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COVID and remote working severely disrupted social work education

The working from home trend and switch to remote working which came in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted on social work education with placement disruption, a move to online learning and leading to concerns about students’ ability to meet the professional standards.

Social Work England commissioned The University of Greenwich to undertake a study into education and training in England in 2020 to 2021. The disruption to social work education has resulted in the research urging the regulator to work with course and placement providers collaboratively to develop mandatory CPD modules that will support the growth and development of all whose education has been impacted by COVID-19 and circumstances deemed meeting professional standards questionable.

Alternatively, placement providers and employers should adjust ASYE programmes to include additional training for those graduates impacted by the pandemic, where necessary.

“Personal circumstances interfered with social work practice and the participants’ ability to perform well in their practice (i.e. education and training), irrespective of participant characteristics or to which stakeholder group they belonged. Similarly, many participants – predominantly the graduates/NQSW/ASYE and practice educators – talked about a lack of access to the resources necessary for them to sufficiently carry out their roles. Both of these experiences led to discussions regarding the quality of education and training during the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated measures, as well as the preparedness of future practitioners which may need strengthening in ASYE programmes. The participants raised concerns regarding whether those who graduated at the end of the 2019–2020 academic session will meet professional standards and be able to perform accordingly in practice,” said the research.

The research captured the views of student and graduate/newly qualified social workers/assessed and supported year in employment experiences as well as course providers’ and placement providers’ experiences.

Building a rapport was challenging

All groups shared mixed experiences of education during the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting both the challenges and opportunities presented by the situation. While there was an appreciation of increased flexibility that enabled more balance between professional and personal life, there was a recognition of the difficulty in connecting with students on their courses and in practice placements.

The research found:

  • 55% of students found communicating and building rapport with education and training staff to be highly challenging, but many enjoyed the additional flexibility in their programmes that enabled unique individual circumstances to be accommodated for.

  • 59% of academics felt that adjustments to courses have been beneficial and adhere to Social Work England’s new education and training standards.

  • However, practice educators were more likely to feel that course adjustments did not adhere to the new education and training standards.

Student engagement

Academics shared the challenges of online learning and raised concerns over the lack of student engagement in learning activities, which exacerbated feelings of unease about whether students meet standards, both academically and in practice.

Academics highlighted the challenges of teaching via online platforms, including teaching a large cohort and the limited options for interaction and engagement, student disengagement from online learning activities, poor connectivity making it difficult for academics to support and engage with students, and issues around confidentiality and the recording of sessions.

However students felt that staff faced difficulties adjusting to new technologies and methods for the purposes of teaching. Academics emphasised their concerns about student access to learning and teaching materials, and alongside the lack of equipment and knowledge about how to use them, this was leading to unavoidable delays in student progress.

Placements were significantly disrupted by COVID-19.

  • 60% of students reported that their placements had been disrupted, paused or delayed due to the restrictions.
  • 80% of practice educators agreed that assessments during this period were highly disrupted
  • 72% of practice educators experienced challenges in supporting students on placement.

Distress

The delays were primarily because placement providers required time to adjust to the new circumstances and develop practices which met new COVID-19 regulations, or because practice educators were pulled into frontline casework.

Where placements did go ahead, practice educators felt that the lack of face-to-face contact when working online was an issue, with 53% finding it difficult to connect and build rapport with students. They also highlighted concerns about the preparedness of students to move into registration and practice.

Students reported feeling distressed by the ambiguity and uncertainty around placements, but the researchers found that this was also related to other uncertainties relating to their courses for example, completion of coursework, changing assessment schedules and workload.

Academic staff shared tensions with students, particularly in responding to student demands to go on placement, which was said to be exacerbated by student misinterpretation of the guidance provided on the Social Work England website.

In terms of guidance in relation to COVID-19, 40% of practice educators felt that it was not always timely and that communication between course providers and practice educators remained poor, leading to a gap with placement providers who expected courses to tell them what actions to take in relation to placements.

There was a mixed view on the impact of remote/online working on a student’s ability to meet the professional standards. But concerns were more likely to be expressed by participants with five years or more of experience in social work education and training.

Work/Life balance

Challenges associated with remote working were shared by all groups and focused on preparedness of organisations and institutions to quickly adapt to the challenging circumstances of COVID-19 and managing work/life balance. 

Practice educators and graduates/newly qualified social workers/those in assessed and supported year in employment felt strongly about the overall appropriateness of online working for social work services and education and its compatibility with social work values.

Remote working resulted in an increased workload for participants and the haste in which they were delivered, which led to extended working hours and affected work/life balance.

  • 79.5% of the students reported difficulties in maintaining a balance
  • 69.8% claimed that personal circumstances and difficulties interfered with their course progress.
  • 51.8% of newly qualified social workers reported that their personal circumstances interfered with their abilities to continue practising effectively.

Newly qualified social workers and those completing an assessed and supported year in employment programme struggled when trying to connect with people with lived experience of social work. They also cited difficulties with placement-related tasks when those they worked with lacked access to the right equipment or technology and knowledge of how to use it.

COVID impacted on social work course admissions and participants cited challenges associated with the admissions processes and the barriers presented in selecting students for 2020 to 2021. This included adjusting to an online admissions process which left institutions and tutors feeling unprepared and unconfident in the assessment of candidates, and difficulty including and engaging people with lived experience and practitioners in the assessment of candidates.

Yet a positive that emerged from the research was that participants highlighted new skills they had acquired and learning from the pandemic, particularly around life, advanced resilience, problem solving skills, approaches to supervision, and IT literacy. Time savings from travel were also highlighted as a benefit, which enabled more time to complete tasks.

Remote working has also enabled most participants to put emphasis on their families and other personal circumstances and to foster wellbeing. While the challenges of remote working have enabled participants to develop their problem solving skills and resilience, others also expressed a heightened appreciation of supervision in the context of remote working.

Student register

As well as ensuring that CPD or ASYE training ensures that knowledge gaps are covered, the research recommends that Social Work England should consider the establishment of a social work student register. The cost of such register would need to be carefully considered – either free of charge or of a small fee – to accommodate the needs of students who are already under financial pressures with university fees and often unable to work while studying given the full-time nature of practice placement in social work education and training.

“This register will have an important and central role in the education and training of students as it could contribute to their growth and the development of a professional identity, adherence to professional standards, and better comprehension of fitness to practise procedures,” said the research.

Course and placement providers should develop further strategies to prepare students and future practitioners to respond to adversities, however small or big. Developing emotional resilience is a necessity in social work, and this includes learning how to set boundaries such as between personal and professional life, engaging with reflective and reflexive exercises, committing to self-care, and fostering positive and continuous contact with others. This study shows that all these areas have been impacted and participants could had benefited with further training, the research concludes.

Social work education and training in England in 2020 to 2021

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