Social Work Students and Group Care Settings

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a social work student on a period of assessed practice learning is in need of a good practice teacher”. Although this is a reference to the words of the great Jane Austen, there is nevertheless a truth in the need to help the student make Sense as they encounter Pride, Prejudice and their own Sensibility – not forgetting Persuasion!

As students embark on a period of assessed practice learning in residential child care, their greatest fear may be how they will relate to children and young people.Experience tells us that this will not be achieved by spending time in the office, a cupboard, or even the library. They need to be spending time with young people, sharing a meal or a game of pool, talking, but above all listening, as they observe individuals and the group, the varied dynamics, the staff, and try and fit names to faces, faces to names.  There may also be staff from other disciplines such as education.

We know that the student may need prior involvement with any agency to undertake the enhanced disclosure checks (concerning criminal records), although they are already student registrants with the Scottish Social Services Council.  This may be an opportunity for a planned informal visit, the chance to meet a few people, to obtain perhaps a copy of the brochure for young people (did any one complete that?) and ask about the dress code, shift work and what the learning opportunities will be in that setting that will meet the required learning outcomes for their period of assessed practice.  This may be the opportunity to ‘tune in’ to the setting.  What do constantly locked doors in a secure unit evoke in the student, the young people, the staff?

If there is not a practice teacher on the site, a link worker will hopefully have been identified, and been able to attend a training and briefing session in the university. The link worker should also have copies of handbooks etc. and know something of the student’s work experience and learning needs.

A good induction programme is essential to cover health and safety issues and often students go through agency checklists for new staff.  It can be helpful if young people have the opportunity to be involved in this – as we would hope that they would also have been in the original decision to take a student.

The student will be encouraged to keep a reflective diary or learning log to focus on the FEELING THINKING DOING challenges that each day will bring. Increasingly this becomes more reflective as they respond to the WHAT? WHY? HOW? questions and try to link with the young people and their lives and what has been studied in the university. In supervision they struggle with linking theory to practice; they can become more analytical as they use such tools as a critical incident analysis.

Above all, there is the privilege of being briefly involved in the lives of others, often with a rapid intensity in residential child care, as assumptions are challenged, and the personal and the professional are re-explored with support. It may be the student who has the persistence to battle for a desk for a young person undertaking exams (aware of the extra pressures for the young man at this time and mindful of research on low educational achievement for children and young people who are ‘looked after and accommodated’) and also the awareness that younger children will need to be supported undertaking homework.

One student conscientiously signed a young person’s reader at the end of each session as they were in the habit of doing for their own daughter, which she knew that schools expected. However, the staff in this particular unit did not seem to be aware of this and so she took this matter further in team meetings to raise discussion as to the importance of this being completed.

When students are placed, they encounter whatever is happening in that setting, as do the young people and staff. They have the advantage, hopefully, of regular supervision to explore what is happening beneath the surface. Why have staff abandoned asking the young people where they are going and are merely noting the clothes that are being worn to be able to provide details when they report the young people as missing? The reluctant student (usual response “I don’t know”) is asked to think further and also to provide the evidence that they are meeting the learning outcomes.

The practice teacher’s observations are invaluable, both for a failing student who seems incapable of sustaining social interaction and for the able student for whom the young people have praise, respond positively and, when the student is observed leading a formal meeting, all seem pleased with the day’s menus as they want the student to do well. Once the practice teacher departs, the more lively debate may start!  If the practice teacher is to form a proper assessment of the student the feedback from the Link Worker, staff and young people is vital.

The endings are important and discussed from the outset of placement. Young people know that the student is there for five months, with appropriate reminders and planned, focussed work, negotiated with young people and staff. No empty promises as to future contact, but a sense of shared journeys through different placements. Students struggle with learning at the expense of others, but they need to be sensitive and not exploitative.

We may have been the first baby a midwife delivers; ours may be the first funeral service a nervous minister undertakes. Whatever lies between the certainties of birth and death is dictated by many factors at the structural, the cultural and the personal level. If we are involved with social work students, we need to ensure that they are equipped to be part of the ‘changing lives’ agenda for the twenty-first century, transformed in some way by the lives with whom they connect and the support that they receive to make sense of their professional development.

Penny Forshaw & Theresa Cowe
Practice Learning Team
Glasgow School of Social Work

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