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Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council – sponsoring Social Work students

Jon Day is a Workforce Development Manager at Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, which has been involved in sponsoring students on the Open University’s (OU’s) BA (Hons) Social Work (Wales) degree programme for a number of years. Jon explains below how sponsorship works and outlines the benefits for those involved.

"At Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council we agree to sponsor up to three Open University (OU) social work students per academic year, but this varies according to the numbers applying and meeting the entry criteria; for the last two years, for example, we’ve sponsored only one student.

When I joined Merthyr Tydfil in April 2007 as Workforce Development Manager, the OU was one of a number of providers, but since that time has become our only provider of sponsored places. There were many reasons why we moved to a single provider, but most specifically we needed to manage the degree in a way that would allow us to contribute fully as a partner but would also mean that we were able to meet the increasing post-qualifying demands being placed on organisations who employ social workers. To do this we could only commit to one provider, so given that we were sponsoring with The Open University this made it a relatively straightforward business case to support. In the current economic climate, cost and resources in general, were also factors to consider before reaching a decision. However when looking at the degree in social work this falls some way down the list compared to factors such as learner satisfaction, quality of teaching materials, tutor support, progression into the sector, and  approach to partnership. At the moment the approach to pricing at the OU is within our reach to continue our current level of support to learners.

Learners are given study leave in line with the study leave agreement they sign, and whilst they attend weekend study days and workshops in their own time any time off required for mid-week attendance, including exams is provided in addition to regular monthly study leave. This provision is critical as it gives learners who are in employment a certain level of support while studying for what is a significant award.

With regard to fees, the costs are fully funded as are travelling expenses to workshops and whilst on placement. The learners’ commitment is in relation to giving their own time to attend workshops, tutorials and the like as well as time required to complete assignments, and prepare for exams.

The main benefit to learners of studying whilst working is that they continue to earn while they progress through the programme. It is a difficult decision to give up a job and pursue a degree of this nature, so being able to continue in employment is a huge bonus. Equally, the majority of our learners are from a care setting so a lot of their learning has relevance to their ‘day job’ on an ongoing basis. When we run awareness-raising sessions to promote the social work degree, we are careful to emphasise the level of commitment required so that as far as possible there are no surprises. We invite former students to speak at these sessions so that potential learners can hear first-hand the experiences of those who have achieved the degree.

As manager, I am proud of the support we give our students, whether they are sponsored or non-sponsored and we recognise the commitment each individual has made to undertake the degree. This is complemented by the organisation in terms of sponsorship and resourcing the necessary levels of support for all students. Equally, the sponsorship route is a critical part of our workforce- planning strategy, including succession planning, and therefore it is essential we get this part of the process right.

There are a number of benefits to providing training and higher qualifications to staff. We undertook some analysis a few months ago where we measured retention for our sponsored students compared to those from direct-entry routes and the results were quite startling. Over 80 per cent of the students sponsored are still with us, compared to just over 30 per cent of those from direct-entry routes. This type of data continues to justify the investment required to retain this absolutely crucial route for people to qualify as social workers. Of the 20 per cent of sponsored students who are no longer working for the organisation all bar one are still in the social care sector, either in other local authorities (LAs), the voluntary sector or in a shared service with another LA. Since 2007, nineteen social work students have graduated and remain with us to this day. All are in social worker posts across the LA in various teams such as Looked after Children or Community Mental Health Teams. Anecdotally, the calibre of social work students across the board is improving.  

I can’t speak highly enough of the OU team in Wales. Every year we hold a development day when we take the opportunity to reflect on the previous year and set the agenda for the forthcoming year; this includes all stakeholders and not just partners. There is consistent feedback as to how being involved in the OU feels like a true partnership and this is the key factor for me. It is not tokenistic in its approach to partnership, but is embedded in everything that happens and the fact that true partnership exists is the reason why the degree remains a quality programme. If a suggestion is made for improvement it is discussed, debated and if necessary adopted. If it isn’t adopted, the reasons are explained and this ensures that people remain engaged. No single person or agency drives the degree, it is the partnership that drives it and this is essential for the model of employer partnership to work. The entire team in Wales, led by the Director, provides an effective service to all its stakeholders and ensures that governance is inclusive at all levels. One of the team’s biggest attributes is its ability to make sure people contribute through various means – for example, by being chair or vice chair on various task groups, UK committees – some might call it effective delegation! Being a partner is demanding, but equally it is rewarding because the degree is shaped by everyone and therefore remains fit for purpose.

Equally the tutors work with us in a variety of ways in terms of providing a link between learner and employer with regard to progress and any ‘road bumps’ learners may be facing that may need employer support. They attend mid-point placement reviews with their learners and this enables us to have a holistic review of the progress being made on a critical aspect of the programme. Tutors also attend Wales Programme Partnership to provide a tutor perspective to programme governance.

Social work is a very demanding, yet rewarding, career and the degree is fit for purpose in that it prepares learners for their chosen vocation, particularly through the 200 days’ practice requirements. However, no vocational programme can fully prepare you for the role and it is not until you start working as a registered social worker that the full extent of the role can be appreciated. There is a commitment to ensure that we continue to revise the content of the degree so it remains current and modern in its teaching and that placements are robust and challenging yet supportive so we offer the best possible experience and therefore preparation.

One final point I’d like to make is to reemphasise that a key feature of the OU is in the strength of and the total commitment to partnership. This ensures that all stakeholders’ views are taken into account when reviewing and improving the programme for its learners and ultimately the thousands of vulnerable people who will have their needs met throughout the learners’ career."

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