Insight 23: Motivations for Undertaking the New Social Work Degree

DescriptionIn January 2005, the Social Work Services Policy Division of the Scottish Executive commissioned BMRB to undertake research to understand why social work students are undertaking the new social work degree and the postgraduate degree. This Insight document contains the key findings from this research project. BMRB conducted a survey of first year undergraduate and postgraduate social work students. Students took part from Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow, Glasgow Caledonian, Stirling and Robert G
ISBN1478-6788
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateOctober 24, 2005

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    BMRB Social Research, Ian Binnie and Jenny Stewart
    ISSN 1478 6788 (Print)
    ISSN 1478 6796 (Online)

    This document is also available in pdf format (260k)

    Welcome to Insight

    Insight is a publication of the research group within Information and Analytical Services Division, which is responsible for providing analytical services within the Scottish Executive Education Department ( SEED). Their work is part of a multidisciplinary unit (consisting of researchers, economists and statistics staff) and the staff undertakes and funds economic analysis and social research in the fields of: school education; children, young people and social work: architecture; and tourism, culture and sport.

    The Scottish Executive is committed to the use of sound evidence in the development of policy and practice as well as in the evaluation of policy and its implementation. We therefore want to disseminate the results of research that SEED has undertaken and funded, in a manner that is accessible, interesting and attractive.

    Insight aims to present the essence of research projects in a format that will be useful and informative for practitioners, policy makers, parents, academics, and anyone else who has an interest in economic and social research in these areas.

    The views expressed in this Insight are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Scottish Executive or any other organisation(s) by whom the author(s) is or are employed.

    Introduction

    The care sector carries high public expectations in terms of the quantity and quality of service provision; however, it also suffers from a poor image as an area of employment. It is thought that these perceptions have led to recruitment and retention problems in the sector generally and in social work specifically. In order to address this, the Scottish Executive launched a series of measures through its Action Plan for the Social Services Workforce. These included:

    • a recruitment and awareness 'Care in Scotland' campaign;
    • the National Workforce Group to promote professional excellence in the sector;
    • the Fast Track Scheme into Social Work for existing graduates;
    • the Incentive Scheme (where up to £9k per newly qualified social worker may be paid as expenses towards costs incurred during training);
    • a registration scheme to drive standards higher; and
    • a Ministerial Review of Social Work.

    In addition to these measures, the Minister announced a new framework for social work education in January 2003, which included a new, 4-year honours- degree level qualification. This will gradually replace the Diploma in Social Work as the main qualification criteria for registrants of social work recognised by the Scottish Social Services Council ( SSSC). Another qualification accredited by SSSC is the two-year full-time Masters Degree in Social Work.

    In January 2005, the Social Work Services Policy Division of the Scottish Executive commissioned BMRB to undertake research to understand why social work students are undertaking the new social work degree and the postgraduate degree.

    Research aims

    Overall this research aimed to provide the Scottish Executive with information regarding students' motivations towards choosing social work generally, and their course. More specifically the research objectives were:

    • To explore the reasons why the students are choosing to do social work.
    • To assess whether there are differences in motivations among different student subgroups.
    • To assess the impact that the Care in Scotland campaign had (specifically the 'World Tour' element aimed at young school-leavers last Autumn) on persuading them to take up a Social Work Degree.
    • To assess the impact of the possible availability of the Executive's incentive scheme on persuading them to take up a Social Work Degree.
    • To assess whether any other of the Executive's activities to improve the recruitment & retention of staff in the sector had any influence on their decision to embark on a Social Work Degree.
    • To assess perceptions about and aspirations for the role of the social worker and the role of social work in modern society.
    Research Methodology

    BMRB conducted a survey of first year undergraduate and postgraduate social work students. Students took part from Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow, Glasgow Caledonian, Stirling and Robert Gordon universities. We received 178 questionnaires from undergraduates and 88 from postgraduates, representing a response rate of 72%.

    At the same time 15 focus groups were held, each comprising up to 8 social work students. Three focus groups - two focus groups with undergraduate social work students and one focus group with postgraduate social work students - were held at each of the above universities' campuses, with the exception of Stirling University.

    Key findings

    Student profile

    Social work is a subject mainly taken by women. 79% of students in our survey were female. Compared with most subjects, students undertaking a degree in social work tend to be more mature. More than half of the students in our survey (52%) were over 30 years old. Compared with the postgraduate degree, the undergraduate degree consists of students from a wider range of ages, young and old. This age profile was reflected in the sample of respondents taking part in the focus groups. Few had recently left school. Mature students described how the motivation to care for others which underlay their decision to study social work had developed over many years prior to their application to the course.

    Motivations for choosing social work degree

    One aim of the research was to explore the reasons why students selected their particular course of study. The research found that both undergraduate and postgraduate students chose the social work degree course largely because it was the entry route into the social work profession. When asked a series of factors about why students chose the degree in the survey questionnaire, three-quarters (74%) of students chose 'using the degree as an entry route into social work' as one of their three most important factors, with 43% choosing this as the most important factor. This level is much higher than those of other factors.

    1. Why do people choose social work as a career?
    The most common reasons given were because it is a rewarding job and a job that helps those in need.

    In line with another research aim, the questionnaire went on to ask students why they chose social work as a career. Students appeared to be choosing social work primarily because it is a rewarding job or a job that helps those in need (82% said it was an important factor with 58% saying it was most important). Other less important motivators include: the variety of jobs available and the ability to switch jobs within social work, career development, the starting salary, the proportion of students gaining employment and the opportunity to gain employment in any geographical area.

    Only 1% of students mentioned the possibility of qualifying for the incentive scheme as a motivator, with no students saying this was the most important factor. For focus group respondents, the incentive scheme had little or no impact. The incentive scheme is discussed further below.

    Further details emerging from the focus groups discussions suggest that students may study for a social work degree so that they can: gain more authority, responsibility and a career structure; enter a profession that is more personally satisfying and meaningful; or, in the case of younger students only, simply meet social expectations that they study for a degree. However, the fundamental, underlying motivation for all focus groups respondents was to 'care for others'. This was a way of 'contributing to society' and 'doing what's right'.

    Path to social work degree

    Students taking part in the focus groups described three typical paths to studying social work. Some mature students had left school at the age of 16 and then worked for years in casual, relatively unskilled work including care work, shop work and administration - sometimes also raising a family - before deciding to study social work. Other mature students, who sometimes had obtained other degree qualifications already, had worked in other professions before deciding to change to social work. The few younger students taking part in the focus groups had often had a few months of experience of casual work or voluntary care roles in between leaving school and beginning the social work degree course.

    2. How did the students hear about the new Social work degree?
    Word of mouth appeared to be the most common source of information about the new degree, this suggests there is room for more promotion of social work in order to reach people who will not otherwise come into contact with social care.

    According to the survey, 19% of students heard about the degree through someone already in social work or care. An additional 16% of students heard about the degree through their place of work or voluntary work and normally this was a social care work environment. For example, focus group respondents gave accounts of hearing about social work and the degree course from care assistants and social workers visiting the care homes they worked in. Fifteen per cent said they became aware of their course through a teacher or lecturer. These respondents largely consisted of undergraduates. Over one in ten (11%) said they were aware of the degree through a family member and one in ten (10%) said they heard through a friend.

    Similarly, in the focus group discussions, respondents largely spoke of informal ways of finding out about social work. Although many had received careers advice at school, either recently or in the past, none had been encouraged by their advisors to study social work. In short, word of mouth seemed to be the most common source of awareness. This suggests there is room for more promotion of social work in order to reach people who will not otherwise come into contact with social care.

    The survey asked students if they had any other plans before starting their course. Thirty-seven per cent of students said they had plans to do something other than the social work degree. They were most likely to have planned to study another subject such as psychology or sociology. Many of those with other plans had considered teaching or working in social care. Similarly, in the focus groups, some respondents mentioned having considered studying nursing.

    According to the survey, most students were in a paid job before starting the degree (58%) and their most common profession was paid work in social care. Postgraduates and older students were more likely to have come from this background. Focus group discussions revealed that some respondents believed that by undertaking the social work degree, they would gain more authority and responsibility, which would allow them to carry out their work more effectively. They would also be able to enter a career structure characterised by a range of job opportunities and career progression.

    3. What impact does prior experience in social care have on social work students?
    The majority of students (89%) had experience working or volunteering in a social care environment, and 92% felt this had some influence on their decision to study social work.

    Students were asked in the survey if they had ever worked or volunteered in a social care environment. Nine in ten (89%) students had some relevant past work experience of this nature (whether it was full-time, part-time, sessional or voluntary). Clearly the experience of working in social care influenced the decision to undertake the degree. Among those who had some work experience, 92% said it had some influence on their decision to undertake the degree. Similarly, in the focus groups, respondents described voluntary care work as being a major influence on their decision to become social workers. Students undertaking voluntary work had often been surprised to find out just how much they liked caring, or that how good they were at it. Students who for years had been stay-at-home mums gained confidence in the re-application of existing care skills. Those disillusioned with current jobs or careers found a role that seemed more meaningful or valuable. Teenagers found 'something that they could do'.

    Views on the Course and Placements

    Four in ten (39%) students responding to the survey said their view of social work had changed since starting the degree, with younger respondents were more likely to say this. Students were most likely to say they had gained a better knowledge or deepened understanding of social work. Many comments focused on the demands and technicalities of the job role, such as a realisation there was more law and statutory requirements or paper work than first envisaged. Some had discovered that the social work profession was more under-resourced than they first thought, or there was more stigma attached to the role. Only a minority of students said that their view of social work had worsened.

    Students were asked about their experience of placements. Forty-seven per cent of those responding to the survey said they currently were, or had already been, on a placement. A quarter (26%) said they would experience a placement in the current academic year. A similar proportion (25%) said they were unlikely to experience one in the current academic year and they were all undergraduate students. The likelihood of experiencing a placement depended on which university the student was placed at. A few focus group respondents described this variation and differences in essay requirements, as evidence of variation in social work degree courses across Scotland which they had been told were identical.

    4. How useful are placements?
    Of those who had experienced work placements, 81% said that they were very or quite useful. However, some had been left unsupervised or unsupported and that they were unable to address the situation.

    Students who were, or had been, on a placement were asked how useful it was. Encouragingly, four-fifths (81%) said it was very or quite useful. All focus group respondents agreed that placements were important and could in theory be very valuable at introducing students to the practical face of social work. However those who had undertaken a placement within the first year of their course gave mixed views of their experiences. Some had been left unsupervised and unsupported for long periods of time, and felt that they had no way of redressing this situation. Additionally, students had no say in their allotted placement. Work placements were unpaid despite sometimes lasting many days, and could lead to students losing income as a result of having to reduce the hours spent working on part-time jobs.

    The survey found that those who had been on placements were more likely to say their views of social work had changed since starting the degree. They were more likely to agree that social work had well-structured training and career development. However, students who had been on placements were less likely to agree that the image of social work had improved in recent years and were less likely to agree that there was a clear political vision for the future of social work (see below for more analysis of these attitude statements).

    Social work as a career

    Analysis of the survey reveals that almost all (96%) students wanted to become a social worker after they graduate. Children and families was the most popular choice of specialism, as chosen by 57% of students who wanted to become social workers. Other popular areas included criminal justice or youth justice (42%), mental health (35%) and substance misuse or addiction services (30%).

    Social workers in society

    5. What are student perceptions about 'blame' and social work?
    Most students (89%) felt that social workers are often unfairly blamed when something goes wrong in a social care situation.

    An aim of the research was to assess perceptions of the roles of social work and the social worker in modern society. Students were asked a series of agreement statements about social work in the survey. There was a general understanding about the constraints and pressures faced by social workers. Ninety-six per cent agreed that there is too much pressure and stress on social workers and 94% agreed that social workers often operate in an under-resourced environment. Close to nine in ten (89%) agreed that social workers are often unfairly blamed when something goes wrong in a social care situation. This concern was expressed strongly in all the focus groups. Respondents spoke of their worries about entering a blame culture in which individual social workers, rather than their employer, are singled out to be a 'scapegoat' whenever something goes wrong with a client's case. Students are concerned that at such times they will be left unsupported by their social work supervisors. (The high-profile Victoria Climbie case was given as an example.)

    Just over seven in ten (71%) survey respondents thought there was a lack of clarity about the role of social workers. Most students (84%) also recognised that there are recruitment and retention difficulties in social work. Almost all students on the course still want to become a social worker despite any concerns they might have. However, it is possible that potential students have been deterred from the profession by these types of concerns.

    Views were equally split on whether the image of social work has improved in recent years (47% agreed whereas 48% disagreed). Similarly views were split on whether there was a political vision for the future of social work with 36% agreeing and 44% disagreeing.

    6. What are student perceptions about training and career development in social work?
    Close to three-quarters (73%) thought that social work has well structured training and career development.

    More positively, almost all students (97%) agreed that social workers can make a genuine difference to other peoples' lives. As mentioned previously, this was a prime motivator for entering social work in the first place. Over nine in ten (92%) agreed that social work is becoming increasingly more professional. Close to three-quarters (73%) also thought that social work has well-structured training and development. According to focus group respondents, the professionalism and personal development structure of social work were highly valued and motivating factors. These increased students' faith and confidence in the social work profession.

    The responses to the various agreement statements about social workers in society are illustrated in the figure below.

    Figure1
    Proportion of students agreeing/disagreeing with statements about social work

    Figure1 Proportion of students agreeing/disagreeing with statements about social work

    In the survey students were asked to compare social work to other public sector professions. Over seven in ten (72%) thought social workers had the most interesting and varied career. Eighty-five per cent thought social workers were the best at 'involving service users in the development of services' and 62% thought social workers were the best at working in community partnerships.

    Although students were positive about their interest in social work, they also reported a low level of reward and recognition compared with other public sector professionals. Only 1% said that social workers were the most respected by the public (nurses faired best on this statement) and only 2% said that social workers were the most valued by government (police were viewed as the most valued). Only 4% said social workers were paid the most appropriately.

    Although police were most commonly thought to be the most exposed to risk, three in ten (29%) thought social workers were exposed to the greatest level of risk.

    Scottish Executive measures to address recruitment and retention in social work

    7. What has been the impact of social work advertising campaigns?
    43% of students recognised the Care in Scotland logo, and 39% identified the World Tour logo. A fifth of those who were aware of the advertising said it had an influence on their choice of degree.

    An aim of the research was to assess whether the Scottish Executive's activities to improve the recruitment and retention of social work staff had influenced social work students' decision to embark on the social work degree. More specifically, the research aimed to assess the impact of the Care in Scotland and World Tour advertising campaigns.

    Accordingly, students were asked in the survey if they were aware of any advertising or publicity encouraging people to become social workers. Eighty-four per cent said they were aware of such advertising. 43% of students specifically recognised the Care in Scotland logo and 39% recognised the Social Work: World Tour logo. Older students were more likely to recognise the former and younger students were more likely to recognise the latter.

    A fifth (19%) of those who were aware of advertising said it had a lot or quite a lot of impact on their choice of degree. However, it seemed that focus group respondents had only seen the advertising in the last year or so, once they had already decided to study social work or begun the course. When shown the various campaign images, respondents generally thought that grittier, more detailed and more realistic images might have more impact.

    8. What was the impact of the incentive scheme (whereby a £9,000 grant over two years is offered for difficult to fill posts)?
    One in ten students (10%) knew about the scheme and how much was on offer and 4% said they were unlikely to do the degree without the scheme. Only 1% said the scheme was an important factor in their choice of profession.

    Undergraduate students were asked if they were likely to have taken the Diploma in Social Work ( DipSW) if the new Social Work Degree was not available. The majority of survey respondents were likely to take the DipSW in the absence of the new degree (89% said likely, with 67% saying very likely).

    The research also aimed to assess the impact of the Scottish Executive's social work incentive scheme on new social work students, particularly its influence on their decision to study social work. Students were asked if they were aware of the incentive scheme (a grant of up to £9,000 available in the first two years of employment for difficult to fill posts). Under half (44%) of students responding to the survey were aware and less were aware of the amount offered. In total, only 10% of social work students were aware of the scheme and knew how much was on offer, suggesting detailed knowledge of the scheme is not widespread.

    Very few students (11 respondents or 4% of all respondents) said they would have been unlikely to do the social work degree in the absence of the incentive scheme. This suggests that the impact of the incentive scheme on student motivations is minor. This is confirmed by the fact only 1% of students told us this was an important factor in choosing social work.

    Correspondingly, in the focus groups, most respondents had only a vague understanding of the incentive scheme. They described the incentive scheme as having no impact on them. Their current and pressing concerns about mounting student debt meant that the incentive scheme - seen as patchy and restrictive in its application - was too far in the future to provide financial support now, when they need it most. Some respondents thought that there was a risk that students might drop out of the degree course as their debts became unmanageable. A bursary scheme, or a reduction of the duration of the undergraduate course from four to three years, might alleviate this risk.

    Although the incentive scheme may not have had much direct impact on motivation, it is worth noting that the starting salary for social work (£20-£25k) was an important factor in choosing social work for approximately 1 in 5 students.

    The Insight Series

    1. Classroom Assistants: Key Issues from the National Evaluation
    2. The Impact of ICT Initiatives in Scottish Schools
    3. Moving On to Primary 1: An Exploratory Study of the Experience of Transition from Pre-School to Primary
    4. Accelerating Reading and Spelling with Synthetic Phonics: A Five Year Follow Up
    5. Assessment of Benefits and Costs of Out of School Care
    6. Meeting the Needs of Children from Birth to Three: Research Evidence and Implications for Out-of-Home Provision
    7. Key Findings from the National Evaluation of the New Community Schools Pilot Programme in Scotland
    8. Scottish Qualification for Headship: Key Issues from the Evaluation
    9. The Sitter Service in Scotland: A Study of the Costs and Benefits
    10. Awards in Early Education, Childcare and Playwork: A Qualifications Framework for the Future
    11. An Evaluation of the Higher Still Reforms
    12. The Management of Supply Cover in the Teaching Profession
    13. Parents' Demand for and Access to Childcare in Scotland
    14. Evaluation of Personalised Laptop Provision in Schools
    15. Teachers' Perceptions of Discipline in Scottish Schools
    16. Minority Ethnic Pupils' Experiences of School in Scotland ( MEPESS)
    17. A Seven Year Study of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment
    18. An Assessment of the Support and Information for Victims of Youth Crime ( SIVYC) Pilot Scheme
    19. Child Death and Significant Case Reviews: International Approaches
    20. The Impact of Information and Communication Technology in Scottish Schools: Phase 3
    21. Investigating the Extent of Commercial Activity in Schools
    22. Study Support and Out of School Hours Learning in Scottish Schools

    If you have views on Insight or wish to find out more about SEED's research and economics programme, please contact Information and Analytical Services Division, Scottish Executive Education Department, Victoria Quay, Edinburgh EH6 6QQ or by e-mail on recs.admin@scotland.gsi.gov.uk