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 . . .


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