Studying for your Social Work Degree


Hilary Walker

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    Series Editors' Preface

    The Western world including the UK and England face numerous challenges over forthcoming years. These include dealing with the impact of an increasingly ageing population, with its attendant social care needs and working with the financial implications that such a changing demography brings. At the other end of the life-span the need for high quality child care, welfare and safeguarding services has been highlighted as society develops and responds to a changing complexion.

    Migration has developed as a global phenomenon and we now live and work with the implications of international issues in our everyday and local lives. Often these issues influence how we construct our social services and determine what services we need to offer. It is likely that as a social worker you will work with a diverse range of people throughout your career, many of whom have experienced significant, even traumatic, events that require a professional and caring response. As well as working with individuals, however, you may be required to respond to the needs of a particular community disadvantaged by world events or excluded within local communities because of assumptions made about them.

    The importance of social work education came to the fore again following the inquiry into the death of baby Peter, the subsequent report from the Social Work Task Force set up in its aftermath and the Reform Board process. It is timely to reconsider elements of social work education – indeed, we should view this as a continual striving for excellence! – as this allows us to focus clearly on what knowledge is useful to engage with in learning to be a social worker.

    The books in this series respond to the agendas driven by changes brought about by professional body changes, Government and disciplinary reviews. They aim to build on and offer introductory texts based on up-to-date knowledge and to help communicate this in an accessible way, preparing the ground for future study as you develop your social work career. The books are written by people passionate about social work and social services and aim to instil that passion in others. The current text focuses on the learning that you will need to engage with and immerse yourself into if you are to develop as a social work practitioner within a rapidly changing, increasingly politicised world of welfare. Generic study guides for academic work are plentiful, and these will provide you with useful knowledge for your learning. This book, however, offers a perspective that addresses learning specific for social work practice, examining the development through the three stages of the degree, in field work, reflection and critical engagement with academic knowledge. The knowledge introduced in this book is important for all student social workers, and for whichever fields of practice you may seek to enter. Learning for good practice reaffirms social work's commitment to those the profession serves.

    Professor Jonathan Parker,Bournemouth University Greta Bradley, University of York


    I would like to thank the following.

    • Ruskin College, Oxford for giving me the opportunity to write the first edition of the book.
    • The editorial team at Learning Matters for their support and guidance.
    • Colleagues, students and former students who have given really helpful feedback.
    • Friends who have supported and encouraged me.

    My huge appreciation goes to all those Ruskin College social work students, in Oxford, Suffolk and Essex, with whom I have worked – without you this book would not have been inspired or written.


    The first edition of this book was written in the context of the change in the qualification for professional social work to a bachelor's degree with honours. My intention was to support students in their studies by identifying the academic skills which must be demonstrated in an undergraduate degree and explaining how this relates to learning to become a social worker. In particular it aimed to identify the academic skills required at each of the three different levels of an undergraduate degree, to demonstrate how these can be understood in the study of social work and to provide ways of supporting students in achieving them.

    The requirements for social work education and training are laid down by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), the body with responsibility for assuring the quality of higher education courses in universities and colleges, in The Framework for Higher Education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (QAA, 2008a)

    Although each course is organised in a different way, colleges must ensure that students studying on bachelors' degrees with honours, by the end of the programme, will have achieved what is set out in this framework. Because learning happens in stages, each building on earlier understanding, these requirements are organised in three levels known as 4, 5 and 6. For full-time students these will be equivalent to the three years of the degree. For part-time students this will depend on the course.

    Requirements at each level specify what students must be able to do and demonstrate academically at each level of the programme. All bachelors' degrees with honours must provide the opportunity for students to achieve this through teaching, learning and assessment. Of course a degree in chemistry or French will look different from a degree in social work, but the same broad academic requirements must be met.

    In addition to these broad requirements set by the QAA, undergraduate degrees in social work must also meet requirements laid down in the following documents:

    • The National Occupational Standards for Social Work (TOPSS, 2002a): These set out both what a social worker entering employment should be able to do and what they should know.
    • The Department of Health Requirements for Social Work (DoH, 2002): These were devised by this government department when the social work qualification changed from a diploma to a degree and set out broad expectations.
    • The QAA Subject Bench Mark for Social Work (2008b): This outlines the particular requirements for a bachelors' degree in the subject of social work; specifically what is expected of qualifying social workers awarded this degree.

    Achieving a degree in social work is both about being able to practise social work but equally being able to demonstrate academic capabilities and skills at undergraduate degree level. It is both a licence to practise as a professional social worker and an academic qualification. Social work is an applied academic subject so practice is an essential and core element of learning and you will be required to spend at least 200 days undertaking learning on placement in social work agencies. By the end of the course you must have met both the academic and practice standards and you will find that these two aspects are consistently and constantly inter-connected. You will be required to make links between what you learn in college and the world of social work and think about, understand, critically analyse and reflect on your practice while in placement using academic learning.

    However these requirements indicate what you must be able to do by the end of your course rather than the stages along the way. In contrast, as discussed above, the general requirements for an undergraduate honours degree set out what students should achieve at each level. Because learning is cumulative, you need to have a sound grasp of lower level academic skills in order to build towards the higher ones. I have noticed that students can struggle later in their studies if they have not thoroughly developed foundation skills.

    This book therefore takes a staged approach and is organised in three parts – each one relating to a different academic level. Hence chapters in Part One will be concerned with skills from Level 4; those in Part Two with skills from Level 5 and those in Part 3 from Level 6. In each part of the book the key academic requirements at that level are explored. Every chapter indicates the specific requirements and the Key Role and relevant units of competence to which it relates. On your course, in college and on placement, this division will not be as clear. However, separating them out should help you to appreciate the skills you are using and enhancing. The four chapters in Part One cover the basic, foundation academic skills. The first explores beginning your degree course and the particular characteristics of studying for social work before discussing different approaches to learning. In Chapter 2 we focus on the underlying principles and concepts in social work with particular emphasis on the values of social work. Next, in Chapter 3, the relationship between theory and social work practice is considered while in Chapter 4 the ingredients of academic writing are covered.

    This theme is developed in Part Two Chapter 5 which looks at more complex skills of critical analysis and understanding. Chapter 6 focuses on practice learning and how you make connections between your college studies and your experiences and practice on placement. In Chapter 7 we explore what is meant by the reflective social work practitioner and ways in which this approach can be enhanced. The final chapter of Part Two is the first of two looking at research. At this level the focus is on understanding and using research.

    Part Three begins with the second research chapter which explains how research can be subject to critical evaluation. Next, in Chapter 10, we return to thinking about learning and focus on becoming an autonomous learner with academic assertiveness and the motivation for continuing professional development. The final two chapters both consider the complexity of social work. In Chapter 11 the complicated and contradictory nature of practice is analysed and the thinking and reflective skills and strategies for social work in this context are discussed. Finally in Chapter 12 we consider the academic purposes of the dissertation and some helpful ways of approaching this important and complex piece of work.

    Each chapter could be read on its own; however, you will probably find it most helpful to use all the book. This is firstly because we follow the learning journeys of three social work students throughout the book and secondly because interconnections are made between chapters. In many chapters you will find guidance on how to approach a particular academic skill. This is based on observations from my own experience as a social work tutor, what I have learnt from students and on research studies into what helps students learn. Within each chapter you will find examples and activities to support you with the development of the relevant skills. However the book is not a substitute for fully participating in all the learning activities on your course. Rather its purpose is to be complementary to your college learning and to help you make best use of its opportunities. You should always make sure you are clear about the assessment requirements and regulations on your particular programme.

    This second edition incorporates significant changes. Feedback from those who have read and used the first edition of the book, in particular students, has been included aiming to improve the book and make it more helpful and relevant. Updated reading, research and references are included – social work literature and knowledge has expanded considerably in recent years. New understandings about how people learn have been integrated. In particular two new related concepts concerning achievement in learning are explored; self-efficacy and academic assertiveness. Both suggest dispositions which can promote the ability to succeed in mastery of the subject; they connect with other aspects of learning and, in the right conditions can be developed by students. The book has also been updated in line with changes in social policy, legislation and the organisation of social work.

    In the past three years there have been significant developments in thinking about the organisation and delivery of social work, education and training. These shifts in thinking were precipitated by media attention to the death of Peter Connelly and subsequent reports which raised concerns about the quality of training, practice, delivery and regulation of social work (Laming, 2009; Social Work Task Force, 2009; House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee, 2009). Despite some contradictory evidence that the social work degree is fit for purpose at the point of qualification (Evaluation of Social Work Degree in England Team, 2008; Blewett and Tunstill, 2008); that child deaths are falling and that many of social work's difficulties are linked to inadequate resources, managerialism (Ferguson and Lavalette, 2009) and a computerised data base which is not fit for purpose (White et al. 2010), the proposals were uncritically agreed by the then Labour government (Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2009). However these now may not all be implemented due to the outcome of the General Election in May 2010 and the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government's policy of spending cuts (HM Government, 2010). This government has commissioned a further report on safeguarding children which may have implications for social work education and training and two interim reports have been published (Munro, 2010, 2011). In this period of considerable uncertainty some developments seem assured. A Social Work Reform Board headed by Moira Gibb, also chair of the Social Work Task Force, has been established to implement the recommendations of the Task Force. Included in its work is consideration of the entry requirements to social work courses and the curriculum for education and training. Transfer of the General Social Care Council's regulatory functions to the Health Professions Council is to take place by 2012. A College of Social Work is to be established and a consultation exercise concerning its role and function is currently underway. Changes are proposed for the funding of Higher Education (Social Work Reform Board, 2010). In this political climate it is difficult to predict the future. However, while debate concerning proposed reforms continues and before changes are implemented, many students will be studying for their social work degrees. So whatever the future brings, in the meantime I hope that this book will serve a useful purpose in supporting the learning of current social work students.

    Like many social work employees and writers I have not yet found a term to use when referring to those members of the public with whom social workers work. None of the expressions currently used seems to appropriately convey the nature of the relationship. Hence you will find the terms client, service user and people who use services in this book – none of which is entirely satisfactory but are usable until a better alternative is found.

    During my time as a tutor in social work I have come across a wide range of students. At some point nearly all find some aspect of their academic work a challenge – sometimes because their interest and motivation are focused more on doing social work. One reason for writing the book was to make clear that social work cannot be practised well without good, clear, analytic thinking. Another was to provide students with some materials which would better enable them to face and overcome the challenges. I hope it has succeeded. Good luck in your studies.

    Hilary Walker
  • Conclusion

    Studying for a degree in social work can be exciting, rewarding and challenging. Sometimes the difficulties that students face can overwhelm and obscure the stimulation and thrill of learning. This book arose from my observations that students need support and guidance with developing specific academic skills within the context of studying for social work. Without this it can be difficult for students to make progress and maximise their opportunities for personal and professional development. If the book has been a support to you during your degree studies and helped you to better appreciate effective academic study then it will have achieved its aim.

    Having reached this part of the book you will be nearing the end of your social work degree. Depending on your mode of study this might have taken you three or four years and you will be close to qualifying as a social worker. During this time you will have been through many significant learning experiences, both in college and on placement. When you reflect back on this period of your life you will no doubt recall good times and hard times, highs and lows, frustration and joy, pleasure and pain. Take the time to consider how you have changed during your course both personally and professionally. You might find it particularly useful to identify how you have developed as a learner and record this in your Personal Development Plan. This understanding will be valuable as you join the profession of social worker where you will begin a new phase of learning. Although completing the degree may seem like the end of a journey, it is but one stage in a much longer voyage of discovery. As you embark on the next stage you have the opportunity to reflect on your experience of studying for the social work degree and take this learning forward to your future professional career development. In Chapter 10 the importance of understanding your own learning and taking responsibility for its direction was emphasised. This will assist you in consolidating your learning as a newly qualified social worker, continuing your professional development and undertaking post-qualifying training.

    A major theme of the book has been the complexity of social work practice and hence the need for practitioners to incorporate different perspectives and think clearly, analytically and reflectively. In the current climate of political, social and economic uncertainty these skills become more important for thoughtful, sensitive, empathetic and reflective social work practice consistent with the values of social work and social justice. They should also equip you to continue to grow and develop in your social work career. I wish you well as you enter the profession of social work.

    Subject Benchmark for Social Work


    The content, structure and delivery of social work degree programmes should enable students to demonstrate the National Occupational Standards for Social Work (TOPSS, 2002); the Department of Health Requirements for Social Work (DoH, 2002) and the QAA Subject Bench Mark for Social Work (QAA, 2008) as well as demonstrating the appropriate academic level (see Introduction).

    This Appendix provides a brief summary of selected key areas from the Benchmark for Social Work which are covered in this book.

    Defining Principles

    4.1 As an applied academic subject, social work is characterised by a distinctive focus on practice in complex social situations to promote and protect individual and collective well-being. This underscores the importance of partnerships between HEIs and service providers to ensure the full involvement of practitioners, managers, tutors, service users and carers with students in both academic and practice learning and assessment.

    4.6 Social work is a moral activity that requires practitioners to recognise the dignity of the individual, but also to make and implement difficult decisions (including restriction of liberty) in human situations that involve the potential for benefit or harm. Honours degree programmes in social work therefore involve the study, application of, and critical reflection upon, ethical principles and dilemmas.

    4.7 The expectation that social workers will be able to act effectively in such complex circumstances requires that honours degree programmes in social work should be designed to help students learn to become accountable, reflective, critical and evaluative.

    Subject Knowledge, Understanding and Skills: Subject Knowledge and Understanding

    5.1 During their degree studies in social work, honours graduates should acquire, critically evaluate, apply and integrate knowledge and understanding in the following five core areas of study.

    5.1.1 Social work services, service users and carers, which include:

    • the social processes (associated with, for example, poverty, migration, unemployment, poor health, disablement, lack of education and other sources of disadvantage) that lead to marginalisation, isolation and exclusion, and their impact on the demand for social work services;
    • explanations of the links between definitional processes contributing to social differences (for example, social class, gender, ethnic differences, age, sexuality and religious belief) to the problems of inequality and differential need faced by service users;
    • the nature of social work services in a diverse society (with particular reference to concepts such as prejudice, interpersonal, institutional and structural discrimination, empowerment and anti-discriminatory practices);
    • the nature and validity of different definitions of, and explanations for, the characteristics and circumstances of service users and the services required by them, drawing on knowledge from research, practice experience, and from service users and carers;
    • the focus on outcomes, such as promoting the well-being of young people and their families, and promoting dignity, choice and independence for adults receiving services;
    • the relationship between agency policies, legal requirements and professional boundaries in shaping the nature of services provided in interdisciplinary contexts and the issues associated with working across professional boundaries and within different disciplinary groups.

    5.1.2 The service delivery context, which includes:

    • the location of contemporary social work within historical, comparative and global perspectives, including European and international contexts;
    • the changing demography and cultures of communities in which social workers will be practising;
    • the complex relationships between public, social and political philosophies, policies and priorities and the organisation and practice of social work, including the contested nature of these;
    • the issues and trends in modern public and social policy and their relationship to contemporary practice and service delivery in social work;
    • the significance of legislative and legal frameworks and service delivery standards (including the nature of legal authority, the application of legislation in practice, statutory accountability and tensions between statute, policy and practice);
    • the current range and appropriateness of statutory, voluntary and private agencies providing community-based, day-care, residential and other services and the organisational systems inherent within these;
    • the significance of inter-relationships with other related services, including housing, health, income maintenance and criminal justice (where not an integral social service);
    • the contribution of different approaches to management, leadership and quality in public and independent human services;
    • the development of personalised services, individual budgets and direct payments;
    • the implications of modern information and communications technology (ICT) for both the provision and receipt of services.

    5.1.3 Values and ethics, which include:

    • the nature, historical evolution and application of social work values;
    • the moral concepts of rights, responsibility, freedom, authority and power inherent in the practice of social workers as moral and statutory agents;
    • the complex relationships between justice, care and control in social welfare and the practical and ethical implications of these, including roles as statutory agents and in upholding the law in respect of discrimination;
    • aspects of philosophical ethics relevant to the understanding and resolution of value dilemmas and conflicts in both interpersonal and professional contexts;
    • the conceptual links between codes defining ethical practice, the regulation of professional conduct and the management of potential conflicts generated by the codes held by different professional groups.

    5.1.4 Social work theory, which includes:

    • research-based concepts and critical explanations from social work theory and other disciplines that contribute to the knowledge base of social work, including their distinctive epistemological status and application to practice;
    • the relevance of sociological perspectives to understanding societal and structural influences on human behaviour at individual, group and community levels;
    • the relevance of psychological, physical and physiological perspectives to understanding personal and social development and functioning;
    • social science theories explaining group and organisational behaviour, adaptation and change;
    • models and methods of assessment, including factors underpinning the selection and testing of relevant information, the nature of professional judgement and the processes of risk assessment and decision-making;
    • approaches and methods of intervention in a range of settings, including factors guiding the choice and evaluation of these;
    • user-led perspectives;
    • knowledge and critical appraisal of relevant social research and evaluation methodologies, and the evidence base for social work.

    5.1.5 The nature of social work practice, which includes:

    • the characteristics of practice in a range of community-based and organisational settings within statutory, voluntary and private sectors, and the factors influencing changes and developments in practice within these contexts;
    • the nature and characteristics of skills associated with effective practice, both direct and indirect, with a range of service-users and in a variety of settings;
    • the processes that facilitate and support service user choice and independence;
    • the factors and processes that facilitate effective interdisciplinary, interprofessional and interagency collaboration and partnership;
    • the place of theoretical perspectives and evidence from international research in assessment and decision-making processes in social work practice;
    • the integration of theoretical perspectives and evidence from international research into the design and implementation of effective social work intervention, with a wide range of service users, carers and others;
    • the processes of reflection and evaluation, including familiarity with the range of approaches for evaluating service and welfare outcomes, and their significance for the development of practice and the practitioner.
    Subject-specific Skills and other Skills

    5.3 All social work honours graduates should show the ability to reflect on and learn from the exercise of their skills. They should understand the significance of the concepts of continuing professional development and lifelong learning, and accept responsibility for their own continuing development.

    Social Work Honours Graduates should Acquire and Integrate Skills in the Following Core Areas

    5.5.1 Problem-solving skills Managing problem-solving activities: honours graduates in social work should be able to plan problem-solving activities, i.e. to:

    • think logically, systematically, critically and reflectively;
    • apply ethical principles and practices critically in planning problem-solving activities;
    • plan a sequence of actions to achieve specified objectives, making use of research, theory and other forms of evidence;
    • manage processes of change, drawing on research, theory and other forms of evidence.

    5.5.2 Gathering information: honours graduates in social work should be able to:

    • gather information from a wide range of sources and by a variety of methods, for a range of purposes. These methods should include electronic searches, reviews of relevant literature, policy and procedures, face-to-face interviews, written and telephone contact with individuals and groups;
    • take into account differences of viewpoint in gathering information and critically assess the reliability and relevance of the information gathered;
    • assimilate and disseminate relevant information in reports and case records.

    5.5.3 Analysis and synthesis: honours graduates in social work should be able to analyse and synthesise knowledge gathered for problem-solving purposes, i.e. to:

    • assess human situations, taking into account a variety of factors (including the views of participants, theoretical concepts, research evidence, legislation and organisational policies and procedures);
    • analyse information gathered, weighing competing evidence and modifying their viewpoint in light of new information, then relate this information to a particular task, situation or problem;
    • consider specific factors relevant to social work practice (such as risk, rights, cultural differences and linguistic sensitivities, responsibilities to protect vulnerable individuals and legal obligations);
    • assess the merits of contrasting theories, explanations, research, policies and procedures;
    • synthesise knowledge and sustain reasoned argument;
    • employ a critical understanding of human agency at the macro (societal), mezzo (organisational and community) and micro (inter and intrapersonal) levels;
    • critically analyse and take account of the impact of inequality and discrimination in work with people in particular contexts and problem situations.

    5.5.4 Intervention and evaluation: honours graduates in social work should be able to use their knowledge of a range of interventions and evaluation processes selectively to:

    • use and evaluate methods of intervention critically and reflectively.
    Communication Skills

    5.6 Honours graduates in social work should be able to communicate clearly, accurately and precisely (in an appropriate medium) with individuals and groups in a range of formal and informal situations, i.e. to:

    • follow and develop an argument and evaluate the viewpoints of, and evidence presented by, others;
    • write accurately and clearly in styles adapted to the audience, purpose and context of the communication.
    Skills in Personal and Professional Development

    5.8 Honours graduates in social work should be able to:

    • advance their own learning and understanding with a degree of independence;
    • reflect on and modify their behaviour in the light of experience;
    • manage uncertainty, change and stress in work situations;
    • understand and manage changing situations and respond in a flexible manner;
    • take responsibility for their own further and continuing acquisition and use of knowledge and skills;
    • use research critically and effectively to sustain and develop their practice.


    Academic assertiveness

    Personal confidence as a learner which enables students to manage the challenges of learning and develop their own thinking and voice.

    Approaches to learning

    The disposition towards, or way of going about, learning.


    Examining in detail the different aspects and component parts of an issue; considering it from a range of perspectives.


    A mental representation; an abstract idea.

    Continuing professional development

    Learning and professional development which takes place after you have achieved a social work qualification.

    Critical friend

    Someone in your family, social or student network who will read your work; give honest feedback and be prepared to challenge you.

    Critical thinking

    A questioning stance which aims for a deep understanding taking into account the construction of ideas and their relationship, challenges assumptions and considers alternative perspectives.


    An extended piece of written work; exploring a student's selected topic by drawing on theory and research; often the final assessed part of an undergraduate programme.


    General principles or statements which guide professional behaviour.


    Identifying and weighing up the strengths and limitations of an issue.

    Personal development plan

    A reflective record of your needs, progress and achievements as a learner.


    Taking the work of another person or people and using it as if it were your own; not acknowledging the source of your information or inspiration.


    Fundamental truths or propositions on which action is based.


    The recognition of your own knowledge and processes of knowing and learning.


    The purposeful process of consideration and reconsideration of any aspect of learning – knowledge, theory and experiences.


    The systematic investigation into, and study of, sources, of material in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.

    Second order reflection

    Reconsidering a piece of reflective writing in order to reflect again and develop new insights.


    Being able to take ownership of your learning and its challenges.


    Bringing together different contributions to understanding a topic in order to appreciate it in depth and understand it in a new way.


    A set of related ideas which helps to explain or make sense of an issue.


    A collection of beliefs or principles about what is important.


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