perhaps, but it seems more through chance and luck as to what placements are available.

Perhaps the best way is a supervised post-qualification period – say, a year – in which greater supervision and feedback is provided. Although it may be necessary in some situations – certainly in my first job after I qualified, I made a specific point of establishing more regular supervision patterns than were usual in that work place – by virtue of being newly qualified.

Perhaps being less reliant on pre-qualification experience is also a factor – back in the day – when I applied for my MA in Social Work there was an expectation of 5 years experience in the social care field (and an undergraduate degree of course!). Experience doesn’t necessarily make perfect or better practitioners, but I maintain I would not have been as competent or confident had I not had that experience behind me when I started.

It doesn’t mean things are worse now – I don’t think age is a barrier to quality service delivery or competence (I’m just judging what I, personally, was like in my early 20s and know I wouldn’t have been able to do then what I do now!). I do think it makes the experience of placements all the more important though – and crucial in providing practice-ready practitioners.

5 thoughts on “Placements and Practice

  1. It’s really weird that there’s an expectation that once you’re qualified on paper you’re immediately capable of doing the same job as someone with (possibly) years of experience – maybe it’s a case of that’s how our culture work – we do the same with new drivers too after all.

  2. So I guess this kills my chances of doing my second placement with you, eh?

    I think it’s too bad that there isn’t time and money set aside so that social workers can do more supervision. It will be paid for in the future, in other ways.

  3. I’m not sure how it is in the UK or the States, but Social Workers in Oz are graded – Grade 1 through to 5 based on experience, not years in service. At least in the health service, I’m not sure about government jobs. Hence, when jobs are advertised, they’ll be asking for a particular graded worker so that a good match can be made between level of experience and the difficulty of the work being done. It goes somewhere to address the issue of workers getting in over their head with the work they do.

    Regardless, supervision is a must. Was Hughes not supervised throughout her job? Was supervision offered? Was it adequate? There could be so many underlying issues here.

    And a final note, which I have found reflected by a LOT of social workers on their first year out of graduation. The first year: you’re still learning. It’s still a finding your feet situation. You have the qualifications, but in some ways you’re still a student earning the moneys. Many managers and supervisors also acknowledge this, and can allow for mistakes to be made. Supervision is offered frequently and is regularly taken. It’s a shame this isn’t the case in some other departments, community sectors or generally in other states and countries: because it is so incredibly valuable.

  4. I am continually disappointed in the quality or lack of quality of supervision in my professional work and in my placements. If I’m ever in a position to be “in charge” at an agency, making sure that high quality supervision is provided to employess would be my first step.

  5. Thanks for all the comments. I actually think that Australian system sounds good. I definitely think it would help newly qualified workers to have some mandated period in which a greater amount of supervision and instruction is provided and expected – rather than it depending on the individual agency..
    I agree that supervision is absolutely fundamental continually but particularly at the start of practice.

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