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Supporting social work students with additional needs during their placement

Dr Barry Fearnley outlines his model for supporting social work students with both sudden and long-term needs whilst they are on placement.


Supporting social work students with additional needs during their placement

The number of students, with a specific learning difficulty (SpLD) undertaking degree courses in the United Kingdom (UK) increased by 56% between 2010-11 and 2015-16. Additionally, between 2010-11 and 2015-16 there was a 220% increase in the number of students attending university with a known mental health condition (Higher Education Funding Council for England).

Furthermore, increasing numbers of students entering higher education are experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders, and social and emotional problems, alongside a rise in the number of student suicides (Stones and Glazzard, 2019). Some of these students might be undertaking a social work degree course.

During their placements, social work students are assessed against the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) (BASW). For those already anxious about placement, being assessed may add further stress. These feelings are often accentuated when students have additional needs. Although some of these students may be eligible for Disability Student Allowance (DSA), which is for the purchase of additional equipment to support their studies, this may not include financial support during placements (Fearnley et al. 2018).

What do we mean by ‘additional needs’ in relation to placements? In my experience, students may have additional needs during their placements in different contexts (Fig. 1). For some students, their needs may be present throughout their placement, while for others, they may only be temporary. Thus, as practice educators we need to ask ourselves “how do we identify and support students with additional needs when they undertake their placement?”. Fig. 1 presents a model that explores a student’s potential additional needs through a continuum.

A student may suddenly develop additional needs due to an unexpected life event. This may be the result of a relationship breakdown, a bereavement, or an accident. When this occurs the student’s trajectory may be catapulted towards the left-hand side of the continuum.

Any additional support is likely only to be temporary but will remain essential for the well-being of that student. A meeting between the student, practice educator, and tutor should be arranged to put in place an action plan identifying specific support. A student-tutor meeting might take place prior to this consultation. Good practice would suggest that review meetings are arranged regularly to maintain support and to keep all individuals updated of the situation and circumstances.

Students with a disability can request, through Student Support Services, an Access Statement, which would identify any additional needs or adjustments that may be required. Wherever possible, this should be completed prior to the placement starting.

This statement may include adjustments needed for placement; however, this is a complex area (Fearnley et al. 2018). Any needs or adjustments should be identified by the student and put on their placement application form. These should also be discussed during the Learning Agreement Meeting. However, not all adjustments may be made by the placement provider, although the university in question should seek to ensure that all reasonable adjustments are in place wherever possible.

The Equality Act 2010 is the legislative framework in relation to individuals or employees with a disability. However, as students are not employees, this is a complex area (Fearnley et al. 2018). Although reasonable adjustments should be made, and universities have a legal obligation with regards to placing students within suitable placements, divergences exist. Furthermore, what is reasonable in the academic environment may not be adaptable to the workplace, particularly where there are professional requirements and competency standards to be met.

However, students with a disability should not be disadvantaged when on placement compared to a non-disabled student. This does not mean students will receive ‘special treatment’ or that their responsibilities are exonerated, but rather that they have a level playing field in which to demonstrate that they have the capability to meet the placement requirements.

There are many students who do not have an Access Statement, but may still need some support. These students are managing, but struggling, and this might not be because of their capability.

From experience, I suggest that during placement preparation teaching sessions, students explore what they think they can do for themselves, and consider what they think their practice educator can do to help them.

Practice educators should refer to the placement handbook and ascertain whether the university has a student disability guidance handbook.

During practice educator courses and their Continuing Professional Development (CPD) workshops, they could explore what support they could provide for a student with additional needs. The agency placement co-ordinator and the student’s tutor should be included in any discussions and subsequent action planning, along with drawing on their support.

Further considerations could include:
• Encouraging students to develop strategies to support themselves
• Engaging students in task centred approaches
• Identifying what the student knows about time management and sharing what works for you
• Exploring what the student knows about planning and preparation
• Identifying and approaching experienced social workers with additional needs to talk to students about what they did to support themselves on placement and help their transition from student to social worker.

Wherever possible, the Learning Agreement meeting should take place prior to the placement commencing. Practice educators could also create a list of prompt questions for students. This could alleviate some of the anxieties students with additional needs sometimes experience and helps develop their communication and assessment skills during the placement. The student, building on their initial experience, would then develop these questions to create their own.

The model I have proposed is inclusive for all students. As noted, it is not about special treatment, but rather creating a level playing field and assessing the student against the PCF, not their disability or how they manage a life event during placement.

Dr Barry Fearnley is Senior Lecturer at the University of Nottingham Trent.

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