In early 2020, the Covid-19 virus spread through the world having an unprecedented global, national and local impact. Whilst many people have lost their jobs or been furloughed whilst the pandemic was contained, social workers were seen as keyworkers, a category attributed by Public Health England to staff considered critical to remain working. However, the short-term future of social work placements was unclear, as social work students were not seen as keyworkers. The new social work regulatory body, Social Work England, provided a directive that placements could be continued, shortened, suspended or replaced, and left the decisions of how to respond to their own placement needs to individual social work education providers. This created a breadth of responses, but the common denominator was that social work students had to be able to meet the End of Last Placement Professional Capability Framework (PCF) domains by the time of qualification. When decision making about the future of social work placement, social work education providers had to balance a range of issues:
As the Covid-19 virus’ impact increased, the ability of first placement social care placement providers to continue their service provision declined. This inevitably impacted on their ability to sustain placement provision, and a number of students’ placements were suspended.
Similarly, practice educators in first and final statutory social work placement provider settings were impacted by the Covid-19 virus, as they began to self-isolate and then remote work. Practice educators had to acclimatise to their own new ways of remote working and undertaking social distanced interventions, meaning that supporting social work students had to be re-evaluated too.
Placement providers quickly reported that how many days the student was into the placement had a significant impact on their ability to allocate work to students confidently and support them effectively on a remote basis. Where students were only just beyond induction, practice educators’ formative assessments of students’ ability and students’ understanding of placement procedure and practice had been limited.
Whilst where the student was approaching or exceeding the interim point in placement, the students were, in the main, more capable of engaging with remote working effectively.
In addition, further consideration had to be given to students who were subject to an action plan, or where areas for development were raised about their practice. Remote working made supporting such students difficult due to access to sufficient support and inability to observe development.
Duty of care to students
Social work education providers had to consider their duty of care to students, which included both the right to complete their education and the right to be safeguarded from risk of infection, a seemingly contradictory combination. As per government guidelines initially a number of students, or members of their household, showed mild symptoms or had underlying health issues and began to self-isolate, although that was subsequently surpassed by a national policy of social distancing and social isolating. Remote working became the norm for social work staff and provided a solution that enabled students to engage with learning activities whilst self-isolating or social distancing.
There were different emotional responses from students: some students were adamant that they should not be on placement, whilst others were equally adamant that they wanted to be on placement. It was important that students were supported irrespective of their perspective so practical and academic solutions were developed that were both creative and flexible. However, there were other emotional impacts, for example fear for their own and loved ones wellbeing, being away from parents or being a parent in a time of crisis. One student reflected that she was alone in a large private rented student accommodation, as students on non-professional courses had all returned to live with their parents. Each of these had to be supported remotely by tutors.
When reflecting on the impacting of suspending or terminating first placements, consideration had to be given to the potential financial consequences on the students. Students were anxious about the impact of the situation on bursary provision, and reassurance was given. The National Union of Students (NUS) called for the waiving of accommodation fees, including vacated private rented accommodation, which would positively impact students who had private rented student accommodation. However, a suspension and resumption of first placement after social distancing had been lifted would potentially financially impact all students if it were over the summer months. This included having to pay for accommodation or childcare costs when they would otherwise not be on placement; they would be unable to work in the summer, often a time to put money towards the following years costs; and potentially being unable to progress into their final year so having to wait longer to qualify, when students can begin to repay academic costs.
Academic and professional rigour
Further to the debates considering the ethical dilemma of balancing students’ welfare and progression, were the academic and professional considerations. Within universities decisions, quite rightly, were being made about remote learning, building closures and appropriate assessments that fit a more traditional, non-professional course which failed to take account of placement criteria, and dispensation was given to professional courses to be more flexible.
Nevertheless, academic and professional rigour still had to be applied to students completing placement. Compromises had to be made to enable remote assessment and early successful completion of social work placements, which included increased academic work and more rigorous future learning.
Whilst first placement students were anxious about progression into the following year if placement were delayed, an additional factor was the local authorities’ perspective in relation to future risk factors around re-scheduling first placements if they were to be suspended. Creative practical teaching solutions were considered to replace a practical placement that encompassed teaching, activities, reflection and application to past experience.
Whilst last placement students were concerned about the ability to progress into qualified practice, local authorities raised their need to keep students remotely supporting vulnerable service users and subsequently gain newly qualified social workers to boost their workforce in a time of staff shortages due to the Covid-19 virus. Creative solutions included shorter placements with additional reflections to demonstrate progression and understanding of areas for development leading to a more robust ASYE.
Social work placement planning in an uncertain future
Decisions about current social work placement have been made: they have been continued, shortened, suspended or terminated. As the initial crisis passes, social work education providers now turn to the future: what will the next cohort of placements look like?
This of course will be dependent on the length of social isolation and social distancing enforced by the Covid-19 virus and the Government. Social Work England state that all social work students must demonstrate End of Last Placement PCF domain indicators, but where the current cohort have had compromised first placements, their last placement will require a more robust, more rigorous approach. Only time will tell whether that is viable.
In the longer term, the potential economic crisis may have an impact on demand for social work education placements as social work students may not be able to continue their studies and new cohorts may be reduced, so need for social work placements may reduce. By contrast, social work placement provision may shrink due to the impact of the Covid-19 virus on practice educators’ ability to practice and social care placement providers that we have long relied on may no longer exist.
What is certain is that the need for qualified social workers remains. As we escape from this chrysalis, we must work together to develop realistic and robust social work placements that enable rigorous assessment to continue to produce a high calibre of professional social workers.
Paula Beesley, Senior Lecturer in Social Work and Academic Practice Lead, Leeds Beckett University