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100 days on my sofa: student experiences of ‘field’ placements

By Wayne Buckton, Lecturer in Social work and Programme Director and Dr Lisa Revell, Lecturer in Social Work and Faculty Lead for Student Experience.

In March 2020, as the first full Covid-19 National lockdown loomed into view, Social Work England, the professional regulator, and Universities and placement agencies the length of the UK and beyond, scrambled to respond with the task of maintaining a safe, workable and meaningful learning experience for students on placement. Placements locally did indeed continue, with pauses, delays and varying levels of restrictions coming in and out of play as Government modified and adapted national guidelines. 100 days on my sofa charts the experience of the ‘Covid’ generation of Social workers in training, offering a reflection on how we supported learners to reframe their placement encounters.

Our BA Social Work last placement requirement consists of 100 days agency-based practice learning. It runs concurrently with one final taught module, and forms the final hurdle of the programme ahead of qualification, regulatory registration and transition into professional social work practice. For our 2020 and ’21 cohorts, theirs was a very different experience from those students that came before them. The professional regulator, Social Work England sanctioned temporary amendments to accreditation, to enable a degree of flexibility vis-à-vis placement days and assessment load, with a primary focus on achieving the required capabilities.

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Front line workers found themselves conducting the bulk of their day to day practice from the confines of their own home - and for students this was no different. Whilst they had formally been placed within an agency and team, in close proximity to practitioners, the pandemic resulted in the opportunities for in-person shadowing, role modelling and joint working being significantly curtailed.

Early research exploring the impact of the pandemic on student placements, highlighted concern in relation to student’s ability to manage remote learning, and the quality of experience provided (Zuchowski et al. 2021a). Moreover, a study undertaken by Zuchowski et al. (2021b) identified that a lack of structure, a sense of isolation and a lack of meaningful relationship formation can derail remote placements, impacting on the student’s learning and development. Indeed, our students relayed that the material distance indicative of significant home working, translated across three dimensions of social, physical and emotional isolation.

Shadowing and modeled practice with trusted professional role models affords students the opportunities and strategies to promote social work identity, competence and create internal contextual frameworks in their specific area of practice (Smith et al, 2014; Collins, 2015). However, students outlined that a lack of proximity to often vital, tacit, social cues, meant ‘Working From Home’ was constructed as an extremely low feedback environment. Infrequency of, or ad-hock contact with, professional colleagues was felt by some students as a proliferation of uncertainty. These feelings were characterized by:

  • No sense of how the student’s contributions were experienced by others in the team
  • No sense of how their abilities, development and progression could be monitored, evidenced or assessed

Lefevre (2005: 575) indicates a culture of learning allows for “mistakes, invokes trust and encourages independence and creativity” and brings forth the “core conditions necessary for learning i.e. an affective environment which includes support, availability, openness and encouragement”. However, students reported feeling unsafe with such volumes of distance working. Concerns that occupied their minds included exposure to the consequences of making mistakes and doing things wrong, whilst paradoxically feeling that no one from the assessing agency was watching.

Some of our student’s narratives were beset with anxiety and self-doubt, driven by the perception that social work is a high-stakes undertaking. Remote from a traditional social work office environment, the absence of informal feedback and conversational enquiry, compelled some students to reach out, repeatedly to their Practice Educators, colleagues or managers via email, WhatsApp, MS Teams etc. However, the lack of physical immediacy for students engendered perceptions that these attempts at communication would languish, unresolved in the online ether. Such experiences were also noted by Archer-Kuhn et al. (2020) in their exploration of the experiences of Canadian social work students during the pandemic, who identified that without ‘timely communication’ to students who reach out for support and advice, escalating levels of anxiety ensue.

“Placement is fine, I think” - Student Narratives

A sizeable chunk of student narratives threw up a range of similar themes:

  • Practice Educator is reluctant to have student, yet the demands of the workforce mean that student placements are necessary
  • Teams short staffed, students could be left to their own devices akin to a regular member of staff, without supernumerary status.
  • Infrequent or unplanned supervision time or limited ‘hands on’ support to undertake complex work
  • Limited informal supervision or opportunities to reflect or seek assurance from other members of the team, including limited contact with administrative support
  • Learning Agreement and portfolio tasks completed in isolation by students
  • Reduced opportunities for shadowing, but carrying an allocated case load
  • Missing out on process learning with the absence of staff around
  • Repeated skype messaging and phone calls made to the host agency, more often no response.

The student narratives can be usefully considered with regard to the idea of ‘failed struggle’ (Tew, 2011). From the student’s emotional perspective, their repeated failed attempts to establish and develop supportive contact served to intensify and amplify the experience of student isolation and create a deprivation of expectation. There was a possibility some of this was being internalised, as a self-limiting, singular short fall on the part of the individual students, being incorporated into their formative professional self-identity.

Reframing: The role of the Link Lecturer

Recognising the significantly increased pressure placement agencies were experiencing (understandably so) and the need for academic staff to compensate and reassure, a real-time response from the University of Hull social work placement team was employed. Primarily, phone-based dialogic, therapeutic input from Link Lecturers (a placement focused sub-team of UoH social work Academics). This chimes with research undertaken by Zuchowski et al. (2021b), which highlighted a shift in help seeking behaviour, placing more reliance on university-based academics to offer support and reassurance that they were doing okay.

We know social inclusion involves a self-perception of agency and a subjective sense of belonging. Inter-personal relationships in specific contexts are vital; they shape identity, and contribute to, or hinder emotional well-being (Tew et al, 2012). Acting as a mediating listener then, Link Lecturers’ provided validation of the student narratives which detailed their personal emotional responses. Staff worked to foster reflection on wider context – a once in a century Pandemic event; linking to the international character of social work, colleagues in other national jurisdictions work under conditions of armed conflict, trade sanctions etc, and helped students to identify what is in and out of their control. This also served to develop understanding of the new realities of practice in the wake of shifts brought about during the era of repeating local and national lockdowns. Practice post-lockdown, is still imbued with the need to work safely around the transmissibility of Covid-19 and practices adopted to cope with social restrictions have in various forms become embedded.

Where formal ‘safety net’ measures were required with placement providers, Link Lecturers gave support with re-framing student concerns and frustrations, focused on maintaining positive relationships in a context where social work teams were - and still are - hugely stretched, dealing with the multi-faceted impact of Covid-19 risks and restrictions. This served to recast the student feelings and concerns by re-orienting students to the skills they have developed over their year of assessed readiness for practice and first placement. However, this was not to minimise difficulties or encourage students to cope with practices, relationships or environments that were damaging. One example was a student who experienced a number of issues on placement. One such difficulty involved being invited into a Team WhatsApp group by her Practice Educator, as a strategy to promote social inclusion of our student; only for the student to find herself inexplicably blocked from joining by another social worker in the team. Here the Link Lecturer supported the student to exit the placement and transition into another, in order to successfully progress to qualification.

It must be noted, as a Team and an institution we extend significant gratitude to our placement partners for maintaining placements under public health crisis conditions, whilst many other institutions suspended their entire placement operations. The valued worth they undertake with our students cannot be understated. As a programme team, we too have learnt valuable lessons; we are conscious of the need to offer more guidance to both students and placement agencies on the pitfalls and benefits of remote placement experiences. Remote working offers opportunities for creativity (Archer-Kuhn et al, 2020) and inclusivity, yet as with all key tasks in social work, relationships and interaction is key.

Archer-Kuhn, B., Ayala, J., Hewson, J. and Letkemann, L. (2020) ‘Canadian reflections on the Covid-19 pandemic in social work education: From tsunami to innovation’, Social Work Education, 39(8), pp. 1010–18. 10.1080/02615479.2020.1826922.

Collins, S. (2015) ‘Alternative Psychological Approaches for Social Workers and Student Social Workers Dealing with Stress in the UK: Sense of Coherence, Challenge Appraisals, Self-Efficacy and Sense of Control’, British Journal of Social Work, 45, 69-85.

Lefevre, M. (2005) ‘Facilitating Practice Learning and Assessment: The Influence of Relationship’, Social Work Education – The International Journal, 26(2), 151-162.

Smith, D. Cleak, H. and Vreugdenhil, A. (2014) “What Are They Really Doing?” An Exploration of Student Learning Activities in Field Placement’, Australian Social Work, 68, 515-531.

Tew, J. (2011). Social Approaches to Mental Distress, Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Tew, J. Ramon, S. Slade, M. Bird, V. Melton, J. and Le Boutillier, C. (2012). ‘Social Factors and Recovery from Mental Health Difficulties: A Review of the Evidence’, British Journal of Social Work, 42, 443-460.

Zuchowski, I., Heyeres, M. and Tsey, K. (2020a) ‘Students in research placements as part of professional degrees: A systematic review’, Australian Social Work, 73(1), pp. 48–63.

Zuchowski, I. Cleak, H., Croaker, S. and Bentley Davey, J. (2021b) It’s up to you: The need for self-directed learning for social work students on placement during Covid-19, British Journal of Social Work, 00, pp.1-19 accessed online  

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