Training of Child Welfare Workers in Universities of Applied Sciences in Finland

Invisible work with invisible competences with invisible people?  Is this what can be said about Finnish child and family welfare and child protection work when talking about how much laymen actually know about it?  Is this claimed invisibility deserved considering the rise of educational requirements and quality of professional expertise in the child welfare services and child protection field? I don’t think so. The work and training of field social workers should be more widely known as such – and not only from tabloid stories.

In this little article I reflect on the matter of education as related to competences required in work with deprived children and their families. Because of my current profession as a teacher in an university of applied sciences and educator of bachelors of social services, I will concentrate on this group’s education and professional role in child welfare services and leave the other two groups of the field to be discussed some other time – even though their role in the work is equally important.

In Finland child protection or child welfare work according to the Child Protection Act of 2007 (see Päivi Sinko’s article in this magazine 2008) is conducted at development work level and in early prevention as well as working with individual families and children. The new Act stresses preventive work; at the same time the individual rights of individual service-users have been more specified and child-centeredness emphasised.

To make things simpler I mainly use the term child welfare work in this article. This term is supposed to indicate, that the work in question underlies child protection work as such and covers parts of family services and family support provided by society.  I have mentioned here my own employer, a university of applied sciences, and the network of social degree programs of universities of applied sciences and therefore it is necessary to point out that in this article I am not acting as an official representative of any of those. The ideas are all mine and I myself am responsible for them, as well as for possible errors and mistakes.

Professional Groups  in Child Welfare Services

Three main professional, educated groups work in this field. They all give their contributions both in open or community-based services as well as in residential services, and they work both in preventive work as well as in social rehabilitation work which is organized in residential settings or in people’s homes. In larger cities, for instance in Helsinki, early intervention services are organized separately from child protection services.  As preventive work child protection work its importance should not be underestimated.

Practical nurses have vocational education for three years provided by health care and social services institutions. Entry to education is possible for those who have completed their basic education. Practical nurses can work – just to mention only a few examples – in children’s day care centers, playgrounds and hospitals –  also within early intervention as family workers and in child welfare services residential settings as nurses and child care workers.

Social workers are educated in universities. A Master’s Degree in Social Work is required  for a qualified social worker. In child protection they are in charge of the social work -processes of the service users as well as for development work.  With their university degrees they are also competent academics with research qualifications.  The scope of social work research has got a boost since social work education was lifted up to university level in the 1980s.

The Bachelor Degree of Social Services is the newest of the three, since universities of applied sciences (formerly called polytechnics) started to function in the early 1990s. Education at applied sciences universities – later called UOAs – is supposed to be more practical and orientated towards work than university education. Education in degree programs of services should, though, not neglect to equip the students with the skills of critical reflection and analysis of all relevant human and social phenomena.

Child welfare services consist of early intervention and family and child-targeted child protection. Bachelors work with every level – in administration as well as in client work, in private and public services, in NGOs and in private services. Employers have ultimate choice in recruitment but in the public sector there are regulations based on legislation for educational qualification requirements in child protection services. To work as a social counselor, advisor or supervisor in municipalities’ open services, you need have a bachelor degree in social services.

Also in residential services most staff are supposed to have bachelor degrees. The most common job titles for bachelors (when speaking about those working elsewhere than preventive work and early intervention in the public sector), are probably social counselors, advisors, supervisors (sosiaaliohjaaja) or family workers in community-based child protection and family services and supervisors or educators (ohjaaja/kasvattaja) in residential care.

In child protection the social counselors work in close co-operation with social workers and contribute among other things to assessment, planning and implementing child protection plans. They are in charge of child protection family work which is an important child protection method and is implemented in an intensive partnership with the user family. In residential work social counselors are in charge of implementation of rehabilitation processes of child, youth or family customers.

In both service settings the social counselor’s task consists of working in close partnership with the service-users in order to help people cope in problematic situations. Excellent communication and empathy skills are needed to create and maintain functional relationships with the users. The work is goal-oriented and aimed to produce positive change in users’ life situation. The work is not carried out separately but in close co-operation with other professionals in the team and multi-professional networks. Working methods vary from individual work to group work and a variety of activation and/or creative methods are in use.

Education in Universities of Applied Sciences in Degree Programs of Social Services

In the dual higher education system of Finland bachelor degrees of universities of applied sciences, according to the Bologna process, are equal to university degrees of the same level.  The degree consists of 210 credits (ECTS) and the regular time for studying is three and a half years. The modules are basic studies, professional studies, free choice studies, practical training and final project or thesis.  Professional studies include optional study units and management and development studies and make the widest part of the studies. The other modules, especially practical training and the final project, are all crucially important for an individual student’s professional competence.

In the network of universities of applied sciences all degree programs in social services have agreed upon the specific competences required of graduates:

(1)       Ethical competence in social work,
(2)       Client work competence for direct work with the service users,
(3)       Competence in social services – knowledge and understanding of the service system and networks in the society,
(4)       Social analysis – knowledge, understanding and skills for analysing society and social change and their consequences to people’s living circumstances,
(5)       Competence in reflective development and the management of services,
(6)       Community and society – competence for working with communities and skills in influencing society.

The universities of applied sciences – UOA s – have rather a wide autonomy in their educational functioning. The contents of syllabuses in different UOAs therefore vary.  Some provide optional orientation lines within programs where students can, for instance, focus on families and children or elderly people or rehabilitation. More often programs are universal, aiming to give basic qualifications at a sufficient level for all kinds of professions related to social field work to be accessible for bachelor degree holders.

Anyhow, there are many opportunities for individual students to plan their studies according to their own interests: by choosing certain study units, taking certain work placements and conducting their final thesis on a certain subject.  A student’s individual choices do not affect their statutory qualifications when seeking employment in the public sector, but all degree holders are seen as equally qualified when vacancies in the public sector are to be filled.

This, along the universal nature of the degrees, means that after graduation students need to develop their own professional knowledge and skills continuously, and it places a considerable responsibility on employers to enhance and advance their workers’ professional knowhow. Therefore employers provide their employees with professional development training on professional themes or work-specific subjects. Some employers might support their workers’ further studies that aim to add and/or update their professional competence. Obtaining a qualification or certificate or continuing one´s studies for higher degree – to Master of Social Services in an UOA or to Master of Social Work in a university is not rare among professionals working in child welfare services. Many UOA graduates have also obtained certificates according to which they are family or crisis therapists, just to mention a few examples. This might indicate the ethos of life-long learning which in the influence of social work is visible.

From 2003 graduates of applied sciences have been able to apply to higher studies in their own educational institutions since Masters Degree Programs started. Currently there are eight Masters Programs in Social Services in Finland. These programs aim to enhance students´ expertise in their own profession and equip them with additional skills in leadership, management and development.

Social Pedagogy as an Educational Orientation in UOAs’ Education

A considerable number of degree programs of social services are based on a social pedagogical orientation.  Definitions for social pedagogy may vary but some ideals are more or less present where it is applied in teaching.

Social pedagogy is strongly based on ethical thinking and this means that traditional social work values of human rights and social justice are in the core of this approach as well. Social pedagogy has a strong belief in individuals’ capacity to learn and their right to use their learning in personally and socially fulfilling ways. All humans have the right to pursue a good life, and social pedagogy is to help them in achieving their goal. Social pedagogy is against social disintegration and social exclusion, and aims to respond by pedagogical means applied to work with individuals and groups. The approach when working with people is holistic, having an emphasis on day-to-day living of people. Concrete matters – troubles and challenges in peoples’ lives – are addressed, but social pedagogical work is more interested in possible solutions than problems and in the strengths or resources which people themselves have to put into action.

As an educational example I use the program where I have taught  myself since its initiation in mid 1990s (Metropolia University of Applied Sciences). The main ideas – or ideals – in our program are, in addition to those above mentioned, participation and empowerment ,supporting and helping people to construct their social and cultural identities. Further, it means dialogue – including genuine communication in an open and mutually respecting way with the goal of learning from each other, listening to the other, and everybody’s right to voice their own views is strongly emphasized.  Supporting communities and encouraging people to self-help and provide mutual support are included.

According to Paolo Freire’s ideas people should be encouraged to become critically conscious of repressing societal circumstances that have impact on their lives and hence to find effective ways to influence society and make changes where needed. Education can be a powerful tool when helping people in taking their lives into their own hands and realizing their hidden resources.

All these ideas seem to be particularly appropriate in preventive work with children, youth and families but, from our experience, they seem to work in rehabilitation in child welfare and child protection as well. In the example of the educational program in which I am involved all students have to complete study units on:

–                     basic knowledge of social and educational sciences as well as of society and human life,
–                     social work processes and its ethical base,
–                     individual case management, basic social service systems and services as well as optional ways to organize and provide them on a societal level,
–                     empowerment and social influence,
–                     dialogical ways of communication,
–                     multiculturalism,
–                     basics of research skills and
–                     basics of management, leadership and development.

The students are instructed to develop their skills of critical reflection throughout their learning time.

As optional studies students can take study units on specified professional themes according to their own interests. Those are, for instance, child protection and youth work, disabilities and special education, early education or work with the elderly.  Methods of social pedagogical work are optional study units as well:

–           counseling and advising,
–           family work,
–           use of groups,
–           creative and expressive methods,
–           community work.

Students can include two or three from this list in their curriculum.

In the case of my university there are three practice placements, of which the first is of 9 credits, the second of 12 credits and the last of 24 credits. The first is designed for students to learn the basics of social pedagogy, and about various target groups and their needs; the second is about social pedagogical work and applying its methods; and the third continues with social pedagogical methods and the development of social service work. The first and second placements are organized by the school but the third one the students seek for themselves. The students are strongly encouraged to take their work placements in different settings with different target groups.

To acquire skills and knowledge and prepare oneself for a future career in child protection services, a student can include one or two work placements in child welfare services or somewhere closely connected to them. However, for formal qualifications, this is not necessary but anybody with a certificate from a degree program in social services is equally qualified and the choice is for the employer.

Current Challenges

There are several dilemmas in the education provided by UOAs as well as in the social services field.  Here only some of them are briefly discussed.

Students, the main resource in education, seem to be comparatively satisfied with their education in general, whenever feedback is requested. A majority seem to value the wide base of expertise. Education taking place in close co-operation is seen as a merit for program management and teachers. Students come seeking practice-oriented education and give credit if they think that their expectations have been met. Some graduates would have liked to have opportunities to learn more on the subjects that they are especially interested in, and regret if that is not possible. At the same time people understand that it is not possible to include everything in one degree.

As degree programs in social services are a newer form of education than social work education of universities, the bachelors of social services have had to work hard for their position in working life, especially within public sector. This is the situation partly also in child welfare and child protection services, even though after almost twenty years, they have established their position widely. Today their professional expertise and skills are recognized and new positions are organized and made available for them.

However, there are still open questions concerning their area of expertise. It overlaps with several other professions such as social work or kindergarten teaching, just a mention a few. This need not be a problem if different educational backgrounds are regarded as a source of additional resources and an invigorating factor in work. But in certain settings it could create problems. UOA graduates can suffer from lack of a firm professional identity. When the expertise area is wide and consists of cognitive, affective and ethical elements and covers the expertise of everyday life but does not include a deep body of knowledge on some specific field, one might sometimes be in difficulty trying to convince others of one’s own professional worth.

And the issue becomes harder when there seems to be unfair treatment in material rewards and the allocation of workloads, particularly so if the work does not appear to differ from the other professionals’ work in the same setting. This presents special challenges to service organizations: the structure of responsibilities and tasks should be clear and all principles and criteria openly discussed, transparent and consistent.

Social pedagogy can provide a way to identify oneself professionally among other professionals in the social work field. A familiar slogan of social pedagogy’s holistic view about helping people – heart, hand and head – seem to describe the work well, as it takes place close to children and young people and their families struggling in overwhelming life situations. The everyday-life orientation means that workers are ready to share the reality of their clients and consider it from their point of view. At the same time the workers have a solid knowledge base and understanding of society and human life in general and they are equipped with tools to give new perspectives and to encourage people to see their own strengths.

Maintaining and bringing hope in difficult situations can happen through organizing activities and being available as well as only through discussion.  Empathy skills are crucial. They are something that do not always and constantly come as natural, but must be learnt through training. A professional needs to take care of his or her professional ethics as well as their personal integrity in emotionally challenging work. Maintaining oneself – applying evaluation skills and readiness for self-consciousness – is hard work and needs support. Good team organization, work counseling and accessibility to career development training and available further training possibilities can all help in this. Getting feedback also in the form of genuine respect and public appreciation might help as well.

Mervi Nyman is Senior Lecturer at Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, Helsinki.

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