The emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic has demanded rapid action to save lives. It has offered a sobering reminder of the deep fault lines of global neoliberalism that has deepened national and international inequalities. Yet the shock of Covid-19 that has reverberated through the lives of citizens and institutions has created spaces for action that reject the authority of market forces.
In this brief article we focus on the challenges faced by social work students balancing personal and professional concerns, and by universities in exercising their duty of care to social work students. As UK universities moved rapidly to implement social distancing, adopting practices of online engagement with students, we faced the challenge of supporting social work students in placements and their practice educators. Conscious that some institutions have withdrawn students from practice placements, we offer an account of how University of Durham MSW students have been enabled to exercise informed choices about how they can continue their journey towards qualification. We draw on our learning to identify opportunities for strengthening understanding of the impact of policy responses to Covid-19 on social work service users, practitioners and students. In particular we show the potential for developing creative approaches to the generation of valid evidence demanded by the Professional Capabilities Framework that shapes social work qualification in the UK.
In the final days of industrial action in UK universities over pensions, pay and employment inequalities, the sudden need to review arrangements for social work students in practice placements required clear thinking, rapid action and a coordinated response. Proposals offering flexibility depending on placement and student circumstances, allowing for emerging guidance from the regulatory body Social Work England, were developed and discussed with placement providers and students. Rapid university approval allowed the new arrangements to be communicated to students, placement providers and practice educators within three days. The involvement of all parties in developing these flexible arrangements has been vital in gaining cooperation and identifying a clear way forward. A final year student commented: ‘the University acted very swiftly to the changing Covid-19 situation. This gave me the time to prepare for what was coming’.
Individual contact between students, tutors and practice educators, regular communication of updates to students from national and international social work bodies, sharing of relevant and inspiring accessible resources and regular online meetings of staff and students in year groups have all been used to share information and experiences, to pose and respond to questions and queries. Support for practice educators in training is offered in the same way. Exemplary support from administrative staff and regular online team meetings with our Head of Department have also been vital in enabling the MSW to survive and thrive. Recruitment for 2020 intake continues using remote visual technologies, maintaining the involvement of service user and practitioner partners.
This account risks painting a straightforward picture of what has been a complex process, with many practical and ethical dilemmas. Investing the necessary time to identify alternative ways of supporting students, enabling the majority to remain in placement, has risked sending the wrong message to our employers about our commitment to work at a time when we are in dispute over pay and conditions. However, mindful of the values of the social work profession, in these rare circumstances the staff team was unanimous in its decision to support students to avoid interruptions in their progress towards qualification, and to be able to continue supporting service users. Students, practice educators and staff alike have had to invest time in learning new forms of technology in order to communicate remotely. The use of online technologies raises fundamental questions, not only about the way in which we relate to one another remotely in a profession that relies on effective communication skills, but also about how we identify and connect with individuals who are ‘digitally excluded’.
‘Within placements/ work settings the disparities between those who have a lot and those who have nothing has given a real insight into the airbrushing that is common in our society.’ (final year student)
For a small number of students, principally those in voluntary agencies, placements have had to pause as the agencies have found themselves unable to sustain service provision remotely, or to sustain their services at all, as limited income streams are further threatened by restrictions on income generation activities. But there have been opportunities for students to contribute to the adaptation of services, for example enabling the online delivery of mindfulness sessions for parents affected by their involvement in child protection processes and opportunities to take up temporary paid employment, or volunteering roles, as the social work force itself is compromised by self-isolation requirements. These opportunities have been aligned with prescribed learning outcomes to offer continuity for students. Working from home for parents of young children and those with other caring responsibilities has presented challenges for staff, students and service users alike. Online support and learning sessions are available to support students, both in rising to the challenges of responding to the shock of Covid-19 and in reflecting on their experiences. Some final year students have had to adapt dissertation research designs to avoid face to face contact with participants. Supported by emerging knowledge and debate on conducting fieldwork in a pandemic, this challenge has developed learning about the practical and ethical challenges of empirical research, the need for flexibility and readiness to adopt alternative approaches.
While our focus here has been on supporting students to support service users, to complete their placements, and progress towards qualification, we are acutely aware of the impact of distancing measures on service users and carers. We have encouraged students to reflect critically on local, national and international policy responses and their implications for service users and practitioners alike. In this way the challenges of the Covid-19 crisis have created opportunities for enhancing learning across the range of professional capabilities, particularly sharpening attention to values and ethics, diversity and (in) equalities, rights and justice. The impact of temporary or permanent job losses on family incomes, and the impact of physical and social distancing and isolation measures on children and families, older and disabled adults, present ethical dilemmas, sharpen inequalities and raise questions about human rights. Isolation measures increase threats to mental health, exacerbate tension in households leading to increased incidents of domestic violence, and add to difficulties in identifying and responding to child abuse and neglect. Greater reliance on online communication to access advice and support throws ‘digital exclusion’ into sharp focus as those who are unable to engage with the necessary technologies become further disconnected from sources of support. As students confront the practical challenges and ethical dilemmas thrown up by the covid-19 crisis, prompting reflection on the core aims and functions of social work, we underline the importance of remaining anchored to the principles of human rights and social justice that underpin this global profession. And we continually highlight opportunities for learning from existing and emerging experiences about the development of practice responses and disaster resilience building across the globe.
Where do we go from here?
Global perspectives are vital in supporting social work students to gain a broader understanding of the long term consequences of short term responses to crises that threaten the health and well-being of large populations. Referring to Covid-19, the historian and philosopher Harari reminds us that short term emergency measures can become accepted ways of life, and government responses to crises can serve as large scale social experiments. Current examples include emergency coronavirus legislation in the UK that set aside elements of current social care and mental health legislation, reducing entitlements to care services and weakening safeguards surrounding involuntary admission and detainment of people with mental health disorders. Yet the pandemic underlines the importance of communities and society, going beyond the focus on individuals and families. And the introduction of a wage subsidy has reignited debate over the merits of universal basic income. Harari identifies two sets of choices: i) between states of surveillance and citizen empowerment and ii) between national isolation and global solidarity. Social work is firmly located in the fields of citizen empowerment and global solidarity and the process of supporting and learning from social work students in developing the necessary resilience to be advocates of empowerment and solidarity must continue.
Durham MSW Collective