Graham Woodham, Programme Head of Social Work, Skills for Care

Programme Head of Social Work at Skills for Care, Graham Woodham talks us through the upcoming social work degree apprenticeships and the opportunities that come with this different way of learning. 

It was great to see in the straw poll of principal social workers last month, how many of them were actively considering the proposed new degree-based apprenticeship for social worker as part of their workforce planning for the future. The question was asked as part of a presentation given to the annual joint principal social worker conference, as progress with the development of this apprenticeship route gathers pace.

The challenge that is faced, as in any apprenticeship development, is that apprenticeships operate in a world of their own! If you want to have one, be one, do one – it has to fit the model for apprenticeships. It means you have to think outside the box and grapple with uncertainties and unfamiliarities. As well as the opportunities afforded through a different approach to the one you’re used to and comfortable with. An Apprenticeship is a job with learning integrated into it both within and outside the workplace on and off the job.

How do you describe the intricacies of the knowledge, skills and behaviours of a professional role and define it and the requirements already set by the regulator in three sides of A4 (minimum font size restrictions apply!)? Of course it means everybody’s most important issue or criteria cannot be included at the top of the list – if at all. But it does mean that there has to be a focus on arriving at a concise description of, in this case, the occupation of social worker.

So let’s turn the challenges into opportunities:

A different way of learning not a different qualification. No one can become a registered social worker without successfully attaining a qualification through a programme approved by the profession’s regulator. This will be exactly the same for the apprenticeship route. The proposal from the Trailblazer group of employers (new Apprenticeship proposals must be led by employers) is for an integrated degree based apprenticeship. This will integrate the on-programme learning with independent competency assessments made at the end of the Apprenticeship.

Of course there are some fundamental principles that make apprenticeships what they are. They’re work-based and require the candidate to be employed as an apprentice. In social work and social care we’re experts in work based learning. We’ve been doing it for years in a variety of ways, both for professionals through placements and for other groups of staff through a whole range of vocational routes. The balance between on and off the job learning and the traditional academic/placement model we’re familiar with is a challenge which will need to be addressed. But the outcome is a different way of becoming a social worker – not a different qualification.

A different assessment method not a different way of assessing. Social work has always been assessed partly on the academic and partly through practice evidence. It can be argued that the apprenticeship model is more robust than other models because of the concept of end-point assessment. This will be a consistent component of any degree-based apprenticeship, and because the integrated model is being used it will contribute to the academic credits required for the degree qualification. But the basis of the assessment of each apprentice needs to be grounded in the best practice and considerable experience of our practice educators in partnership with the academic tutors.

The end point assessment is currently the subject of much debate for the Trailblazer Group and the extensive group of higher education institutions (HEIs) considering delivering an apprenticeship programme. This is and must be a collaborative approach. As with all apprenticeship development it has to come through an employer-led development process but it is the education providers who will be undertaking the assessment. The independence of the end point assessment is another strength, offering another perspective on the quality of the apprentice and therefore adding to rather than diminishing the result. That of a capable and confident social worker with the skills, knowledge and behaviours ready to work with and support some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Graham Woodham, Programme Head of Social Work, Skills for Care

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