When academic training leaves you unprepared

“Help, I don’t know what I’m doing” is a common cry from social work students about to go on placement or newly qualified workers about to start work. But why? You’ve just finished a substantial period of training. It should all be fresh in your head, you should be sorted, ready to burst onto the practical social care scene, raring to go, ready to make a difference. Well that is, if you have received practical training in how to communicate and engage with different client groups. Problem is, while you might be an encyclopaedia in the law and in process, what increasing social work students and graduates are saying, is that there is too much emphasis on this, and little on the actual practical ‘stuff’ of social work.

But is this a fair assessment? Nicholas Rutledge argues that while he felt exactly the same when he graduated, that now, many years on, he has come to realise that “the social work universe is simply too vast”. As a result, social work courses follow an advanced generalist model, providing students with “what they need to be effective in a variety of social work roles”. So you are provided with the “foundational knowledge, common language and critical thinking skills that facilitate the clinical decision-making and case conceptualisation that is at the heart of effective evidence-based practice”. So you learn the theory in university and you get your practical training on the job as you learn to do the specific duties and functions of a specific area of social work.

However, while this does make sense to a degree (pardon the pun), there is an implicit assumption that when the student or graduate enters the placement/workplace that they will be given appropriate training, not just in how to fulfil the functions of a role, but how to relate to and communicate with their specific client group. In my experience, and if the posts on social work forums are anything to go by, this often simply does not happen. ‘Muddling through’ is the norm.

While this might be fine while you establish yourself as a customer services assistant in a supermarket, this can be extremely damaging when working with the most vulnerable. Communication skills with clients form the basis of any good social work, and if we are not continually training professionals, pre-and post- qualification in how to excel at this, then we are doing ourselves and the most vulnerable in society a disservice.

With the current squeeze on resources resulting from the global economic crisis, training budgets within the workplace are shrinking and qualified social workers who could provide some guidance are increasingly overworked and unable to provide the support that is needed for social work newbies. So what can be done? Well short of governments dishing out more money to the social care sector and managers directing some of it into training, which let’s face it is not going to happen anytime soon, social work students and newly qualified graduates are going to have to take their practical training into their own hands.

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My heart really goes out to those in this situation because I have been in a similar situation in the past, left flailing around, making it up as I went along. And the thing I really did learn is that nobody is going to do it for you. Social work students and new graduates are going to have to educate themselves about how to do the practical, interactive, communicative elements of social work. (Long-standing social care workers should also be refreshing themselves as part of their ongoing professional development). Unfortunately there is not a substantial quantity or quality of material out there that directly addresses this need.

This is a large part of my motivation in creating this website. I hope that if you are interested in working with young people then you might find my website of some use. I really hope it is. I am continually updating my resources pages and my posts are all about engaging young people- the ‘practical stuff’. (If you know of other good practical resources for other areas of social work please let me know through ‘Comments’ below and help spread the word).

There is some hope that universities will begin to redress the balance in their programmes and will address communication skills for specific client groups within their modules/units . The Who Cares Trust recently had two of their amazing young people delivering training at London South Bank University about how to listen to and engage with young people as a social worker. We all need to be yelling ‘Encore’. This is exactly what is needed.

However for such initiatives to really get traction they require students to make a nuisance of themselves in their university departments and ask for more help in this area- asking for outside speakers with expertise in this area, asking to be pointed in the right direction for further help if they cannot provide it. If you don’t ask you don’t get. Either way, anyone working in social care, new or not, is going to have to be self-motivated to learn and to strive for what they need to succeed. Then they will be able to walk out of their universities or their offices, confident and ready to face the rewarding reality of social work.

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