Transforming social work education in Scotland

Published on 10 June 2021

Social work education and workforce development practice is being transformed across Scotland based on research undertaken by Dr Trish McCulloch in the School of Education and Social Work.

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The social work sector has been under pressure over recent decades due to increased demand for, and expectations of, social services in light of an ageing population and growing social inequalities whilst additionally experiencing a sustained period of public sector austerity with significant public service funding cuts.

Dr Patricia McCulloch has worked with government, professional leaders, agencies, practitioners, students and people who use social work services to strengthen professional education in an essential effort to redevelop the sector.

In 2013, the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) announced an intention to ‘develop a new and different approach’ to professional learning, premised on unsubstantiated accounts of inadequate existing provision. Dr McCulloch and colleagues responded with a call for evidence, resulting in a national Review of Social Work Education.  Dr McCulloch was appointed co-chair of the Review, which concluded in 2016 with a report setting out key findings and recommendations for action - two of which were included in the Scottish Government’s National Health and Social Care Workforce plan. The Plan sets the strategic direction for improved workforce planning and development across social services in Scotland and provides direction and accountability to nine higher education providers, all practice providers and over ten thousand social workers.

Key findings from McCulloch’s research were:

  1. Social Work education and practice in Scotland is fit for purpose but facing significant challenges. Qualifying education needs to be understood as a foundation for professional learning rather than the completion of it.
  2. Social Work education is a shared endeavour, requiring significant contribution from all stakeholders.  Cutbacks across practice and higher education have resulted in partnership-light models of learning, to the detriment of learning and practice outcomes.
  3. Practice learning requires investment.  Existing partnerships rest on strained goodwill and require national infrastructure to support excellent outcomes.

A key recommendation resulting from Dr McCulloch’s research was the development of a national partnership between employers, educators and other key stakeholders to ensure improvement in practice learning and quality and consistency across social work qualifying programmes. This led to the implementation of a national Social Work Education Partnership (SWEP), which now provides collaborative leadership and accountability for all involved in the delivery of social work education.

The Partnership serves nine HEIs, all practice providers, 1899 students and ultimately all users of social work services. This is enabling a national coordinated response to significant learning and practice challenges, inclusive of Covid-19.

Also, following Dr McCulloch’s research, in 2019 national pilots of a supported and assessed year in practice for newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) were implemented in Aberdeen, Angus and West of Scotland, providing a structured approach to the support and assessment of over 90 NQSWs. McCulloch now serves on the national NQSW Implementation group which was established in 2020 to develop the policy detail to support a planned national rollout in 2022, serving all practice providers and NQSWs across Scotland.

McCulloch’s work is recognised across the UK and internationally, as having moved the agenda beyond a narrow focus on education towards a comprehensive focus on professional learning,  and on the learning partnerships needed to achieve and sustain policy and practice change. 

“Often research papers are interesting but lack impact in the real world. In the case of this research, it has found the weight and authenticity to break through these usual barriers and proven so successful in influencing at scale…it has set the bedrock for a fundamental shift in how we consider the issue of social work practice development.”

Kathryn Lindsay, Chief Social Work Officer for Angus Council


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