Your Social Work Practice Placement: From Start to Finish


Ian Mathews, Diane Simpson & Karin Crawford

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    About the Authors

    Ian Mathews is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Lincoln and a founding member of Green College, Oxford. Ian is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a registered social worker. Prior to moving into higher education, Ian gained substantial practice experience in both health and social care, as a practitioner and manager. Ian teaches on a range of undergraduate and postgraduate social work programmes and has a particular interest in adult care, mental health and spirituality.

    Diane Simpson is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Lincoln. Diane is a registered social worker and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Diane's social work career was in children and families social work in statutory and voluntary settings. Diane holds the Practice Teachers' Award and has been approved as a Stage 2 Practice Educator. Diane teaches across on the undergraduate and postgraduate social work programmes with particular interest in practice learning, readiness to practise and child development.

    Dr Karin Crawford is a Principal Teaching Fellow and Director of Education and Students in the College of Social Science at the University of Lincoln. Karin is a registered social worker and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Karin has previously practised in both health and social care, as a practitioner and manager. This experience spanned statutory, voluntary and private sectors including general nursing, social work, policy development and the management of both adult and children's care management services.


    Context and Aims of this Book

    Indeed we have only the most general ideas of what we are trying to produce, what constitutes the essential skill of the social worker, and consequently still more varied ideas of how to set about it. (Younghusband, 1959: 28)

    Over 50 years ago, Eileen Younghusband was commissioned by the government to identify a strategic approach to the training of social workers. The outcomes of her committee's deliberations were followed by the Seebohm Report in 1968, which established social work as a generic profession and engendered the creation of generic Social Services Departments from 1970. The social work qualification itself progressed from being a certificate to a diploma and finally to being an all degree award from 2003. In the intervening 54 years since Younghusband's perceptive observation, social work as a profession has come under scrutiny many times through a series of reports and studies. Following the Scottish Executive's 21st Century Social Work Review entitled Changing Lives (2006), which offered a relatively broad vision of social work as a force for social and community development and cohesion, the discussion paper The Changing Roles and Tasks of Social Work offered a similarly broad definition of social work, asserting that:

    Social work faces both opportunities and challenges. Fundamentally we do not believe that what social work has to offer has significantly changed in recent years. Nor, although they will take different forms, have the essential social and individual challenges it faces changed. However the context clearly has. The time is now right to explore the nature of a new contract between social work and its stakeholders. Social work and social workers deserve and are entitled to receive support, recognition and respect. Nevertheless, this respect must be earned in the sense that social work must be prepared to respond flexibly and creatively to the new service environment. (Blewett et al. 2007: 36)

    Nevertheless, the inquiry following the death of Peter Connelly in the same year resulted in the setting up of the Social Work Task Force which produced its final report, Building a Safe, Confident Future, in 2009. The Social Work Reform Board was established to implement the Task Force's core recommendations (Social Work Reform Board, 2010a). Included within the Task Force's recommendations were core requirements related to determining readiness for practice prior to assessed practice placements through clearly defined progression points; establishing new arrangements (standards) to ensure the provision of sufficient high-quality practice placements, which are properly supervised and assessed, for all social work students; and explicitly linking the new qualifying degree to the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE). The Social Work Reform Board also saw the transfer of the regulation of social work education from the General Social Care Council (GSCC) to the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and the establishment of The College of Social Work (TCSW) in 2011. The HCPC and TCSW have together issued a set of regulatory and advisory documents which will inform all social work qualifying programmes in England.

    Throughout these changes, there have been questions raised about the overall quality of social work placements. For example, Lord Laming's review of child protection (Laming, 2009) following the death of Baby P (Peter Connelly) identified that newly qualified social workers were able to enter employment in children and families settings without having had placement experience of this type of work. Similarly, the Social Work Task Force (2009), whilst not supporting Lord Laming's proposition to introduce specialist training, emphasised that universities needed to provide ‘high-quality’ placements that equipped students for the rigours of qualified practice. In specific terms, the Social Work Task Force (2009) was concerned about the quality and sufficiency of learning opportunities and was keen to ensure that students experience complex work whilst on placement, including safeguarding and statutory interventions.

    Thus the Social Work Reform Board (2010b) issued new standards setting out requirements for the qualification of practice educators. In line with the recommendations of the Social Work Task Force (2009), 170 placement days are now required to allow for greater time to be spent on preparation for practice skills which will be jointly planned and delivered between universities and employers (Social Work Reform Board, 2011; TCSW, 2012a). Students will also need to have one placement that includes statutory functions. The definition of statutory relates to the work undertaken, rather than the characteristics of the placement; such work will include a combination of assessment (including assessment of risk), operating within a legislative context, use of power and authority, interprofessional collaborative working and working under pressure (TCSW, undated (a)). Students will still be required to experience two qualitatively different placements, either in terms of the type of work undertaken, the nature of the agency or modalities of working (Social Work Reform Board, 2011; TCSW, 2012a).

    Running parallel to the initiatives in practice learning, the Reform Board also developed the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) (TCSW, 2012b, 2012c), which shows a career pathway for social work practitioners from entry to the degree programme and on through the social worker's entire career. There are nine areas of capability in the PCF: professionalism; values and ethics; diversity; rights, justice and economic wellbeing; knowledge; critical refection and analysis; intervention and skills; contexts and organisations; and professional leadership.

    Within this context, the chapters in this book are primarily intended to support student social workers' learning through practice placements. Additionally, the text will be of interest to your practice educators and on-site supervisors, who, although qualified practitioners, support and assess student social workers in practice. The text, therefore, very explicitly addresses knowledge, skills and values for professional practice, being informed and underpinned by core regulatory documents, in particular:

    • The Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) as defined by The College of Social Work (TCSW, 2012c);
    • Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics as prescribed by the HCPC (HCPC, 2012a);
    • The Standards of Proficiency for social workers in England as prescribed by the HCPC to be achieved for entry to the social work register (HCPC, 2012b);
    • Standards for Education and Training (SETs) as prescribed by the HCPC (HCPC, 2012c);
    • The Subject Benchmark Statement for Social Policy and Social Work (Quality Assurance Agency [QAA], 2008).

    The book sets out to be a logical guide, or handbook, that identifies the very real practical challenges, opportunities, potential pitfalls and processes that you, as a student social worker, are likely to encounter on placement learning. Additionally, the text challenges you to critically engage with your practice learning setting, questioning, observing, reflecting, challenging and analysing your experience of practice.

    Scope of the Book

    The chapters in this book focus primarily on the context of the first placement experience, although much of the material will be relevant to placement experiences across the whole of the qualifying degree. Thus you will find the chapters particularly relevant, supportive and informative if you are new to the experience of assessed practice work. The book takes a broad approach to social work education and practice learning; thus whilst the contextual professional and regulatory documents drawn upon hail from an English perspective, the text has wide relevance across the four countries of the United Kingdom. Furthermore, we acknowledge the complexity of different levels of placements and different ways in which placements are organised and assessed by universities, giving some examples and comparisons as appropriate.

    Within this introductory section, whilst setting out the aims and scope of the book, it is equally important, in our view, to be clear about the limitations of the text. For example, this book does not cover social work theories and methods in depth, but within each chapter, you will be directed to further sources as appropriate. Additionally, the book does not and cannot duplicate practice handbooks that are provided by your university as part of your course; rather, it is intended that this book is like having a ‘virtual tutor’ with you through the placement, so that you are able to quickly locate guidance and reassurance about particular concerns, experiences, expectations and challenges as they arise. Thus we believe you will find the book distinctive, engaging, practical and relevant as you move through periods of learning and assessment in practice.

    The Structure and Contents of the Book

    The book is structured to reflect the ‘life course of placements’, hence its subtitle ‘From Start to Finish’; so working through the chapters sequentially will aid logical, progressive learning, and support easy searching for specific guidance. Thus the chapters take you through learning about pre-placement preparation; starting out on placement; the middle of the placement; and ending the placement.

    After this introductory section, you will find eight main chapters followed by a brief conclusion after Chapter 8 and a glossary of terms and abbreviations. The chapters are effectively paired as shown below; the first chapter in each pair covering both ‘processes and practicalities’ before the second chapter explores the knowledge, skills and values of particular relevance and importance at that stage of practice learning.

    • Chapters 1 and 2 cover pre-placement preparation;
    • Chapters 3 and 4 explore the early stages of placement;
    • Chapters 5 and 6 cover the middle stages of placement;
    • Chapter 7 and 8 consider the final stages and ending of placement.

    Across the book we aim to reflect the diversity and complexity of practice learning, alongside the diverse needs of students. In order to fully meet the aim of being interactive, practical and relevant to you as you learn in practice, you will find that the chapters include a number of distinctive and interesting features threaded throughout the text. For example, you will read case study examples and reflections developed from real students' experiences, actual examples of real student work, reflective and learning activities, practical checklists, ‘top tips’, summaries of relevant literature and research and each chapter closes with annotated suggestions for further reading/web resources. Throughout the chapters you will read extracts headed ‘student voice’ where social work students that we have worked with offer their experiences of first and second placements in relation to the topic in the chapter. Through all of these features, particularly the ‘further reading’, you will be guided to expand particular aspects of your learning that are realistically beyond the scope of this text, for example detailed sources on social work theories and methods. Also included is a clear glossary of terms and abbreviations within the final section of the book.

    We hope that you enjoy using this book to support your practice learning in social work and that it helps you to prepare for tangible, real issues, to reflect and to work through ways to address them and learn from them.

  • Conclusion

    In reaching the end of this book, it is likely that you have also completed your placement experience and will be either resuming studies or looking for a qualified practitioner post. We hope that your placement(s) went well and that your experiences will provide a solid foundation for your social work career. Not all practice learning experiences run smoothly, but they always offer a valuable source of learning and development.

    The chapters of this book were specifically directed to support you in understanding the processes and knowledge you need to engage with at the beginning, middle and end of your placement. You can refer back to these in your next placement or indeed if you find yourself supporting student social workers in the future. The additional reading and sources provide more detailed guidance and knowledge about aspects of social work practice, knowledge or skills and we hope that you will take the time to review some of these.

    Practice learning is a complex undertaking and in order to successfully complete placements, you will need to be actively engaged with your learning from ‘start to finish’ and to embrace the recurring themes within the book, which include:

    • The need to understand the context of social work practice learning and assessment, for example the standards set out by the professional regulator, the HCPC, particularly the Standards of Proficiency for Social Work (HCPC, 2012b) and The College of Social Work Professional Capabilities Framework (TCSW, 2012c);
    • The importance of preparing for, understanding and engaging with placement processes in order to make the most of practice learning experiences. Completing documents on time and keeping up to date with academic work is particularly important;
    • Being assessed as a student social worker is a challenging process and will involve a range of different assessment processes and methods. This can also be an exciting and enjoyable part of your professional training and we advise you to engage with the learning experiences that present themselves;
    • The relevance of knowledge, including theory, legislation, service user knowledge, organisational knowledge, your developing practice wisdom in helping you to work effectively with service users and carers;
    • The underpinning values of social work that provide a basis for all aspects of social work practice;
    • The need to develop skills as a critically reflective practitioner to help you manage the demands and complexities of practice including risk and making defensible decisions, and to help you understand your limits and professional development needs;
    • In becoming a reflective practitioner, you also need to be aware of ‘self’ including the impact of self on working with service users and the importance of developing emotional resilience which will help to protect you from the stresses of working in frontline social work practice;
    • Retaining a focus on the best interests of service users should be a guiding principle for practice; importantly service users are also a valuable source of knowledge;
    • Social work is not an insular profession and working with other professions and disciplines to obtain better outcomes for service users is central to social work practice;
    • Social work practice is characterised by a complex combination of knowledge, values and skills, and social workers need to possess competence in all three areas in order to make assessments, intervene appropriately and manage risk. Skills in communication, building relationships and working in teams and organisations provide the cornerstone for practice.

    It is interesting to note that when a group of Directors of Adults and Children's Services were asked what they expect from students on placement and new qualified social workers, they came up with the following list. You may see how the themes in this book reflect many of these points; you may also find it useful to consider how far you meet these expectations as a social work student or newly qualified social worker.

    If you are about to enter qualified practice, the guidance offered in this text about reflection, use of knowledge and how practice is assessed can be transferred to the ASYE. Many of our points about how you might learn, be assessed, apply knowledge to practice and critically reflect will be directly relevant to qualified practice in the immediate and long-term futures. Learning acquired during qualifying training provides you with a toolkit to take with you into employment in order to work effectively with service users, so although your placement has finished, your development is not at an end and you will need to build upon the foundations provided by your placement experiences and academic learning.

    Social work is a dynamic, constantly evolving profession and as we conclude this book, the PCF has been introduced for qualifying social work programmes. Even so, the prospect of further change is on the horizon as the government has announced its intention to review social work education (Department of Health, 2013). Change therefore is inevitable. However, whilst some of the frameworks for learning and development may change, the essential skills and knowledge of how to relate to, work with and understand service users remain constant. As practitioners of the future, you will need to constantly review your knowledge and keep up to date with new developments which will be plentiful. Additionally, within the context of continuous change, it is important that social work retains and develops its professional identity; as future social work practitioners, we hope you will be able to embrace this challenge.

    Glossary of Terms and Abbreviations

    ASYE – Assessed and Supported Year in Employment:

    The Assessed and Supported Year in Employment during the first-year post-qualification was one of the recommendations of the Social Work Task Force (2009). The ASYE came into effect in September 2012, replacing previous arrangements under the Newly Qualified Social Workers (NQSW) framework. The AYSE is assessed against the relevant domain levels of the Professional Capabilities Framework and during the first year of employment newly qualified social workers can expect to receive a protected workload, developmental opportunities and a higher level of supervision.

    BASW – British Association of Social Workers:

    The BASW represents social workers across the UK and provides its members with a range of services, including union representation and discounted rates to its peer-reviewed journals. The BASW has produced a code of ethics for social workers.

    GSCC – General Social Care Council:

    Established on 1 October 2001, the GSCC was the regulatory body for social work and was responsible for the registration of social workers and student social workers and for producing a code of conduct for social care staff and employers. The GSCC closed on 31 July 2012, transferring responsibility for the registration of qualified social workers to the HCPC. Some of the guidance documents it developed in relation to practice learning are still relevant and available through The College of Social Work.

    HCPC – Health and Care Professions Council:

    From 1 August 2012, the HCPC became the regulatory body for qualified social workers in England, assuming responsibility from the GSCC. Formerly known as the Health Professions Council (HPC), the organisation was re-named to reflect its regulation of social workers. The title social worker became a protected title in 2005 and only those registered with the HCPC are entitled to refer to themselves as a social worker.

    On-site supervisor:

    Some students will be allocated an on-site supervisor as their practice educator is not directly located in the agency or team in which the placement is based. The on-site supervisor works in the same agency and site and usually the same team as the student and takes day-to-day responsibility for organising and monitoring the placement and the work the student undertakes. The on-site supervisor will allocate work, as well as providing daily guidance and support. They contribute to the student's learning and assessment, writing reports for the portfolio, and whilst they contribute to the final decision about the student's practice, they are not responsible for the final assessment recommendation.

    Practice educator:

    The practice educator is the person who takes overall responsibility for a student's learning and assessment when they are on practice placement. They assess the student against the Professional Capabilities Framework and placement criteria and make a recommendation to the university examination board. Under TCSW's (2012e) standards for practice educators a two-tiered qualification (Stage 1 and Stage 2) for practice educators reflects the experience, knowledge, skills and expertise of individual practice educators and also the differing complexities of placements. Once the changes to practice educator training and standards are fully implemented, only Stage 2 qualified practice educators will be able to assess final placement students and all independent (also known as off-site or long-arm practice educators) will need to be qualified to Stage 2.

    PCF – Professional Capabilities Framework:

    From September 2013, all social work students will be assessed against the nine domains of the Professional Capabilities Framework at the level commensurate with their progress throughout the degree. The PCF will also provide a continuing professional development framework for qualified social work practitioners throughout their careers.

    QAPL – Quality Assurance in Practice Learning (TCSW and Skills for Care, 2012):

    This is the system by which practice learning opportunities, or placements, are monitored, evaluated and quality assured; it includes an evaluation tool used to gather feedback from students and practice educators.

    SCIE – Social Care Institute for Excellence:

    According to its website (, the SCIE sets out to ‘improve the lives of people who use care services by sharing knowledge about what works. It is an independent charity working with adults, families and children's social care and social work services across the UK. Working with people who use services and carers, the SCIE gathers and analyses knowledge about what works and translates that knowledge into practical resources, learning materials and services including training and consultancy.’

    SWRB – Social Work Reform Board:

    The SWRB, chaired by Dame Moira Gibb, was established to operationalise the 15 recommendations of the Social Work Task Force. Many of the SWRB publications can be found on TCSW's website.

    SWTF – Social Work Task Force:

    The SWTF was appointed by the Secretaries of State for Health (DOH) also for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) to provide expert advice and guidance in the light of concerns about social work as a profession. Under the leadership of Dame Moira Gibb, the SWTF made 15 recommendations about the future of the social work profession, leading to wholesale changes and reforms in education, training and continuing professional development for social workers.

    Standards of Education and Training:

    The HCPC's Standards of Education and Training (SETs) set out the standards of education and training that an education programme must meet in order to be approved by the HCPC. These are generic standards for all professional programmes regulated by the HCPC, and they set out to ensure that any person who completes an approved programme meets the standards of proficiency for their profession and is therefore eligible to apply for admission (

    Standards of Proficiency for Social Workers:

    The HCPC's Standards of Proficiency (SOPs) set out what a social worker in England should know, understand and be able to do when they complete their social work training so that they can register with the HCPC. They set out clear expectations of a social worker's knowledge and abilities when they start practising (

    TCSW – The College of Social Work:

    According to their website ( the College is ‘the centre of excellence for social work, upholding and strengthening standards for the benefit of the public’. TCSW was established following the Social Work Task Force's call for the creation of an independent and strong organisation which would represent and support the social work profession. The College is led by and accountable to its members and exists to uphold the agreed professional standards and promote the profession and the benefits it brings to the general public, the media and policy makers.


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