By Joanna Holmes, Consultant Social Worker for the West Midlands Social Work Teaching Partnership & Diane Green, Consultant Social Work Practice Educator from MPFT
As a Senior Practitioner in a busy safeguarding team, prior to joining the West Midlands Social Work Teaching Partnership I fully understood the impact of COVID-19 on practice and the families I worked with, but it was not until I joined the partnership in August of last year that I fully considered the impact the pandemic had on social work education and particularly the experience of students on placements, beyond that of students within my team.
Since joining the partnership as a Consultant Social Worker, I have had regular discussions with partners around the impact of the pandemic on student’s placement experience and learning.
In October 2020 The West Midlands Teaching Partnership approved funding to support partners to address the impact of the pandemic on the provision and quality of practice placements. One of the key aims of the teaching partnership is: to ensure students undertake high quality statutory placements which develops their knowledge, skills and experience to practise as Newly Qualified Social Workers and the funding available was to support the recovery and reset from the pandemic.
The Social Work Learning Academy within the Midlands Partnership NHS Foundation Trust applied for funding to develop student units to support student’s placements within the trust. Whilst a student unit profile existed within the north of the County the development of a student unit profile across the trust aimed to promote high quality statutory placements further developing student knowledge, skills and experience to practise as Newly Qualified Social Workers (NQSW). The student units aimed to develop a whole team around the student approach to practice, placements and learning. The units aimed to provide a supportive team around the student across the organisation, increasing the quality of student experience, enhancing student learning and enhancing the number of student placements available to HEI’s. The proposal was for students to receive dedicated weekly teaching delivered by a nominated organisational CSW within the student unit improving student’s experience, relating theory to practice, and facilitating a quarterly practice educators forum, to share good practice and improve the quality of reflective supervisions and reports and to also manage student induction programmes.
With the support of the funding from the partnership MPFT were supported to develop the student units across the trust and the project was such a success they have gone on to expand the student units further, with Lichfield and Tamworth teams now setting up their own student units and Staffordshire County Council Adult teams also coming on board. Given the ongoing discussions we regularly engage in with partners across the partnership around the ongoing impact of the pandemic on student’s learning and development, the success of the student units is important for us to learn from, and I met up with Diane Green, Consultant Social Work Practice Educator from MPFT to learn more about this exciting initiative and I asked a number of questions to Diane:
What made you want to develop the student units?
A pilot student unit in the Moorlands Team was so successful we wanted to expand this across the trust and to be able to increase the number of Practice Educators and Work base Supervisors we had to have students.
In what ways has the WMSWTP supported you with the development of the student units?
The partnership has provided financial support through the initial funding, this helped to fund one day a week a Consultant Social Worker time and admin support.
What are the benefits you have seen to having the student units?
Everyone within the team is supporting the student together, from the Practice Educator to work Base supervisor, to the line manager. Before the student units this was done in a much more ad hoc way with variations between teams and work-based supervisors and placements depended a lot more on people coming forward to have students.
Students benefit from having regular teaching which develop their learning in a variety of ways. They have regular teaching, including the students themselves having to develop a presentation on a topic and presenting it to the group. Training includes topics such as ‘professionalism’, mental health, self care and resilience and critical reflection and formal teaching linking theory into practice. Each month the students have two days group learning. Practice Educators often attend the presentations and the sessions can be used for direct observations of the students. The teaching the students receive through the student units, relieves pressure off the Practice Educators as the teaching that would often be done as part of the student’s supervision with the Practice Educators is done through the student unit. As such, the group learning sessions are an effective and efficient model for practice educators, students and the organisation.
Just prior to interviewing Diane, I experienced first-hand the positive impact of the teaching for the students . A few weeks prior to meeting with Diane, I had discussions with a number of partners centred around particular learning needs employers were seeing with students, including appropriate professional behaviour. Following that meeting Diane advised that she had had a teaching session with students around that very subject.
The trust was also initially able to increase the number of apprenticeships we had from 17 to 26 in the first year of the student units, and we have then been able to maintain this number of apprenticeships, which given the difficulties post pandemic in terms of placements is a real achievement. Students have also been able to integrate with social workers and professionals from other teams, for example we have had two social workers from a forensic service, which has broadened the idea of the role of social workers to the students.
Diane also highlighted how the teaching helps prepare the students for their next step on their social worker journey- being qualified social workers- as they have sessions supporting them to prepare for interviews for social work posts and ASYE’s attend teaching sessions to share their experiences with the students.
The students highlight the positives of the units also. Students will highlight the support they get from the other students from other HEIs and have set up their own support groups, including ‘Whatsapp’ groups and a ‘Positive Friday’ where they highlight something positive from their week in placement.
Myself and Diane reflected on the fact that the students had developed their own ‘community of practice’ which they can then take into practice as qualified social workers.
The units have also brought regular forums for Work Base Supervisors and Practice Educators, providing support to those who want to supervise students and support with currency renewal.
What were the challenges you faced in setting up the student units?
Expanding the units was made harder because of the pandemic but we have now expanded to the Lichfield and Tamworth Teams and South West hospital discharge team. The units haven’t developed as quickly has we would have liked in the North of the region, however, and retaining Practice Educators has been made harder by the pandemic.
What made you want to expand the student units?
We wanted to find ways to benefit everyone across the trust and to develop further student placements. The pilot was so successful we wanted to use it as a ‘stepping stone.’
Throughout my discussions with Diane, the benefits of the student units were clear and how the initiative has enhanced student placements for MPFT and the organisation as a whole was striking. MPFT have recruited 75% of last years students to their teams. It is through support from the WMSWTP that the trust was able to develop further the student unit that was so successful in the pilot and to hear how it has continued to grow was really exciting and the partnership will continue to learn from the work happening at MPFT. I want to thank Diane for giving up her time to share her experience with me.