An equation for social work education placements

Good placements for social work students can be hard to find. The General Social Care Council’s head of social work education offers a solution

I really enjoyed Guardian Social Care’s online debate on how higher education prepares social work students to enter the workforce – in particular, engaging in well thought out issues and dilemmas from commentators and panellists. But there is a specific issue of what we mean by ‘partnerships’, particularly in the use of practice placements as a key output of partnerships.

For the past 20 years there has been a reported issue of not having sufficient good placements, in particular in urban areas such as London where a number of competing programmes exists. Evidence from our own annual reports suggests there is not a problem with sufficiency as most students get a placement on time; it is the quality of the placement that is of concern.

I want to introduce what I call the placement equation that should be used by all programmes in partnership planning with employers. The equation is ‘quantity + quality + relevance = good placement’. The first is easily achieved, as most programmes find a placement somewhere; the second is more difficult as it relies upon a number of components being in place prior to the placement starting. Working to the quality assurance practice learning standards is a good benchmark for quality. The last part of the equation is relevance, which means matching student and employer needs against placement supply.

The people who are critical of placements are the very same who control and influence placements – the employer. So what is the answer? Having employers fully integrated in the planning, teaching and assessment of a course is essential. Educators sitting down with employers to work out intake numbers based on placement availability will ensure a better fit between the number and type of student and the supply of a sufficient number of quality and relevant placements.

This is not easy, and it may take a number of years to build sufficient intelligence across a number of employers in a region to get the intake number right. The answer lies in a strategic rather than operational approach. It is now time for universities to be redrawing the lines of partnership with employers in the same way achieved in other industries.

The Social Work Reform Board (SWRB) is playing a key role in highlighting the importance of partnerships in the delivery of high quality placements. Four key principles covering partnership and collaboration between employers and higher education providers have been drawn up by the SWRB which are based on joint aims and outcomes, informed by workforce planning and based around local, flexible and diverse partnerships.

The Social Work Taskforce recommended ‘advanced teaching organisations’ as a way of driving improvement in partnerships. The Munro Review has recommended a similar initiative. Recognising a good employer for the way they train students in placements is critical to this debate. It means that we no longer use organisations that are not up to the job. In the online debate I recommended that placement funding should be linked to quality rather than quantity outcomes. Paying a provider who meets quality standards will provide a national benchmark by which all can be judged.

I urge social work education programmes to redefine their partnership lines with employers, not in isolation but in tandem with their senior staff to ensure a more strategic and sustained approach to practice learning. In reality this may mean that some poor programmes will go out of business. We should face this consequence with confidence as part of our conviction to drive up quality, and ultimately better prepare students for the important task that awaits them in social work.

Graham Ixer is a registered social worker who has worked in child care practice, higher education, social work policy and regulation. He is currently head of social work education at the General Social Care Council.