Thursday 10 April 2003 00:00

Social work students have enjoyed the benefits of high-quality learning during practice placements for years. But new developments and policy statements indicate that practice teaching is changing.

At first glance, the new social work degree takes positive steps forward particularly, many would argue, in its firm emphasis on practice learning. These include:

  • The establishment of a practice learning task force to increase practice learning opportunities and numbers of "practice assessors" by 50 per cent by December 2004.
  • The move from 130 to 200 days on placement in the workplace.
  • Practice learning becoming from 2004-5 one of the 50 performance indicators by which social services departments are assessed by the government.
  • An assessed preparation for placement and "final assessment" made by a "qualified and experienced social worker".

It seems there is a positive promotion of the concept. However, neither the Department of Health's Requirements for Social Work Training1 nor the General Social Care Council's Statement of Commitment2 makes reference to "practice teachers" or "practice teaching". It is as if the words are being erased. What we find is the birth of a new phrase, "practice assessor".

The GSCC has also published guidance on the "work-based assessor", further promoting the new title. It divides good practice into three key domains, none of which includes a reference to "practice teaching" or "teaching" as an activity. Surely such terminology undermines the quality of the process and management of learning opportunities in the field. If we all become assessors who does the teaching?

Academics are not able to deliver the pragmatics of how to do the job, let alone provide the depth of understanding and critical awareness that underpins everyday practice. Students who are disadvantaged in this way will undoubtedly present costs to their future employers unless we can be sure that standards of quality are maintained under the new arrangements. Practice assessors will be responsible for teaching, and this should be acknowledged.

Under the new social work degree, the responsibility for the quality assurance of practice learning lies within the academic institution. Each social work programme will be responsible for the auditing, allocation and quality of placements. This may place insufficient emphasis on the external verification of quality, leaving individual institutions to arrive at their own arrangements about what constitutes a placement, appropriate learning opportunities and a "practice assessor".

Academic institutions are likely to be guided by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education's code of practice for placement learning,3 which most of those involved in social work education would recognise as a lower level quality threshold.

This is of particular concern because of the truism that quality costs. The GSCC's limited role with regard to the quality of placements and practice teachers leaves considerable scope for some pressured academic institutions to develop low-cost, low-quality models - perhaps in a rush to find a short cut to more placements.

It is a matter of concern that many permutations of "practice learning" are being arrived at in the new degree - and some of them may bear little resemblance to the structures and quality levels that we have come to expect.

Furthermore, it appears that practice teaching programmes (PTPs) are under threat from some quarters, which see them as having failed to deliver adequate numbers of qualified practice teachers into the workplace. As a result, the funding and future of such programmes are uncertain. This argument appears wrong and over-simplified; it ignores the responsibility of social services departments for releasing staff for such courses, while the DoH's promotion of the post-qualifying (PQ) award in child care has also inevitably poached practice teachers and prevented them providing placements for Diploma in Social Work programmes.

There are also some suggestions that a five-day programme - currently the duration of an introductory course - will be enough for all needs. The National Organisation for Practice Teaching (NOPT) says the practice teaching award has many strengths and provides a platform on which to build rather than to reject. This is not to say that change cannot be embraced. PTPs should develop modularised, multi-disciplinary ways forward but they must be adequately funded and rooted within a framework of continuing professional development for social work as a whole.

The NOPT has produced guidance on the baselines that should be held within any new structures on the future of practice learning. In relation to practice assessors, the NOPT argues that they should have an understanding and ability in relation to:

  • Social work values and anti-oppressive practice.
  • Adult learning and teaching.
  • Social work theories, methods and skills.
  • Reflective and critical practice.
  • Student assessment.
  • Management of the students' learning experience.

The demonstration of such vital and important attributes needs to be located within two important frameworks: one of continual professional development at different levels, and one of professional and academic qualification.

New practice assessor programmes of training and awards should be developed for work-based supervisors, and both new and experienced practice assessors. Such programmes might take the form of short introductory courses, five-day intermediate courses and a generic, multi-professional or multi-disciplinary modularised award, which should be explicitly accredited with PQ and academic credits. The profession should retain a national award structure for this key area of its practice.

Practice teachers, social services departments, voluntary sector social care agencies and social work programmes have a responsibility to engage with these developments and ensure that quality is upheld in how practice learning is developed for the new social work degree.

There are many reasons to be optimistic about the new degree and the future of practice learning - or whatever it ends up being called. But we must not stand by and, through inaction, allow the quality of practice learning to be compromised.

We risk a situation where social work students join agencies with insufficient training and professional development. Beyond them, the future of the profession is similarly compromised if we allow the scope for change in the new degree to be an excuse to cut costs and lower quality. Is that what users and carers would want?

Aidan Worsley is co-chairperson, National Organisation for Practice Teaching, and principal lecturer, applied community studies department, Manchester Metropolitan University.


1 Department of Health, The Requirements for Social Work Training, 2002. Go to  

2 General Social Care Council, Statement of Commitment, 2002. Go to  

3 Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, Code of Practice for the Assurance of Academic Quality and Standards in Higher Education: Placement Learning, 2001. Go to  

Further Reading

GSCC, Codes of Conduct for Social Care Workers and Employers,2002,  

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