Can there be a better way of incorporating Laming’s training specifications for students?
The news that Lord Laming has called for the social work degree to be split into adult and children’s specialisms after the first academic year has left me pondering whether or not this could be done in a more effective way.
I agree with Laming’s view that the current training doesn’t prepare students enough for areas such as child protection, but I don’t know if splitting the degree is the best answer.
I was part of the first cohort to do the new social work degree in 2003, and was one of the youngest, at 18, as it was also the year the minimum age to train was reduced from 21 to 18.
The degree began with a full on academic year, which was then followed by two years including two placements (80 day and 120 day) and continued teaching about children and adult sectors.
The main problem for me was the small amount of time that was spent covering the two biggest subjects: adult social work and child protection.
In the second year we studied both of these topics separately, but for only one term, which if my memory serves me correctly, was around 8-10 weeks long. I remember at the time, myself and some fellow students would talk over lunch about how short a time was spent on what we felt were the biggest topics to prepare us for the actual job.
Therefore, when my placements began, I found that there was a lot I had to learn, and learnt a hell of a lot more through observing actual social workers and my practice teacher, then any university lecture. But even with placements I had concerns. I do not remember being urged or advised to take one placement in adults and one in childrens, which may have been down to the lack of placements that were available to begin with. Consequently, I had two placements in the children’s sector and when I graduated with a generic degree, I felt unable to apply for work in the adult sector, as I had no experience whatsoever.
My first placement was in child protection, when I was only 19 years old. I remember my first week was incredibly scary, and throughout my placement I would come home at 6 or 7pm and would have to sleep for a couple of hours just to get over it. There were times I cried through having to work alone with service-users that had tragic circumstances, or I felt way out of my depth. I vividly remember being on duty and having to go and sit with a man accused of molesting his child, in his house, to check he was ok as locals were being abusive towards him. Whilst I learnt a great deal from this placement and loved the social work team I worked with, I felt that I was put in difficult situations that could have been made easier had I been prepared better during the academic part of the course. There were also potential safety issues by doing child protection as a student when you are sent to unknown service-users homes that I daren’t think about.
I agree with Laming’s idea to split the last two years of the degree in order to specialise in children or adult sectors, as it could give students many more weeks of study on a specific area which will help them when it comes to working in the setting. However, I also agree with Kingston University’s Ray Jones, who feels that specialising so early could cause new social workers to be limited in their abilities.
For me, I would have benefitted from more in-depth teaching about both areas, so when it came to graduating, I would feel confident in applying for jobs in both sectors, and would feel able to do the job well. When I graduated, I felt unable to apply for adult sector jobs, and still do, because I have had no experience in the sector and can only rely on the notes from my few week’s learning the subject. Even now I avoid the adult sector, so I feel that section of my career was killed before it even started. It’s rare to find local authorities that are willing to take on social workers who have no experience with the specific service-user group they work with, unless they are newly qualified, which now I am not.
I thought the benefit of a social work degree was that it was generic and would enable you to have a long, varied career in all sectors if you wanted it? If you specialise too early, what happens if you want to broaden your skills and try another sector- are you stuck?
I also found when I got my first job, in fostering, I would have benefitted from a system where I could be closely monitored and supervised for a year, to ensure that I was progressing well as a new social worker. This is hard to do when your team are understaffed, overworked and there are students placed who need the prime attention. You can almost be forgotten- until you make a mistake. There were times where I felt completely alone and that I was jumping in and hoping for the best, which is a dangerous way to work.
I would be pleased to see the degree become one year longer, to include more in-depth terms about both the adult and children sector, rather than splitting the degree into specialisms.
This would mean students would have a more extensive knowledge in both areas, and would be able to work in either sector, or both, throughout their career more easily.
There should also be more support in your first year of work as a social worker, which could include continued learning objectives that need to be met throughout that year. However, I think Laming needs to take into account the individual needs of the students. I went into the degree with no experience and I was very young, so more supervision and teaching was needed, whereas some fellow students were social work resource officers, who had worked in a social work role for many years, just without the same pay and status, so their levels of support were much smaller. If the resource officer was told they would have to do further training once they had graduated, or be closely supervised, this could well be off-putting for them, so good social workers could be lost.
Therefore, having the option to do more specialised or in-depth courses for new social work graduates may be useful, and employers should be encouraged to ensure these are on offer. But in the current climate of a recession, I’m not so sure more training would be as available from employers as it should be.
So after all of this pondering, I feel that while Laming has the right reasons for the proposed changes, the actual ideas themselves could do with more thought, to cater to the many types of social work students out there, all with very different needs- just like the service-users they may end up working for.