Student placements help grow the social workers of tomorrow

Hand holding a glass of whisky and balancing a lit cigarette between fingers
Social work student placements with support organisations, such as those dealing with drug and alcohol dependency, can be immensely valuable.

Recently, I met up with Ellie Reed, Principal Social Worker and National Social Work Lead for Change Grow Live, a voluntary sector organisation specialising in substance misuse and criminal justice intervention projects in England, Scotland and Wales.

I wanted to learn more about the way social workers in her organisations are supporting people with drug and alcohol issues. My visit was an ideal opportunity to discover how social work interventions are helping individuals and families lead happier, healthier, more independent lives.

I am so pleased to see Ellie’s organisation positioning social work as a professional service within the broader health and social care system and promoting holistic approaches to meet people’s needs and wants.

The placements offered by Change Grow Live provide fantastic opportunities for students to develop their knowledge and skills around the impact of drug and alcohol misuse on individuals and families.

Not only that, they can see first-hand how social work interventions support people through recovery and help them achieve the positive lifestyles they desire.

Two men in cheerful conversation at a drug and alcohol issues support group
A Change Grow Live colleague (right) in conversation with a man attending support services.

Ellie: What is the secret to providing effective student social work placements? That’s a question we have been asking ourselves at Change Grow Live. We are in the business of behaviour change, which means we’re all learning, all the time.

In social work, I’m eager to learn about what works when supporting our future social workers, and how to provide a supportive student placement where learning is maximised. I know I’m not alone in wanting to understand the ingredients of a good placement experience.

Learning is not a solitary exercise

We learn from the people we help, our colleagues and our partners. Reflective practice is at the core of social work and enables us to take our learning to a deeper level. In the full and pressured days of first-line operational social work, it can sometimes be difficult to find the time to stop, reflect, and capture this valuable learning.

Working with people who experience a range of mental and physical health issues linked to problematic drug and alcohol use is a complex, yet hugely rewarding role, one where the skills and knowledge of social workers contribute to enhancing the services we provide.

A Change Grow Live colleague in conversation with two service users in a meeting room
Just like modern social work practice, non-judgmental, open and empathic discussion is a cornerstone of the Change Grow Live approach.

Through our experience of running sometimes challenging but always rewarding social work placements, we’ve identified the key ingredients that create a successful social worker placement.

Here are some of the things we’ve learned:

Power dynamics and professionalism

We need to be aware of power dynamics from the outset of a placement and support our students to identify and develop their professional confidence if needed.

Some students need support with professional skills and the tone of their communication, even when this as simple as guidance on answering emails or appropriately addressing service users and colleagues.

Tools to help us understand development needs

By completing a quality standards assessment at the beginning of a placement and an evaluation at the end, we have information that can help the way we support future placements. Something as simple as a timeline for students and staff to work from at the beginning can have a huge benefit. Placing students in an office with staff is vital for their learning; we’ve found that boundary setting, reflective discussions and planning can all be facilitated by the observation of other staff.

Overhead illustration of people working together on a shared office desk.
Placing students in an office environment is a vital aspect of their learning experience.

The four cornerstones of a successful placement

From these findings, we’ve identified four crucial elements that create supportive, challenging and rewarding placements:

  1. Get the start right – develop a service specific induction. Make sure the practice educator is in place and set expectations early and explicitly. Use the practice learning agreement as a tool to understand development requirements and establish timelines.

  2. Get professional – discuss professional boundaries and expectations, the use of key policies and procedures, privacy, non-disclosure and confidentiality. Discuss values based social work and decision making. Give support, honest feedback and provide learning opportunities.

  3. Get technical – data and systems can be daunting. Make sure you are providing all the support needed to start using the relevant systems. Remember, a student needs the confidence to tell you if they do not understand.

  4. Get realistic – carry out an interview process and only offer a placement opportunity to a student if you think they are suitable for the role and project. Once your student starts their placement, keep the lines of communication open and honest with universities, practice educators and managers.

Photograph of two smiling Change Grow Live colleagues
Ellie is keen for those seeking to place students with organisations like Change Grow Live to get in touch and find out more

By sharing our experiences and learning I hope we might be able to increase the depth of learning and confidence for future social workers. Perhaps we have sparked an idea in you about ways you might enhance placements within your organisation or teams.

We are always keen to provide social work placements and collaborate with partners, so please get in touch if you’d like more information on what we do.

About Ellie

Ellie Reed is the Principal Social Worker and National Social Work Lead for Change Grow Live. Her career experience in both first line and managerial roles has been in substance misuse, homelessness, rough sleeping and criminal justice, specialising in complex and multiple needs.

She is dedicated to social justice and values based practice and behaviour. Ellie is passionate about developing the professional identity of social work in the voluntary sector to give them a platform from which to promote the issues of marginalised groups.

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