Using the strengths-based approach in student placements

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By Sarah J. Davies – Social Work Placements Co-ordinator. April 2018.

The field of Social Work has developed a method or philosophy called the ‘strengths-based’ approach which can be liberating for everybody to consider using.

When applying a strengths-based approach to student or staff learning, we focus on what the individual can already do, rather than on their problems, limitations or ‘lack’ of particular skills and knowledge. As part of the strengths-based approach, the student would be seen as empowered, “capable of solving their own problems,” and taking a pro-active part in their learning rather than UWE (and its partner educators) being the ‘experts’ who diagnose a student’s situation and determine what should be done (See The ‘strengths-based’ approach demands a more collaborative relationship between the student and UWE. The student is encouraged to take the initiative in identifying systems and strategies to support them on their journey towards completing a qualification.

At UWE, inclusivity is a core value, and the diverse student population is one of our greatest strengths. In my role as the placements co-ordinator for Social Work, one of the biggest challenges can be securing placements for this diverse population.

For many years, our partner Practice Learning Co-ordinators would receive the batch of student papers and we would have a similar conversation. Very often, the Co-ordinator might express concerns at the students’ age and lack of direct experience. And each time I would remind them that we measure our undergraduates by aptitude, not experience.

The truth of the matter is that sometimes students coming straight from school can be perceptive, with a lot of experience relevant to their chosen profession, and then sometimes they are not. Occasionally, a student in their 40s can have less professional awareness than one in their early 20s. So age is clearly not the right benchmark for assessing people.

The strengths-based philosophy offers an alternative view which helpfully focuses on students’ skills and knowledge. A young student, for example, could be seen as part of an IT-savvy generation who might be quick to understand the benefits of social media and flexible enough to move with rapid technological change. Such learners might be fast to pick up complex local authority IT systems for the managing of cases and care packages within the Social Work profession.

Putting it into practice

In the past, conversations with Practice Learning Co-ordinators used to end with an agreed compromise – I would offer to ring the students to fish for information and see whether the given résumé could be improved.

For example, on one occasion, I rang a young student with a notably sparse employment history and prepared to improvise.

“Can you tell me anything more?” I said in my most encouraging tones, “Anything relevant at all?”

“Well, I did used to work in a nursery”, the student said tentatively, in fact so tentatively that my next question was,

“Plants or children?”

“Children”, they answered, amused.

I was left wondering why they hadn’t written this down. Had the student come to see paid work with small children as such low status work that it didn’t qualify as ‘social care’, but as a more elaborate form of ‘babysitting’? Perhaps there were cultural perceptions involved?

In the years that followed, we shifted to working with a more strengths-based approach. We organised preparation sessions, involving our Practice Learning Co-ordinators, to teach students the value of their own previous experience. Transferable skills gained in pubs and shops, such as customer service and administration, were definitely relevant to the ever-changing Social Work profession.

Our processes in 2018 started with a radically new suggestion. A new academic colleague asked:

‘What if we did away with gender, age and ethnicity on this form?’

On the one hand, some agencies might justifiably need to know. Residential settings (for looked-after children, for example) sometimes have good practice guidelines about the gap in age between the oldest service user and youngest member of staff (not less than five years). In the past, some secure units, such as young offenders’ institutes, used to follow a similar policy.

We chewed over our distinctly ‘UWE’ undergraduate problem. – The ‘young student’ question is less of an issue for Bristol University, who run a master’s programme only and can therefore guarantee a higher age threshold for  its cohorts of social work trainees. Age can, of course, be guessed at from earliest employment years, but somehow we felt that the act of removing this box from the front page would make youth less prominent.

We consulted with colleagues at Bristol University, compared, and contrasted template placement forms.  No age, gender or ethnicity there. For all the extra layers of administration, we decided to chuck in a ‘curved ball’ and go for it. Age is now ‘out’ of our forms and to see how we got on, you will have to watch this space . . .


LGBT History Month: events, allyship, and trans inclusivity

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By Liberty Strong, LGBT+ Officer, UWE Students Union

This year the LGBT+ Society, UWE Feminist Society and The Students’ Union brought together a cross campus programme of events around the theme of allyship. We invited the UWE community to #ShowYourTrueColours and join us in a month of celebration, education and awareness. This included free films, HIV fast testing, workshops on  gender & intersectionality, discussions about pinkwashing, arts & LGBT+ resistance, Bisexual Visibility, queer history monologues and LGBT+ takeover of Lock In! As well as an incredible reading & resources list produced in collaboration with UWE Library.

Image of Rainbow map of UK on quilt cover thanking MP's who supported same-sex marriage in 2013
Politics and textiles: Oliver Bliss’s quilt project celebrating equal marriage

Our main goal this February was to invite UWE students to #ShowYourTrueColours, encouraging LGBT+ students to be proud of who they are, and to not be afraid to express themselves at university. We achieved this through launching our Ally Campaign. This meant bringing together student representatives and staff members from across the university in a show of solidarity for the LGBT+ community, promoting the idea that you don’t have to be a member of the community to support it.

None of these events could have been possible without the incredible work of the LGBTPlus Society Committee and members. They managed to come up with a broad range of activities to ensure that there was something for everyone this month. Together, with Marianna the SU’s National, Faith & Identity Societies Coordinator, we have had a more diverse and well organised LGBT+ History Month than ever. It’s important that we appreciate the work put into this month, as it is important that the students here raise awareness of the issues faced and milestones achieved by the LGBT+ community from UWE and beyond.

Trans Awareness and gender neutral toilets on campus

As LGBT+ Officer, I have become very involved in the conversation on trans student rights. After the SU wellbeing survey revealed 98% of trans students have suffered from mental health issues, I felt it important to facilitate trans students needs and make their university experience easier.

Poster promoting UWE bathroom as a safe space for Trans and Gender Questioning Students
Trans awareness posters to be put in toilets

Therefore during February, I have also started liaising with the UWE facilities team through the SU to establish more gender neutral toilets in the university. At present, the only gender neutral toilets exist in the SU building and the new X Block. The university has agreed to change any single cubicle gendered toilets around the university into gender neutral toilets. They have also committed to building gender neutral toilets into all new buildings.

As part of the LGBT+ Month campaign and the theme of allyship – working with the university we have developed Trans Awareness posters to be put in toilets across all three campuses. We are encouraging students to respect others’ privacy, identity and continue as normal if they are questioning someone’s right to use a specific bathroom.

This is important because transitioning students may find it hard to adjust to using their preferred gender toilets. This may be due to fear of judgement. Having a bathroom accessible to either gender is a safer option. We are doing everything we can to make the environment for students transitions as comfortable as possible.




Rt Hon David Lammy MP launches 2018 Equity Speaker Series at UWE Bristol

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Rt Hon David Lammy MP, author of the Lammy Review launched the 2018 Equity Speaker Series on Wednesday 24 January at the UWE Bristol Exhibition and Conference Centre. Lammy, who is an popular campaigner and outspoken social and political commentator, spoke on the topic of  ‘The Confidence to Be: What next for the BAME graduate?’ Following the talk, 200 delegates enjoyed networking and a Caribbean inspired canape reception courtesy of Calypso Kitchen restaurant , the brain child of UWE Bristol Alumnus Will Clarke.  A number of pro-diversity organisations were also in attendance as exhibitors to promote opportunities to BAME students.

About UWE Bristol’s Equity Programme

Equity is an innovative positive-action talent and professional development programme for home-BAME students at UWE Bristol.  It was launched in FBL at the University’s annual Link event in October 2017 which attracted approximately 300 students and professionals.  Its principal objectives are the improvement of graduate outcomes specifically in terms of increasing professional employment and self-employment rates as well as supporting them to aim for careers which offer promising earning potential.  Equity days take place once a month and include race and identity coaching and workshops entirely facilitated by external BAME professionals and entrepreneurs. Each Equity day concludes with a keynote speaker that reflects the best of British BAME talent.  (Equity Curator Dr Zainab Khan and Race Equality Programmes Officer Alex Mormoris are both based within FBL, any queries should be addressed to you can also follow the programme on Twitter @Bristol_Equity )

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