4 Qualitative findings
This section of the research adopted a wholly qualitative methodology of focus group discussions. Qualitative methods, such as group discussions, are ideal for exploring motivations and perceptions. Furthermore, group discussions are beneficial in allowing participants to spark ideas and share experiences with one another, and to develop ideas further than might be the case in an individual interview.
Each mini group consisted of at least 6 students. The findings from this qualitative study suggest a host of factors and influences that respondents discussed during the fieldwork. Such points would not have been so readily accessible using other research methods. Whilst the survey aimed to provide statistics, the focus group research was looking to identify the range of views, opinions and experiences of social work students.
4.1 Qualitative Methodology
15 group discussions were conducted in May 2005, in five different universities across Scotland: Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow School of Social Work and Glasgow Caledonian. 10 groups were conducted with undergraduate students and 5 with postgraduate students.
Each group consisted of a mix of females and at least one male, and included at least one student from an ethnic minority group.
The sample design provided sufficient groups to allow us to understand the differences between students at different universities, and on undergraduate and postgraduate courses, as well as young and mature students.
4.1.2 Sample profile
Glasgow School of social work
4.1.3 Recruitment of participants
The first point of contact was a letter sent by the Executive to the Vice-Chancellors or Principals of the selected institutions. This letter had the endorsement of the Scottish Institute for Excellence in Social Work Education. A copy of the letter was also sent to Registrars, making it clear that the letter had also been sent to the VC/Principal for their endorsement.
The universities then sent out letters to their first year undergraduate students and all postgraduate students. This described the research and gave details of how to 'opt out' should students not wish to take part. Once the 'opt out' period had elapsed, BMRB's recruiters contacted the individuals on the database, excluding the very few who had 'opted out'.
A recruitment-screening questionnaire was used to confirm individuals' eligibility for participation in the study, and to ensure the desired sample profile was achieved. Recruitment was undertaken by BMRB's specialist field and recruitment unit.
4.1.4 Conducting the groups
Researchers from BMRB Social Research, trained in the techniques of non-directive interviewing, carried out all of the fieldwork. Each group discussion was guided by the researcher using a topic guide, or 'aide-memoire', which allowed for questioning which was responsive to the issues arising. A copy of the topic guide designed for this project can be found in the appendices to this report.
As part of the focus group process, recent campaign advertising and promotional material such as posters and leaflets were tested out for recall, impact and suggested improvements. All group discussions were recorded and transcribed verbatim. The verbatim transcripts were then analysed using an in-house, inductive technique known as 'Matrix-Mapping'. For a more detailed description of Matrix-Mapping please see the methodological appendix at the end of the report.
In order to illuminate and enhance some of the issues raised in the research, a number of quotations are also included in the report. These are taken directly from the verbatim transcripts of the interviews carried out by BMRB for this research. All the quotations are anonymous. After each quotation, information regarding the characteristics of the respondent are included in brackets.
4.2 Motivations for choosing Social work as a profession
This chapter explores both undergraduate and postgraduate students' motivations for choosing to undertake social work as a career. It starts by briefly examining the sources of students' initial awareness of social work, and then considers the different factors that motivate students to select social work as a career.
4.2.1 Initial awareness of social work
Students' initial awareness of social work as a profession arose at different life stages. In the main, younger students had some knowledge of this profession from their teenage years, as it had been touched upon at schools and through teenage television dramas and magazines. However, a fuller understanding of the profession largely developed alongside education rather than at school, as teachers and career officers failed to encourage or emphasise social work as a career option. Consequently, knowledge of social work was largely developed through family members who worked in social work and related care roles, and through respondents' own early work experiences. Such experiences included weekend work at respite units and care homes where contact was made with social workers and voluntary care work towards the 'Duke of Edinburgh' award.
The more mature students' initial awareness of social work developed during later years, rather than at the time when they were making career choices at school. These students claimed that social work as a profession was virtually 'unheard of' during their adolescence and schooling years.
For example, one mature female student stated that when she left school she had no knowledge of the possibility of studying further for a career in social work. Her teachers saw little potential in her undertaking further education and thus she branded herself 'stupid'. As a result she left school, got married and raised children, a pattern very much pertinent to other mature female students.
" Because although I'd got some standard grades and highers, it wasn't enough to get into University at the time… when I was at school my Games teacher said to me 'Just get a job Ann, your commonsense is wonderful but your brain is not…'"
A few mature students initially became aware of the profession through the areas that they grew up in; they knew of some 'troubled' families associated with social workers and the 'threat' of social workers being 'imposed' upon certain children they grew up with. However, their understanding of social work as a career then was sketchy and prejudiced. Information about entering the profession was not available. Nevertheless, these glimpses of social work in their communities had 'sparked curiosity' in the profession of social work.
In general, both mature and younger students suggested that their broader understanding, and certainly their interest in social work as a career, developed after leaving school. Some blamed the school system for failing to raise the profile of professional social work, and for lack of encouragement.
The next section will explore fully the motivations that later led respondents to selecting social work as a career.
4.2.2 Motivations for choosing social work as a career
The underpinning motivations for selecting social work as a career tended to stem from a combination of factors rather than from a single motivation. Consequently students conveyed principle motivations that were 'the initial driving force' and a number of secondary motivations that had emerged after selecting this as a possible career choice.
"I hope when I retire or quit that I'll feel that I've made more of a positive difference than I have a negative one, than I'll be happy."
In general, students were unified in their principle motivations; the 'opportunity to help others' and 'make a difference in society'. Many had become disgruntled with previous, more informal care jobs such as childminding and home-helping. These roles were described as routine, lacking in professional growth and constrained in their ability to deliver real social change. The motivations of respondents in this category arose from their inability to provide fully effective care for those they cared for: they wanted a career were they could not only help others but also have the 'power' to make life-changing decisions, and grow in their ability to help.
"It's a very good career if you're able to stick with it. You can build up a lot of experience, do a lot of different things and develop and grow."
Other mature students had previously worked in unrelated jobs such as engineering and retail felt that their roles lacked self-worth and job satisfaction. Unlike those who had already had some care experience, this group's motivation lay upon the need to do something completely different. They spoke about working long, unrewarding hours and gaining little recognition. Looking to change career, they selected social work which they predicted to be more rewarding and fulfilling.
"I don't know if we can change the world but, like the notion of the butterfly effect, influence one person and you're influencing others around that person."
These students, although lacking experience of the care sector, were not completely uninformed in their decision to change career. Rather, many were influenced by social workers they knew socially or met at work, who both encouraged and introduced them to the idea of social work as a profession. More than one student explained that a social worker had recognised in them for the first time the skills and abilities required for social work, thereby highlighting potential that the school system had failed to identity. For example, one male respondent shared that he had been particularly pleased and motivated by the fact that a social worker considered him able to undertake her profession. Most of these mature students then spent time 'trying out' the caring role for the first time, by taking on short term care work, either voluntarily or as paid employees. Some took on administrative roles in social work departments and used this as an opportunity to see how social work departments worked, from an organisational perspective.
It was evident that recent school leavers had less work and life experience than their fellow mature students. However, they shared the principle motivation of wanting to help and make change in society. Like mature students, they too had had spells - albeit brief ones - of working in paid and unpaid care jobs, where they had experienced social workers and come into contact with vulnerable people. One recent school leaver stated that she was motivated to become a social worker after she witnessed the incompetence of some of the social workers at the children's unit that she worked in part-time. She thought that these social workers had very little time for the children in the unit and consequently failed to provide them with the necessary care. She considered that she herself was better able to recognise the children's needs and could make a better social worker.
A young Asian student claimed that her motivation towards social work stemmed from recognition of a gap in care resources available to the more 'closed' Asian community. She suggested that social workers and society in general were unaware of this community's needs and failed to provide it with the necessary help. By her account, by nature Asians hide their problems for fear of community exclusion and social stigma. She felt that they also tended to distrust people outside the community; consequently the outside community were unequipped or unaware of their social problems and needs. Her experience of setting up and managing local support groups for Asian women let her see the need for Asians to enter social work and encouraged her to go on to study the social work degree.
"I worked in that area, I was a social work assistant, and I'd done a lot of projects and initiatives joint with the NHS and the Council. I knew there was a lot of gaps in the services, and through a good circle of friends and stuff like that, I knew what their needs were. So it has been good. It's been coming up for almost a year and we've successfully managed to have a good number, 20 women and they are all from different backgrounds.'
In general, students' principle motivations towards helping and making change in society were combined with a number of secondary motivations for undertaking social work. Some of these secondary reasons had developed after they had decided to follow a career in social work. These motivations included the following:
- The ability to teach social work after practising social work
Teaching or lecturing in social work was particularly appealing to mothers, who claimed that although they were initially motivated to care for people, they believed that they would eventually 'burn out' practising it. Thus teaching was an option which was related but not as emotionally and physically stressful.
Some students had had difficult childhoods where they experienced abuse and poverty. This motivated them to try and change society's inequalities. Recent experiences such as raising troublesome children and 'bad' relationships had also influenced some mature students' decisions to study social work.
"I went to a refuge when I was expecting my wee boy and it was amazing and the support I got from them…Women's Aid supported me for two years. They helped me get re-housed and all that…I had a support worker there for two years…a good friend. Life experience does count for a lot."
- Social work as a stepping stone
A few commented that working as a social worker could open doors to professions outside social work, like community worker or liaison officer, in which they could apply their social work knowledge and skills.
Some postgraduate students in particular were motivated by the prospect of entering social work management after a number of years of practising social work. They implied that working in a management role attracted more status in the field and awarded more decision-making powers to help people.
Some young single students were particularly motivated by the possibility of taking their skills of social work to other countries. This was partly because it was felt that there was a greater need for social workers in developing countries, but mostly because working abroad was seen as 'exciting' and different', aligning the profession with the same flexibility as some other professions such as teaching or nursing.
- Working in a variety of fields within social work
This motivation was evident amongst many students, who predicted that having a degree in social work would give them scope to work in a range of social work roles. They mentioned a broad spectrum of social work environments, including prison services, hospitals, schools, local communities and care homes. This variety was not thought to be available in other caring professions such as teaching and nursing.
Although not the main motivation for entering the profession, students thought that a having a guarantee of a job after graduation certainly aided their decision to pursue the career. However there was some scepticism about the likelihood of students obtaining work in their own local area or desired field. Some students said they would relocate to work in their preferred field of social work; others (including those with family commitments) would compromise by remaining in their local area and pursuing a different area of social work.
"Yes it's important that you are guaranteed a job because I've got commitments. I got a little boy, so definitely. I did take my time and then said definitely I was going to do social work."
- Family members working in caring professions
'Well my mum's a physio and she worked with disabled children, so I used to go there when I was a wee girl and help with the children. I think that may have influenced my decision…and then my aunt is a social worker down South. So that's why I did it."
Those who had family members who worked in social work (and sometimes, in non-professional care roles,) felt that they had been exposed to some of the highs and lows of social work over time. They began to believe that they too could work in this profession. Sometimes, family members actively encouraged this career choice, even urging them to visit some of the care environments that they worked in. In contrast, those whose relatives worked as doctors, nurses and teachers did not provide a direct motivation or encouragement to enter social work.
- Motivated by Social workers
Many students thought that at some point in their lives they had been motivated by social workers that they came into contact with at work, home, school, youth groups or through socialising. They were inspirational when speaking about their work, and provided some of the initial career guidance to these students.
"..For me as a childminder, most of my mums were social workers or teachers …They used to let everything go, and it just sounded really interesting. You know they came home, had a good day, and they'll tell me all about the good day, or the bad day… so it was listening to them and thinking 'Yes, this is good and I want to do this.''
In general, it was established that pay and money were neither a direct motivation nor a deterrent for entering social work for the students in this study. Students did think that the pay seemed low when compared with the strains of the job. Some mature students, particularly those with previous careers, had voluntarily taken pay cuts to enter the profession, Others, particularly those who had only had casual jobs or who had stayed at home to look after children, predicted that social work would in fact provide them with better standards of living than before. Many students believed that their social work degree would bring increased career opportunities and the scope to climb the professional ladder and so escalate salaries over time. These features had been lacking in some students' previous roles, particularly those who had worked non-professionally, for example, as receptionists and carers and saw no future prospects.
Although students believed that social work salaries had increased recently, they also believed that 'pay' should not be a primary motivation for those pursuing social work. Consequently later chapters of this report will highlight respondents' views of the government's £9000 incentive scheme as an incidental 'bonus' rather than an effective motivation for entering social work. Furthermore, it was felt that momentary motivations endanger the profession by attracting candidates whose interests were not solely about 'helping people in need'.
"I don't think social work is a course that you can go into for monetary rewards. You've got to be in for you. You're getting a lot of goodness. It's like childminding - you don't get paid a lot for childminding but its something that you want to do, and in social work it's something that you want to do. You can't go into social work feeling 'This is a load of rubbish' because you'll not get the best of people … So yes, its nice to have a nice wage at the end of the day but I don't think that can be your No. 1 priority. If it is, you should look at your values again."
However, respondents suggested that future students' motivations could be increased by either reducing or abolishing the degree course fees. This would enable social workers to practise a very difficult profession without the hindrance of debt, and more importantly retain people in the profession for longer.
4.3 Paths to the Social work degree
Students followed a number of different paths to the under- or postgraduate courses in social work. Three predominant paths were prevalent amongst these students. This chapter will explore these three routes and discuss the impact of influences along these paths which both motivated and impacted upon their decision to study the course.
4.3.1 Path 1- 'Non professionals entering the undergraduate degree'
Path 1 - 'Non professionals entering the social work degree'. This path was followed by students who had finished school a number of years ago, then worked in a combination of different non-professional jobs, returning to education at later stages by qualifying for a place in the undergraduate course in social work.
This path was generally followed by mature students who had worked in non-professional jobs before deciding to undertake the social work degree course. As the previous chapter indicated, some of these students were disgruntled with past jobs, which they either believed were 'unrewarding' or routine. Those who had worked in care related jobs such as childminding or as care assistants enjoyed the personal contact they had with people, but felt they lacked the ability to make decisive social changes. They also viewed these roles as stagnant, without room for professional growth. Thus they wanted a profession where they could continue the contact with people, but with more authority for making changes.
" Like if you're a carer, and some things are happening that you're not exactly pleased with, maybe the way a client is being treated….you try and get a service for someone but you're not at that level. You don't have any certainty or authority to actually go and do anything, whereas, as a social worker you know that you've got qualifications behind you. You can look into things and know you can go and find out about services to help."
Students were also influenced by the contact they had with certain social workers that they worked or socialised with; they were felt to support and encourage their decision to study social work. In contrast, some students highlighted the negative impact social workers had on them; these students were discontented with their inability to provide suitable help for their clients, and believed the profession to be burdened with paperwork rather than contact with people. Such experiences, although negative, motivated these students to try to make changes within social work by entering the profession.
"Think for me the professionalism is accountability and standards and I take comfort in the knowledge that social work has improved as a profession because in my own experiences, social workers have had quite a bad rap and sometimes rightly so, as there are a lot of bad social workers."
Certain students had to secure themselves financially before embarking upon further studies. Thus they spoke about 'coming into money' and using these funds to pursue their ambitions. Others saved for a number of years prior to starting the degree.
"I left school and then I was going to university, but I fell pregnant so university went out of the window, and I ended up in a lot of admin, office work, then I thought I really wanted a career to work in professionally."
Mothers in the group also highlighted having to postpone further education until their children had grown up. However, they did not necessarily resent this path but were concerned about lengthy careers in social work which could be shortened by their age and family obligations.
"I think you can burn out as well, I think it's a job you can burn out on. And I've got a contingency plan if I did burn out quickly, to go to colleges and lecture social care."
Mature students following this path often argued that the school system failed to encourage their potential and even discouraged further education. In addition, a number of other significant factors prevented their further education:
- They considered themselves non-academic - consequently they left school and started a job;
'I hated it because we moved… the area that we moved to had higher educational standards and I actually ended up being put back a year and I just never got up at school. It just made me feel stupid which I knew I wasn't and so I just grew up with a huge chip on my shoulders about my education. I didn't need a qualification to get on in life'
- Female students in particular felt that their destiny was to get married and raise children, consequently opting for part-time work rather than further studies;
- Both society and schools failed to promote social work as a career;
- Students were generally unaware of a degree in social work;
Interest and awareness of social work developed at later stages in their lives.
Students without the necessary skills or qualifications undertook a number of different qualifications to qualify for the degree. These included; foundation courses such as 'Preliminary Certificate and Access to Social Work', Highers, National Certificate - Childcare of Education, YTC, and HNC in Social Care. These courses were viewed as beneficial in two ways: firstly it equipped those who had been out of education for long periods; and secondly it introduced them to motivational lecturers and social workers who taught the course.
4.3.2 Path 2 - 'Qualified professionals entering the Social work degree'
Path 2 'Qualified professionals entering the social work degree'. Students following this path tended to have finished school a number of years ago, gone on to higher education and entered non-care professions. They then decided to change careers and undertake the social work degree.
In contrast, other students worked in non-care related professions that offered substantial development and authority. However, their roles lacked job satisfaction. This group made a decisive career change to enter a caring profession. The decision was also influenced by voluntary work experience that they undertook while working in non-care related professions.
" Before I came here I was actually a buyer in the fashion industry, but just due to dissatisfaction of the job I also pursued voluntary experience working with drug and alcohol abusers…So I just discovered more satisfaction doing that than working in fashion."
These students tended to have finished their schooling and completed a first degree or equivalent; such courses included English, engineering and fashion design. Some then entered corresponding professions for a number of years, during which time they became despondent with their choices and simultaneously volunteered in caring roles such as working with disabled people, or as youth workers.
"I had a sister who was in Tanzania doing some developmental work, and she said hey, come over for the summer. I went there - found I really enjoyed engaging with children that I was working with….She (sister) taught me a sense of a greater awareness of how unjust the world can actually be ... And I wanted to follow the same lines as her, as I say, but not international."
These voluntary experiences increased frustration within their current jobs. Some met social workers who inspired them and aided their decision to make career changes, sometimes acting as mentors and offering vital information about university choices, qualifications and the necessary skills and attributes required for social work.
These students then proceeded on to an under- or postgraduate course in social work, depending on the type of qualifications and skills they already had.
4.3.3 Path 3 - 'Recent school leavers'
Path 3- "Recent school leavers''- Included younger students who had left school within the last two years. Some had briefly started a different degree or first job and subsequently decided to do the social work undergraduate degree. Others had moved around casual, temporary jobs or undertaken a 'gap year'. Many had at first been undecided about what they wanted to study, or 'do' after they left school.
The third typical path to the social work degree was followed by the few younger students in the focus groups.
The younger students, generally under the age of 24, had been more indecisive about their careers and degree choices before they attended university than the mature students. Consequently, their degree choices were based loosely upon subjects they enjoyed rather than future career plans. Social work was not emphasised as a career at school, however students had some knowledge of the profession derived from the media, family, and voluntary experiences.
"Me, I'm only 19 so I really don't know what … at the moment it was just to get a degree….obviously I'm interested in social work, I'll be 22 when I graduate so I've got a degree and then I'll just see what I want to do then….Yes people of my age are the same as me….I think we're all just not saying I don't want to be a social worker but we enjoy the course and we want to finish the degree."
These students had sometimes started other degree courses and then changed to the social work degree for four main reasons:
- Disliked first degree choice;
" ..I didn't really enjoy my degree. I didn't feel ready for it and I couldn't settle down and this is the first time I've actually spent a year in one place since I was 18."
- Interpersonal skills and attributes matched the social work degree.
"'I was good at English at school so I though well if I do journalism…but then during the course I was doing sociology and I quite like that and through my Duke of Edinburgh I like the caring side…And during the English course I realised 'No, social work was for me."
- They were too young at 17 to undertake the social work degree, however age restrictions have since been reduced;
- Clearer focus on future career, however some were still considering the possibility of different professions after finishing the degree based on the fact that they were still too young to make definite career choices.
Younger students who had had some 'hands on' experience working within a caring environment were more convinced about entering social work after finishing the degree; they had worked with both social workers and vulnerable people and chosen the course as a means of entering the profession. Similarly, another group of students (24-30yrs) who sit between the younger and mature students were more focused about practising social work. They had had time since leaving education to consider their options, and experienced other environments of work; consequently the decision to study social work was well thought out and better informed.
"I would say I'm a lot different, I am in the middle, kind of I don't really fit well with the young ones and I don't really fit well with the older…my experience of being a young parent at my age, I don't have this same perspective…I definitely want to do social work. I wouldn't be doing a degree that took 9 months to decide if I was definitely going to do this."
In general the three paths outlined above were the main routes students followed to start their courses in social work.
However, the study also included a number of students who followed different paths to the degree which included the following:
- Foreign students who specifically came to study the social work degree in this country as it was considered more advanced. Some of these students planned to return to their original countries to practise social work;
- 'Fast track': students on the fast track postgraduate course had been sponsored by different organisations to study the course; in return they had to work for these organisations for a number of years. These students, although financially stable, were concerned about the constrained choice of locations and areas of social work offered by their sponsors.
In the main, the different paths that students followed were also influenced by important life experiences such as: working in the caring professions; voluntary work; parents and family members within caring professions; and inspirational social workers. These factors all contributed to convincing the students to undertake a course in social work.
4.4 Views on the course
This chapter focuses on both post- and undergraduate students' views on the course they are studying. It will start by highlighting some of the changes and challenges students face while studying. It will then explore students' experiences and views of the social work course, and finally examine the social work placements undertaken as part of the course.
4.4.1 Challenges and changes
Regardless of age, gender and ethnicity respondents faced a variety of challenges and changes as students; these included financial burdens, stress and adjusting to a new lifestyle. However the degree to which these affected them varied according to life stage, age and the support network they had around them.
In general, the age of a student played a vital part in the challenges they faced. Recent school leavers found adjusting to studying at university relatively easier than those who had been out of education for long periods of time - they were used to studying, undertaking examinations and teaching methods. In contrast, the transition was harder for those who had left school a number of years ago. They were more critical of teaching methods and took slightly longer to regulate their learning behaviour. One student in particular highlighted that she found the competition within the course hard to embrace as she had left school 20 years ago and had never experienced this in previous routine employment.
The study was conducted during the latter part of students' first year at university, by which time the students had overcome some of their fears and adjusted to their new study environments.
Students who fell in the middle age bracket (24-30) and others who had completed foundation courses prior to starting the degree also found the transition easier as they had recently faced similar environments which equipped them better for studying at university.
In general, students who had had negative experiences in education also initially feared the prospect of re-entering education. These experiences included unsupportive teachers, failing exams, considering themselves 'stupid' and learning difficulties. Such factors, however, were ironed out after the first months of the course when they had established more support and encouragement from university lecturers and fellow students.
" I was absolutely terrified actually…Well knowing that I had a learning disability, I actually did a couple of open university modules because I wasn't sure whether I would be able to keep up the pace of university life and the much higher expectations. So I did that and actually surprised myself by how well I was doing. That really gave me encouragement."
Although age contributed to the level of challenge felt during the course, life stage tended to underpin the changes that had to be made to study the course. Consequently mothers both younger and older juggled maternal obligations alongside university commitments. They found it harder to complete course work, revise for exams and compete for high grades as their household responsibilities dominated their recreation and study time. Mothers spoke about their concerns about neglecting their children and fears about initially coping with the demands of the course; these fears however had lifted over the year as they learned to balance both obligations.
Students who had left highly paid professional employment found it harder to re-adjust to the 'poverty stricken' lifestyle of a student. However, the decision to undertake the course was meticulously considered and planned, with savings in place to sustain the four years of the course. Certain students had even postponed further education until they were in a comfortable position to undertake the course.
The type and level of support networks surrounding students also affected the challenges faced on the course. Students who had 'financial backing' from parents and partners were less concerned about monetary issues, while those who depended on borrowings were worried about their futures. They feared debts reaching up to 25 thousand pounds and the inevitability of low salaries as social workers.
Mothers who had supportive relatives and partners also claimed to adjust to the demands of the course better; grandparents and siblings minded their children during university hours and partners encouraged them at home to persevere with the course.
"They've been wonderful. My mother-in-law looks after the baby, and every time I've done an essay or something they're always first on the phone to see if my results are in, you know, and they're just really supportive, you know, its just fabulous actually."
In contrast, mothers who lacked this support continued to balance these struggles, but showed equal determination to overcome their challenges, with their mind set on a more fulfilling career in the future.
" I've had no support at all from my mother, she's in her 70's and thinks that I should be at home looking after the kids instead of doing this in my stage in my life, its just not thinkable. She doesn't tell anybody, I thought she'd be proud I'm at university and I'm 40."
4.4.2 Views on the course
In general students throughout were pleasantly surprised at how they had coped with the course, some even finding it easier than expected. In particular, students on the undergraduate course at one university acknowledged that their lecture-free time allowed them to also work part-time to supplement their incomes.
The mixture of mature and younger students, and the cultural and ethnic diversity of the students, made lectures and tutorials more interesting as different generations and cultures could learn and understand from each others' perspectives.
There were mixed feelings about the structure and content of the social work course. Views on the undergraduate course depended on the subjects they were expected to study and the university at which they studied it. By and large the overall content of the subjects was felt to be purposeful and necessary to gain a professional qualification, although some questioned the lack of 'practical based subjects' to aid them to actually practise social work.
" Sociology, research, computers, psychology, social work, law, politics - you can see how it all fits together. Yes I understand why we need all that."
Certain subjects like 'the history of social work' were felt to be outdated and insignificant in today's environment. Students claimed they found this subject boring and impractical for their training as social workers.
Students also highlighted the following issues and problems that they had experienced with the course:
- Certain students felt a lack of support during exam periods, as previously supportive lecturers were felt to abandon them at this stage. Overall, however, students viewed their lecturers as largely supportive and willing to help them.
"I think the run up to the exams we felt, well I certainly felt I had just been abandoned and left to get on with it …We are here to learn. OK I don't think any of us expect to have our hands held and to be guided through it. It is about reading and learning and teaching yourselves and organising yourself, but certainly there is not enough support."
- Some courses were viewed as being too theory-based and lacking in practical experience, a view shared particularly by students who had had extensive experience of working in care environments before. Some universities did not offer students in the first year the opportunity to work in placements; while other universities allowed a few days of placement in the first year.
" It would be good to get out there get your hands dirty…I think it would be good if there was some way that the University got contacts with places in (this city) and said right, we've got some students, if you're looking for staff, can you take them on."
- Students at one university, based on their first year's experience of the course, felt that the four year degree should be reduced to three years, firstly because the quality of teaching in the first year amounted to a part-time course, and secondly because a three year course would reduce debt and allow them to start working sooner.
Overall, students were positive about their course choices. The undergraduates felt that they had learnt many new aspects of social work and that the course itself had helped them re-assess themselves as future social workers, shedding some of their old prejudices. They were more aware of their surrounding environments and able to use what they had learned in the way they judged others. Such skills were viewed as appropriate and vital training for a professional social worker.
"Cautious of yourself, and how you impact on others. For me that's been like the biggest thing this year that I've learnt, about my self - looking at myself, and how I am as a person, my values, and trying to empathise with others and understanding other people's background….everything is related back to theories and I feel a lot more informed about the world as a whole."
Despite a few students dropping out of the undergraduate course, the remaining students believed that they had selected the right course and were aiming to finish the degree.
Similarly, postgraduate students had faced some of the negative problems experienced by the undergraduates; however they too were pleased with their course choices and aimed to complete them. Some of these students had opted to finish the course early by foregoing a master's qualification and receiving a diploma instead. Currently they were aware that they could practise social work with a diploma as with a master's qualification. This view, however, was not shared by others who felt future legislation could alter the extent to which they could practise social work with a diploma rather than with a masters or degree qualification.
4.4.3 Social work placements
As part of their postgraduate and undergraduate courses, most universities arranged placements so that first-year students could experience social work in practice. However this practise was not consistent, as students of at least one university had not yet been offered this opportunity.
Those who experienced placements had mixed feelings towards them, emphasising that their interests and backgrounds were not taken into account when placing them within the different institutions.
Some felt lucky because this 'lottery' had placed them in new environments such as prisons, hospitals and children's units, which they had not previously considered. They grew to enjoy the field and were given more responsibility than those in other placements.
"A lthough it was supposed to be a observation exercise they actually got me to write a programme which they were going to use towards the summer… So it was good in that way, it really helped me come to terms with a lot of the issues amongst Asian young people in Glasgow."
In contrast, others thought their placements lacked responsibility and failed to introduce them to the life of a social worker. These students were placed in environments such as care homes where their roles tended to mirror care assistants rather than social workers.
"A couple of girls were in a nursing home and they had to do the dishes and that, which they felt wasn't teaching them anything."
The social workers they met on placements also had negative and positive impacts on them. Certain social workers gave them good insights into their practises, and encouraged the students' career choices. In contrast, others had very little contact with social workers and viewed their roles as burdened with legislation and 'paperwork'. In addition, supervision and guidance were felt to be lacking during placements, with students reporting 'being left alone', or 'the only one there'.
Certain students also reported social workers criticising their profession and discouraging them from entering it. This they considered unprofessional and 'off putting' for future placement students.
Regardless of the positive or negative experiences students had on their placements they were determined to persevere within the profession. Those who had bad experiences were encouraged by their fellow students who had good placements, which gave them hope for the future. Students throughout also gained a better insight into some of the legislation and restrictions under which social work is practised. These included long hours, heavy work loads, inability to provide sufficient help, lack of monetary resources and the general lack of social workers to provide adequate care for clients.
These factors and experiences, although new to some, made them more determined to enter and impact upon the profession. For a few others, the experience had had the effect of making them re-evaluate their chosen specialisation in social work. For example, a student who had been placed within an institute dealing with child abuse felt herself unable to cope with this particular environment and consequently wanted to work in a different area of social work.
Overall it was suggested that universities needed to consider students' preferences when placing them, and that these practical experiences should be increased in the first year of the undergraduate course; currently students felt that the few days of placement were not adequate and that the courses were not practical enough.
Postgraduates had longer placements and felt that they had gained slightly more experience than the undergraduates; however there were still some concerns about practising without a lot of experience in the field.
4.5 Social work in society
This chapter considers social work in society, giving particular focus to the image of social work (public, media and students' own views). It will also consider other characteristics of social work such as who and what it deals with, the role of a social worker in society and any changes in social work.
Finally it will consider how social workers work with other professionals in society, and look at comparisons with other professions.
4.5.1 The image of social work/ social worker
Social workers and the profession of social work are viewed very differently by the public, media and the students themselves. This section will explore why these perspectives are different, what leads to these views and the consequences of such conflicting images.
As earlier chapters indicated, the students themselves had reached a stage in their lives where they were more certain about their future careers. This point had been reached through a number of paths, where they were both motivated and influenced by a number of factors, such as
- Family and relatives in the profession
- The need for professional growth
- The desire to help and change society
- Inequalities in society
- Job opportunities
The students' views of social work had developed from a combination of these factors which initially led them to undertake the degree. Consequently they considered the profession and its importance as a vital part of society; this was why they were interested in it and why they were studying it.
Through life experiences they had recognised the value of the profession for others and the impact it had on reducing vulnerability. They also recognised that social work offered professional status, in line with professions such as teachers, nurse and police officers. In addition to the status there were substantial professional growth and job opportunities.
As social workers, they could also make changes and improve certain people's quality of life. However the 'umbrella' under which the profession was practised was not necessarily viewed positively. Thus students were disillusioned by the lack of recourses, increased legislation and heavy work loads, which led to a less personal relationship between the client and social worker.
" Social workers getting pissed off with filling forms and checking boxes and not making changes."
Social workers were also believed to work under restricted and stricter guidelines which, although regulating the practise, sometimes resulted in the inability to provide help for clients. One student commented that social workers could not now always act on 'gut feelings', but are forced to behave according to the 'book'.
"I've seen social workers, most of them are sitting all day organising the care for others rather than actually doing it."
Students had also encountered social workers who were negative about their profession and did little to help and support their clients. Although these encounters had motivated them to enter the profession, they understood how the above factors had affected the public's and the media's perceptions of social workers.
The media's and the public's views were often interlinked with each other. Thus people negative experiences of social workers, such as social workers 'taking their children away' or their 'inability to recognise vulnerable situations' were amplified by the media. In return the media, who were prone to sensationalising stories, reported such cases to the mass audience.
"Whenever something goes wrong, the social worker is always in the firing line…bad stuff is always publicized and the good stuff is never given any credit."
Newspapers and television were felt to use social workers as 'scapegoats' and to report incidents that diverted from all the facts. Furthermore, social workers were implicated more than other professionals such as police offices and teachers. It was felt that the general public, regardless of their personal experience with social workers, were impressionable to the media's view and 'tarnished all social workers with the same brush'.
It was felt that the general consensus was not a questioning of the need for social workers in society, but how the profession worked and its role. Students also agreed with this view, seeing a need to re-address guidelines and laws within social work. Thus some students commented that the heavy workloads and paper work which accompanied their practise resulted in poorer care for clients.
It was felt that the media also needed to take some responsibility for the public's negative views, as they generally reported the few 'worst case scenarios', and failed to mention the many cases with positive outcomes.
"That wee girl that died [Victoria Climbie]- a young social worker who is just training carried the whole can for that. I find it absolutely appalling that her superiors walked away into better paid jobs and this girl was banned."
It was hence suggested that the image of the profession could be improved by reporting some successful cases and documenting the work of 'good' social workers.
"All that campaigning that went on last year or the year before to improve the public image of social workers and it didn't do anything near as much good as the one documentary that portrayed social workers in a sympathetic way. That probably was more instrumental in changing views than that other costly campaign."
4.5.2 Characteristics of Social workers
As previous sections of this report have indicated, students had a variety of ideas about who social workers deal with, predominately the most vulnerable members of society, and under what circumstances, including:
- Violence afflicted on people
- Abuse victims- adult and children
- Homelessness - adult and children
- The sick
- Disability, both mental and physical
- Disorders- drug, alcohol, mental etc…
The role of a social worker in caring for these groups of people was believed to be, or at least needed to be, 'holistic' in approach. Where care included providing a number of services to the client, these roles were seen as:
- Establishing changes in environments - removing people from dangerous situations and introducing them into safer environments
- Reintroducing people back into their normal safe environments
- Evaluating the need for the intervention from other professionals
- Education and teaching
"I was working with this boy and his sister turned round and said to me one day, you know I'd really like to be a social worker."
- Prevention of vulnerability
- Recognising vulnerability
Students were aware of these roles through a mixture of personal experiences and theory from the social work degree courses. However, in practise the regulatory limitations on their abilities resulted in inconsistencies in providing the holistic care. Lack of time and the increasing 'open' need for their intervention meant that social workers could not always provide their theory-defined roles in society.
The wider society, who ascribe to the theory-based conception of the role of a social worker, are quick to blame the profession when this 'holistic' care is not provided. Furthermore it was suggested by students that their roles required intervention in problematic situations, which could result in hostility. Social workers are thus often branded as 'nosey' and 'do gooders'.
" They're there and they're annoying you all the time (social workers) they're on your back all the time noseying into your business...I think that's what everybody thinks."
4.5.3 Social workers and other professions
The social work profession was believed to have equal stature with other professions such as nurses, teachers and police offices. This view was based on the fact that all these professionals dealt with the public and helped the vulnerable.
In reality some believed that their roles were not as defined in society as these other professionals. It was felt the general public were not always clear about the role and authority of social workers, resulting in hostility and lack of prominence for social workers. In contrast the prominence and roles of teachers and police offices were more defined in society, as these professionals were utilised by a wider public.
" A lot of people don't respect it as a profession. Although social workers are meeting with you like doctors their opinion isn't valued as much. The doctor has the medical answer and they seem to think that their opinion is the best….there's always a conflict between medical and the social side."
Although equal stature was ascribed to social workers, their pay was felt to be lower than teachers and police officers. Although the students in the study were not entering the profession for 'monetary' reasons, there was a call for consistencies in salaries with these other professionals.
4.5.4 Working with other professionals
Students were aware from their personal experiences and studies that social workers often worked with other professionals including medical staff, lawyers, teachers and police offices. It was felt that in general these professionals were supposed to work in a team to identify care and refer clients to the appropriate establishments for help.
Some students had experience of this 'team work' during their placements in hospitals and prisons, and had some understanding of its success with clients. They also welcomed having certain lectures with nursing and psychology students, which gave them an insight into how the different establishments interacted.
A few however believed that other professionals in the 'team' were felt to overload social workers with anything outside their boundaries and situations they did not want to handle.
" It feels like a kind of us and them."
Although social workers were supposed to act on referral, some police officers and teachers were felt to 'call on' social workers to relinquish their own responsibilities and divert blame directed their way .
"From my experience I felt that they [other professionals] give you all the work basically and say 'right social work can deal with that, social work can deal with that, oh social work can deal with that, oh brilliant here you are, you can deal with that'."
In the main, students were positive about working with other professionals in the future and hoped to provide care alongside. It was also believed that social work could not exist without the intervention and referral between these different professions.
" From past cases, when professionals don't work together then serious mistakes occur."
4.6 Campaign and Recruitment Initiatives
Focus group respondents were asked about their awareness of two Scottish Executive campaigns, the Care in Scotland and Social Work World Tour campaigns. The aims of these campaigns were to promote the image of social work in Scotland and to encourage people to consider social work as a career. Campaign posters and other materials were used as stimulus materials to prompt recall and explore views on effectiveness. This chapter describes students' responses. It then outlines students' views on the social work incentive scheme whereby newly qualified social workers may be offered a £9000 incentive upon accepting certain social work posts.
4.6.1 Care in Scotland Campaign
Respondents reported little awareness of the Care in Scotland campaign. However, a few reported some awareness, including seeing television adverts. These respondents seemed to have only seen the campaign materials once they had already signed up for, or begun, the social work degree. Some received Care in Scotland leaflets during their first, 'freshers' week in university. Some had seen adverts on buses.
The Care in Scotland campaign therefore did not impact on their choice to study social work. Overall, the Care in Scotland campaign materials were not perceived to be very 'impactful' or effective.
The aim underlying this campaign - to address the public's perception of the social worker by portraying the positive social worker-client relationship - was approved of:
"I think it gives out the idea that having a social worker really can be a positive experience for the family, then it can be a good thing."
The campaign images were recognised to present social workers in a 'good light'.
"It's giving a good impression of what social work is, rather than negative ones they get from the press. You know their aim is for families, rather than to destroy them by taking children away."
However, many respondents expressed concerns that the images of social workers and their clients were unrealistic and too sanitised to be representative. In terms of design, the images were also seen as too neat, crisp and posed. They therefore lacked visual impact.
"I don't like the style of them really. They're too crisp. Everybody there looks too happy to be 'real life'."
Respondents thought that campaign materials would both be more realistic and have more impact if they somehow better portrayed the complexities and grittiness of the role. Even a few creases in the clothes or scuffs on the shoes of the social workers and their clients would help.
4.6.2 World Tour Campaign
There were quite a few spontaneous reports of awareness of the World Tour campaign materials, especially on buses seen in Glasgow.
The basic image of the World Tour campaign was often described as confusing: who was the teenage girl meant to represent - a social work client or a prospective social work student?
Some respondents liked the ambiguity of the image, and that the girl didn't fit the stereotype of who might become a social worker. The 'edginess' of the image - in comparison with the Care in Scotland campaign images - provided 'energy' and seemed more contemporary.
Others didn't like the image. They could not see what it 'meant' but reckoned it was designed for teenagers, not them. Others thought the poster lacked detail, in particular, information about what social work might involve.
Respondents were unsure about the reality of the 'world tour' slogan: was the Scottish Executive encouraging people to travel the work as social workers?
4.6.3 Incentive Scheme
To summarise, respondents all agreed to some extent that the £9000 offered in instalments to social graduates accepting certain social work positions was not an 'incentive' to them as students.
There was a mixed level of knowledge and conflicting understanding of the scheme. Most respondents knew very little about the incentive, although most know in vague terms that it existed. Some respondents thought that only certain council areas offered the incentive, or that it was only offered to those completing the undergraduate social work course. Several were aware that it is only applicable to certain social work jobs.
Several respondents were suspicious of the incentive scheme. They thought that a social work post might be 'dire' if it needed an incentive to be offered before it could be filled. However, some respondents said that they would be attracted to more challenging social work posts in any case, so they might be happy to accept posts that were incentive-linked.
Some also considered that money was not a key motivator for social work students, who by definition had chosen to give their personal commitment to a profession which is relatively low paid. An incentive offered in this way was somewhat at odds with the social work students' orientation.
Respondents suggested that, from their point of view, a much better incentive would be to better support students financially while they were still studying. The existing incentive scheme might help to temper student debt retrospectively, but for many it might come too late and 'at a price', being described by some as 'golden handcuffs' trapping social work graduates to one post for a number of years. Financial support earlier on, before graduation, might encourage or enable students to complete their course and then go on to work as social workers, unencumbered by large debts. For example, a student bursary could be made available.
4.7 Overall findings from the focus groups
It was clear from the discussions in the fifteen focus groups that all social work students were motivated by an underlying desire to care for others. Caring for others was described as 'contributing to society' and 'doing the right thing'. A desire to care was often recognised from childhood. Motivations then developed further over the years, influenced by various factors in each respondent's case. Influences included family and friends who worked in social care roles, casual and voluntary care work experiences and the possibility of securing a more meaningful, professional job with responsibility and a career structure.
Few respondents were recent school leavers; most were older and had several years, even decades, of experience following school. Social work students typically followed one of three paths to choosing to study for a social work degree:
One path, taken by mature students, followed from years of work in relatively unskilled casual work. These respondents' work roles had included casual care work, such as working as part-time care assistants at nursing homes, shop work and administrative work. Sometimes these were combined with raising children and looking after a home. These respondents tended to complete an entry-level, certificate course immediately prior to being accepted onto the social work degree course. These students were motivated by the opportunity to develop a career with a formal structure for the first time. Having the social work degree would give them more authority and responsibility, and so they could be more effective than in their previous work. Often these students had been branded as 'low academic achievers' at school. Several described being encouraged to leave school at 16 years old, and to end their formal education then. They then began many years of casual work, or - in the case of males - learned a trade such as carpentry. Several females who took this path reported that they had then 'married young', around the age of 20 years old. These students were most likely to be intimidated by the (perceived) academic requirements of the social work degree course.
Another path that could be identified - again, one taken by mature students - followed years of work in professions other than social work. Typically these students had worked in professional roles where they gained formal skills, sometimes after first completing undergraduate university degrees. After a few years, they became disgruntled with their first career choice, or the professional path taken to date.
They decided to change careers and switch to social work, in part inspired by voluntary work experiences of caring for others or personal contact with social workers. These students were motivated by a desire to change careers to a profession that is more personally satisfying and meaningful.
A third path to studying social work was followed by younger students who had left school recently or within the last two or three years. Usually they were not seen as being particularly academic while at school and they had often been indecisive about what to do when they left. Their commitment to social work as a profession was less developed and less 'thought through' than that of more mature students, although as with all respondents, their underlying motivation was to 'care for others'. Some of these students had had a little experience of caring through voluntary work carried out while still at school or soon after leaving. This had revealed to them that they enjoyed the caring role. These students' reasons for studying social work were at least partly that they were 'expected to do something' (ie study some kind of formal course), and the opportunity to study social work matched their emerging interest in caring for others.
Respondents spoke of several challenges to studying the social work degree. Financing their time as students was a major challenge for students. Many students were in debt already, at the end of their first of a four year course, and faced with the prospect of mounting debts with no hope of assuaging these until they completed (or left) the course. Part-time jobs were seen as essential just to survive financially although part-time work was not enough to prevent debts from increasing. Mature students who had been outside of the formal education system for years spoke of finding the academic demands of the course daunting and difficult. However, by the end of their first year they had adjusted and become more confident. Those mature students who had accessed the degree course via a foundation course had already developed their confidence in studying.
Some students had undertaken a work placement already, by the end of the first year of their course. However, some undergraduate students in particular had to wait until their second year to have the chance to carry out a work placement. Those who had completed work placements described widely varying experiences, some very positive and others negative. Some work placements lacked supervision and guidance. Students spoke of having little or no say in their allotted placement and no course for redress if a placement, or its level of supervision, proved unsatisfactory.
The public's and in particular, the media's, view of social work and social workers were described as being overtly negative. Respondents were familiar with others commonly portraying social workers as interfering, meddling, ineffective, and unwanted by their clients. Social workers were disliked because they removed children from households. By contrast, the respondents themselves were convinced that social workers have a vital and valuable role in society.
Most students wanted to work as social workers after graduation. However, they expressed anxiety about social work's 'blame culture': individual social workers are held accountable for 'things that go wrong', when in fact, 'things going wrong' is an inevitable feature of social work cases. Students explained that for other professionals, it is the emplolying company or organization which takes the blame. For some, the social work hierarchy was characterized by a lack of support and trust. Social work's blame culture - and negative reputation - was fed by the media, which was full of disaster stories in which individual social workers were 'named and shamed'. Positive stories of social work were rarely publicized. In addition, some respondents were concerned about social work's infrastructure, which was perceived to be poorly resourced, and the increasing emphasis on legislation and bureaucracy.
The Scottish Executive's campaigns to promote social work as a career were praised for their aim of providing a positive representation of the social worker-client relationship, to balance the negative representations of the mass media. However, in general, more realistic, grittier and detailed campaign images were imagined to be more provocative and more effective. Students had some awareness of some of the campaign images, but these had been seen after they had already decided to study social work or after they had signed up for the social work degree course.
The £9000 incentive scheme was not perceived to be an effective incentive for these social work students, who are struggling with current financial strains. The incentive scheme operates too far in the future to provide relief or encouragement, and is imagined by some to be 'patchy' and 'restrictive' in its application. Rather, students would prefer financial assistance - such as bursaries - now, or at least during their time on the degree course. It was suggested that reducing the duration of the course from four to three years would also reduce the longer-term financial burden of studying social work.