Impact case study

Transforming social work education and professional learning in Scotland

Published on 12 May 2022

Collaborative approaches to policy implementation for social work education and workforce development.

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According to the Scottish Social Services Council*, there are over 10,000 social workers registered in Scotland, working across a range of services including hospitals, prisons and local authorities, as well as the voluntary sector and independent service providers. Social work is both an academic discipline and a practice-based profession - social workers must hold a recognised qualification in order to practice and must be registered with the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC). However, training for social workers has at times been a controversial area, seen as vulnerable to politically driven reform and with a sometimes ambivalent relationship to research.

In 2013, against a background of claims of inadequate service provision, the SSSC announced its desire for a new approach to professional learning for social workers. Responding to this announcement, Dr Trish McCulloch and colleagues led a call for evidence that resulted in a national Review of Social Work Education co-chaired by McCulloch and to subsequent changes in social work policy, education and professional learning.

In contrast to approaches adopted elsewhere, McCulloch’s strategy for the Review was one of inclusion, prioritising engagement and collaboration, with a focus on research-led improvement rather than a top-down ‘corrective’ approach.  The Review process actively involved a range of stakeholders from the outset, including policy makers, sector leaders, academics, practitioners and students, as well as service users. Key findings from the Review were refined and published as a series of five recommendations in a final report that received sector-wide endorsement.

Implementation of the recommendations has had a transformative impact on learning partnerships and outcomes; it has changed the way social work learning policy is developed and implemented, and has been recognised as a ‘catalyst’ for investment in professional learning across social work career pathways:

Policy development – education and career pathways: The National Health and Social Care Workforce Plan incorporates two of the key recommendations from the research, focused on improvements to social work education and the development of career pathways. The plan sets the strategic direction for national workforce planning and development in Scotland, establishing direction and accountability for providers of social work education, practice providers and social workers.

Policy development -  standards for social work education and professional learning: The work of the Review led to the implementation of three national pilots of a supported and assessed year in practice, alongside the development of new benchmark standards for newly qualified social workers, and the creation of an Implementation Group to support and develop policy detail for national rollout in 2022.

Further strategic policy developments include the publication of Revised Standards in Social Work Education (2020), a National Review of Post-qualifying Learning by the SSSC in 2019, and a requirement for continuous professional learning (replacing earlier requirements for ‘post registration training and learning’). Beyond Scotland, McCulloch’s work has informed the Northern Ireland Social Care Council’s Review of the Degree in Social Work.  

National partnerships for education practice: The Social Work Education Partnership was implemented in 2019, with the aim of improving the quality, consistency and experience of social work education across Scotland. The Partnership has enabled a national coordinated response to the challenges of practice learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting the safe resumption of practice learning, enabling students to meet required standards for practice while maintaining safeguards to the public.

The work has been recognised by the Office of Chief Social Work Adviser as having a significant contribution to the development of Scottish Government policy on social work education, and welcomed by Chief Social Work Officers as pivotal, “enabling debate and action at policy and practice levels”.  

*Figures according to Social Work Scotland accessed 28 Feb 2022

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