Can student social workers qualify in lockdown? Education providers are working with regulators to minimise disruption and maintain standards

Health and social care workers have been playing a vital role in the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

As demand increases, they are coping with enforced changes to their practice and high levels of disruption due to the need for social distancing and infection control.

Disrupted education programmes

The effect of the crisis on the country’s education providers has been incredibly disruptive. With all tuition moving online at the end of March, and roughly 4,500 final year social work students affected, Social Work England has been working with universities and other providers to remove barriers and make adjustments to courses so that, wherever possible, students can graduate on time or progress within their course. At the University of Bath, changes to practice-based learning has mirrored the alterations being made by other practitioners. Most students are now working from home, with some attending agencies for duty shifts. Bedfordshire University has been creative in its approach, with standard placements being supplemented by other activities such as remote welfare checks, doorstep visits and remote advocacy support. The University of Birmingham has responded unequivocally: Existing placements were ‘paused’ from 24 March 2020 and all future placements have been postponed until further notice.

Emergency powers

Social Work England anticipated the unprecedented rise in the need for services, and moved quickly to use emergency powers to invite previously registered social workers in England to return to practice. Colum Conway, Social Work England’s chief executive confirmed that he has no current plans to accept final year students onto the register in England, but acknowledges that students may want to support local services. Students who are considering volunteer or unqualified roles are encouraged to talk to their course provider.

This differs from the approach taken by the Social Care Council in Northern Ireland (NISCC) which encouraged 200 final year social work students to qualify early. Students at Queen’s and Ulster University were given extra tutorial support and invited to bring deadlines for final assessments forward so that they can work in partnership with their colleagues in medicine, nursing and health supporting, caring for and protecting those in need.

The public health crisis has brought many challenges for health and social care workers across the board and students caught up in it may be frustrated by the disruption. We do know that those of us who take on this work are not easily daunted: If any good can come from coronavirus, it may be that new skills, partnerships and resources will emerge as our front line workers find ways to deal with these extraordinary circumstances.