Becoming a Social Worker: A Guide for Students


Caroline Humphrey

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    A heartfelt thanks to everyone who made this book possible by sharing with me their stories of social work education. First and foremost are the students who completed surveys, signed up for interviews and volunteered their portfolios from placements. They invested time and energy in this endeavour, often disclosing sensitive material about their personal and professional journeys for the sake of enhancing the education of future generations of students. Second are the social work educators whose stories about teaching, supervision and assessment provided a richer background context to understanding student learning. Finally, I am grateful for institutional support in the form of a HEFCE grant and a period of research leave for the writing of this textbook.

    List of Illustrations

    List of Abbreviations

    Research Data
    CHInterviewer (author)
    PPortfolio report (from placement)
    SStudent's voice (from interview)
    TTeacher's voice (from interview)
    Professional Terms
    AYEAssessed year in employment
    CPDContinuing professional development
    ICTInformation and communication technology
    NQSWNewly qualified social worker
    PCSPersonal-cultural-structural (a model of anti-oppressive practice)
    PLAPractice learning assessor (i.e. a qualified practice teacher)
    PLOPractice learning opportunity (i.e. an agency placement)
    PLO1Initial placement (usually in the independent sector)
    PLO2Final placement (usually in the statutory sector)
    SWITSocial worker in training
    Institutional Acronyms
    BASWBritish Association of Social Workers
    CCWCare Council for Wales
    CWDCChildren's Workforce Development Council
    DCSFDepartment of Children, Schools and Families (now Department of Education)
    DfESDepartment for Education and Skills (now Department of Education)
    DHDepartment of Health
    ESWDETEvaluation of Social Work Degree in England Team
    GSCCGeneral Social Care Council
    NISCCNorthern Ireland Social Care Council
    NSPCCNational Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
    QAAQuality Assurance Agency for Higher Education
    SSSCScottish Social Services Council
    SWTFSocial Work Task Force (England)
    TOPSSTraining Organisation for the Personal Social Services (now Skills for Care)
    UKUnited Kingdom
    USAUnited States of America


    Although this introductory textbook covers the traditional subject matter of social work education, it is distinctive insofar as it is grounded upon real-life stories supplied during a research project.

    The research was conducted during 2004–08 in England. The main focus was upon students undertaking a BA in Social Work programme and the main methods of data collection were:

    • surveys at the beginning and end of the programme with a cohort of 80 students
    • interviews with 30 students at different stages of the programme
    • six focus groups convened during initial placements
    • reading of 40 portfolios, 15 from initial placements and 25 from final placements.

    This was supplemented by interviews with 30 social work educators. The majority were qualified practice teachers in the community, some of whom occupied management roles, but a few academic tutors and unqualified agency supervisors were also involved in these interviews. The result is that this book is able to go ‘behind the scenes’ in social work education in various ways.

    Part 1 offers an introduction to social work in the UK, along with an invitation to students to engage with their programmes and the profession as adult learners. It provides a map of personal and political journeys into the social work profession based upon surveys and interviews. It examines styles of teaching and learning in university and community settings, and includes reference to the ‘hidden’ curriculum and practicum where aspects of students' biographies are brought to the foreground simply by virtue of studying social problems and practising social work. Reflecting upon our own biographies can be just as vital to the social work journey as any official requirements.

    Part 2 covers the substantive knowledge base and skill repertoire of the social work profession, along with the ethical and political values underpinning it. It illuminates the struggles which students and educators continue to experience in relation to theory and research, as well as concrete applications of theoretical frameworks and research projects in practice settings. It unpackages the meaning of ‘practice wisdom’ and shows how students develop into critically reflective practitioners. Case examples from interviews and portfolios are provided in relation to each of the Key Roles against which students are assessed, and in relation to the value dilemmas encountered by students during placements. Making mistakes and achieving breakthroughs are equally vital on any learning journey, and the case studies pay attention to both aspects of students' journeys.

    Part 3 attends to the practicalities of becoming a qualified practitioner and embarking upon a social work career. It offers guidance to students on how to maximise their chances for success in academic assignments and practice placements, and how to maximise their chances for surviving and thriving in the real world of social work.

  • Appendix: The Study of Students and Their Educators

    Becoming a Social Worker: A Guide for Students is based upon original research with students and their educators which was conducted during the period 2004–08 in England. Ethical approval was granted by the relevant university and financial support was forthcoming from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The focus was upon students undertaking a BA in Social Work programme, and the aim was to explore what is entailed in becoming a social worker in contemporary Britain in the hope that this would be helpful to future generations of student social workers and their educators. The students who volunteered their time and energy to participate in interviews and who volunteered their portfolios for the research expressly wanted their stories to become educational resources for future students.

    My task as the author has been to select case examples from students and their educators which best fit the pedagogic purpose of this textbook, and to supply the contexts for these case examples so that readers can make sense of them. In the process, I have drawn upon my own practice wisdom acquired over several years as a social worker, practice teacher and academic tutor. But the case examples themselves are real-life stories of social work education and practice which have not been subject to reconstruction, although of course they have been anonymised in relation to individual participants and their practice agencies. ‘Insiders’ who participated in the project may discover their own case example in the pages of this textbook, and others who were directly involved in a case may also occupy an ‘insider’ position, but ‘outsiders’ will not be able to identify any individual or agency. Readers across the UK may find that several stories resonate with their own experiences — this is a by-product of the rootedness of this textbook in the everyday life worlds of students, practitioners and educators, and similarities (as well as differences) in our life worlds are to be expected.

    Certain measures were built in to the project in order to minimise the chances of identifying individuals or agencies. Case material was supplied by students across four successive cohorts since pilot studies were conducted simultaneously with three student cohorts in Years 1, 2 and 3 of their programmes prior to the main study which followed students in a single cohort from the start to the end of their programme. Practice teachers provided additional case examples of student learning, some of which pertained to students from other cohorts and other programmes. Portfolios were selected from students based in 23 agencies and authorities, and interviews with students and practice teachers enabled access to material from additional agencies and authorities.

    Methods of data collection were combined to maximise the validity and reliability of findings:

    • A survey questionnaire was administered to 80 students during their first week of the BA in Social Work programme. This was used as the basis for developing the typology of service user, personal carer and citizen routes into social work examined in Chapter 2.
    • Interviews were held with 30 students at different stages of the programme. Students had a choice in whether to be interviewed as individuals or in small groups, and almost all of them opted for individual interviews, although there was one dyadic interview. An open-ended interviewing style was adopted to encourage students to discuss their experiences on their own terms, although efforts were made to ensure that specific themes were addressed in each interview in order to promote consistency. All interviews were recorded and transcribed to preserve the accuracy of accounts.
    • Six focus groups were convened for students on initial placements in agencies which had a Practice Learning and Teaching Unit taking a number of students. These took place towards the end of the placement when students had formed into a cohesive group; the dynamics and discussions emerging in each of these groups were therefore quite distinctive. Focus group discussions were also recorded and transcribed.
    • Forty portfolios from placements were read — 15 from students on initial placements and 25 from students on final placements. Work records provided insights into the policies, paperwork and procedures of agencies and authorities and their impacts upon practice. Placement reports proved to be an excellent source for understanding how students met their Key Roles in different settings. Reflective journals showed how students grappled with emotional, ethical, political and cultural dilemmas, and how their capacity to reflect upon casework and its contexts developed over time.
    • A survey questionnaire was administered to students at the end of their programme. Not all students were available for this session, but analysis of the 50 completed questionnaires was helpful in understanding students' evaluations of professional pedagogy as well as their career intentions.

    Deploying multiple methods in a longitudinal project provides ample opportunities to refine, refute or corroborate hypotheses, interpretations and conclusions. Themes which emerged in the pilot studies and Year 1 survey were explored further during individual interviews and focus groups. The surveys in Year 1 and Year 3 were distributed to the same cohort of students and therefore allowed for some cross-referencing of data from both surveys. Some students volunteered to participate in the project at different stages and in different ways, so that the accounts they supplied during individual or group interviews could be cross-checked with their portfolios from initial or final placements. This also enabled me to witness at first hand some of the dramatic changes students could undergo over a three-year degree programme.

    The project was designed to be student-centred and therefore required a participatory approach. At key intervals throughout the project — such as the start of the academic year or the end of a placement — I met with groups of students (and sometimes an entire cohort) in order to brief them on the project, providing information sheets with consent forms for those who wished to sign up for an interview or to volunteer their portfolio. After the first year, I was able to give feedback to students about general themes which had emerged from the research and how these had been presented in conferences or publications so that they could develop a clearer sense of how their stories could be used, which furnished an additional safeguard for informed consent.

    It was important to seek the views of educators in order to produce a more rounded account of social work education which would respect the diversity of stakeholders and standpoints. Practice teachers from a wide area were invited to attend initial briefing sessions on the project, and information sheets were sent out to those who were unable to attend. Academic tutors, social services managers and voluntary agency supervisors were also informed about the project. In total, 30 educators volunteered for interview, most of whom were practice teachers in the community. They were interviewed as individuals, in pairs or in small groups and all interviews were recorded and transcribed. Educators' perspectives upon university-based teaching, community-based supervision, the role of theory in practice and the dilemmas around student assessment were particularly significant and occupy a prominent place in the relevant chapters.

    Service users and carers are also significant stakeholders in social work education, but it was not possible to interview them directly during this project on account of constraints around my own time and energy as a solo researcher. Readers will realise that the predicaments and perspectives of service users and carers are actually at the heart of most of the case examples supplied by students and educators. Without them, there is no social work practice or pedagogy.


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