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Motivations for Undertaking the New Social Work Degree


1 Executive Summary

1.1 Research Methodology

BMRB conducted a survey on behalf of the Scottish Executive of first year undergraduate and postgraduate social work students. Students took part from Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow, Glasgow Caledonian, Stirling and Robert Gordon universities. We received 178 questionnaires from undergraduates and 88 from postgraduates, representing a response rate of 72%.

At the same time 15 focus groups were held, each comprising up to 8 social work students. Three focus groups - two focus groups with undergraduate social work students and one focus group with postgraduate social work students - were held at each of the above universities' campuses, with the exception of Stirling University.

1.2 Student profile

Social work is a subject mainly taken by women. 79% of students in our survey were female. Compared to most subjects, students undertaking a degree in social work tend to be more mature. More than half of the students in our survey (52%) were over 30 years old. Compared to the postgraduate degree, the undergraduate degree consists of students from a wider range of ages, young and old. This age profile was reflected in the sample of respondents taking part in the focus groups. Few had recently left school. Mature students described how the motivation to care for others which underlay their decision to study social work had developed over many years prior to their application to the course.

1.3 Motivations for choosing social work degree

One aim of the research was to explore the reasons why students selected their particular course of study. The research found that both undergraduate and postgraduate students chose the social work degree course largely because it was the entry route into the social work profession. When asked a series of factors about why students chose the degree in the survey questionnaire, three-quarters (74%) of students chose 'using the degree as an entry route into social work' as one of their three most important factors, with 43% choosing this as the most important factor. This is much higher than other factors for choosing the degree.

In line with another research aim, the questionnaire went on to ask students why they chose social work as a career. Students appear to be choosing social work primarily because it is a rewarding job or a job that helps those in need (73% of students said these were the most important factors in choosing social work). Other less important motivators include: the variety of jobs available and the ability to switch jobs within social work, career development, the starting salary, the proportion of students gaining employment and the opportunity to gain employment in any geographical area.

Only one per cent of students mentioned the possibility of qualifying for the incentive scheme as a motivator, with no students saying this was the most important factor. For focus group respondents, the incentive scheme had little or no impact. The incentive scheme is discussed further below.

Further details emerging from the focus groups discussions suggest that students may study for a social work degree so that they can: gain more authority, responsibility and a career structure; enter a profession that is more personally satisfying and meaningful; or (in the case of younger students only) simply meet social expectations that they study for a degree. However, the fundamental, underlying motivation for all focus groups respondents was to 'care for others'. This was a way of 'contributing to society' and 'doing what's right'.

1.4 Path to social work degree

Students taking part in the focus groups described three typical paths to studying social work. Some mature students had left school at the age of 16 and then worked for years in casual, relatively unskilled work including care work, shop work and administration - sometimes also raising a family - before deciding to study social work. Other mature students, who sometimes had degrees already, had worked in other professions before becoming dissatisfied and deciding to change to social work. The few younger students taking part in the focus groups had often had a few months' experience of casual work or voluntary care roles in between leaving school and beginning the social work degree course.

According to the survey, nineteen per cent of students heard about the degree through someone already in social work or care. An additional 16% of students heard about the degree through their place of work and normally this was a social care work environment. (For example, focus group respondents gave accounts of hearing about social work and the degree course from care assistants and social workers visiting the care homes they worked in.) Fifteen per cent said they became aware of their course through a teacher or lecturer. These respondents largely consisted of undergraduates. Over one in ten (11%) said they were aware of the Degree through a family member and one in ten (10%) said they heard through a friend.

Similarly, in the focus group discussions, respondents largely spoke of informal ways of finding out about social work. Although many had received careers advice at school, either recently or in the past, none had been encouraged by their advisors to study social work. In short, word of mouth seemed to be the most common source of awareness. This suggests there is room for more promotion of social work in order to reach people who will not otherwise come into contact with social care.

The survey asked students if they had any other plans before starting their course. Thirty-seven per cent of students said they had plans to do something other than the social work degree. Most of these had planned studying another subject such as psychology or sociology. Many of those with other plans had considered teaching or working in social care. Additionally, in the focus groups, some respondents mentioned having considered studying nursing.

According to the survey, most students were in a paid job before starting the degree (58%). Most of those who were working before starting the degree were in paid work in a social care job. Postgraduates and older students were more likely to come from this background. Focus group discussions suggested that gaining the social work degree would give these respondents more authority and responsibility. They could then be more effective in their care work than they were previously. They would also be able to enter a career structure characterised by a range of job opportunities and career progression.

Students were asked in the survey if they had ever worked or volunteered in a social care environment. Nine in ten (89%) students had some relevant past work experience of this nature (whether it was full-time, part-time, sessional or voluntary). Clearly the experience of working in social care influenced the decision to undertake the degree. Among those who had some work experience, 92% said it had some influence on their decision to start the degree. Similarly, in the focus groups, respondents described voluntary care work as being a major influence on their decision to become social workers. Often students undertaking voluntary work had been surprised to find out just how much they liked caring, or that they were good at it. Students who for years had been stay-at-home mothers gained confidence in the re-application of existing care skills. Those disillusioned with current jobs or careers found a role that seemed more meaningful or valuable. Teenagers found 'something that they could do'.

1.5 Views on the Course and Placements

Four in ten students responding to the survey said their view of social work had changed since starting the degree. Younger respondents were more likely to say this. Students were most likely to say they had gained a better knowledge or deepened understanding of social work. Many comments focused on the demands and technicalities of the job role, such as a realisation there was more law and statutory requirements or paper work than first envisaged. More negative comments included, a minority of students saying their view of social work had worsened, or they had discovered the role was more under-resourced than they first thought, or there was more stigma attached to the role.

Students were asked about their experience of placements. Forty-seven per cent of those responding to the survey said they currently were, or had already been, on a placement. A quarter (26%) said they would experience a placement in the current academic year. A similar proportion (25%) said they were unlikely to experience one in the current academic year, only undergraduate students said this. The likelihood of experiencing a placement depended on which University the student was placed at. (A few focus group respondents described this variation, and differences in essay requirements, as evidence of variation in social work degree courses across Scotland which they had been told were identical.)

Students who were, or had been, on a placement were asked how useful it was. Encouragingly, four-fifths (81%) said it was very or quite useful. All focus group respondents agreed that placements were important and could in theory be very valuable at introducing students to the practical face of social work. However those who had undertaken a placement within the first year of their course gave mixed views of their experiences. Some had been left unsupervised and unsupported for long periods of time, and felt that they had no way of redressing this situation. Additionally, students had no say in their allotted placement. Work placements were unpaid despite sometimes lasting many days, and could lead to students losing income as a result of having to reduce the hours spent working at part-time jobs.

The survey confirms that those who had been on placements were more likely to say their views of social work had changed since undertaking the degree. They were more likely to agree that social work had well structured training and career development. However, students having placements were less likely to agree that the image of social work had improved in recent years and were less likely to agree that there was a clear political vision for the future of social work (see below for more analysis of these attitude statements).

1.6 Social work as a career

Analysis of the survey reveals that almost all (96%) students wanted to become a social worker after they graduated. Children and families was the most popular choice of specialism, as chosen by 57% of students who wanted to become social workers. Other popular areas included criminal justice or youth justice (42%), mental health (35%) and substance misuse or addiction services (30%).

1.7 Social workers in society

An aim of the research was to assess perceptions about, and aspirations for, the roles of social work and the social worker in modern society. Students were asked a series of agreement statements about social work in the survey. There was a general understanding about the constraints and pressures faced by social workers. Ninety-six per cent agreed that there is too much pressure and stress on social workers and 94% agreed that social workers often operate in an under-resourced environment. Close to nine in ten (89%) agreed that social workers are often unfairly blamed when something goes wrong in social care situation. This concern was expressed strongly in all the focus groups. Respondents spoke of their worries about entering a blame culture in which individual social workers, rather than their employer, are singled out to be a 'scapegoat' whenever something goes wrong with a client's case. Students are concerned that at such times they will be left unsupported by their social work supervisors. (The high-profile Victoria Climbie case was given as an example.)

Just over seven in ten (71%) survey respondents thought there was a lack of clarity about the role of social workers. Most students also recognised that there are recruitment and retention difficulties in social work (84% said this). Almost all students on the course still want to become a social worker despite any concerns they might have. However, it is possible that potential students have been deterred from the profession by these types of concerns.

Views were equally split on whether the image of social work has improved in recent years (47% agreed whereas 48% disagreed). Similarly views were split on whether there was a political vision for the future of social work with 36% agreeing and 44% disagreeing.

More positively, almost all students (97%) agreed that social workers can make a genuine difference to other peoples' lives. As mentioned previously this was a prime motivator for entering social work in the first place. Over nine in ten (92%) agreed that social work is becoming increasingly more professional. Close to three-quarters (73%) also thought that social work has well-structured training and development. According to focus group respondents, the professionalism and personal development structure of social work were highly valued and motivating factors. These increased students' faith and confidence in the social work profession.

In the survey students were asked to compare social work to other public sector professions. Eighty-five per cent thought social workers were the best at 'involving service users in the development of services' and 62% thought social workers were the best at working in community partnerships. Over seven in ten (72%) thought social workers had the most interesting and varied career.

Although students were positive about their interest in social work, they also reported a low level of reward and recognition compared to other public sector professionals. Only 1% said that social workers were the most respected by the public (nurses faired best on this statement) and only 2% said that social workers were the most valued by government (police were viewed as the most valued). Only 4% said social workers were paid the most appropriately.

Although police were most commonly thought to be the most exposed to risk, three in ten (29%) thought social workers were exposed to the greatest level of risk.

1.8 Scottish Executive measures to address recruitment and retention in social work

An aim of the research was to assess whether the Scottish Executive's activities to improve the recruitment and retention of social work staff had influenced social work students' decision to embark on the social work degree. More specifically, the research aimed to assess the impact of the Care in Scotland and World Tour advertising campaigns.

Accordingly, students were asked in the survey if they were aware of any advertising or publicity encouraging people to become social workers. Eighty-four per cent said they were aware of such advertising. 42% of students specifically recognised the Care in Scotland logo and 39% recognised the Social Work: World Tour logo. Older students were more likely to recognise the former and younger students were more likely to recognise the latter.

A fifth (19%) of those who were aware of advertising said it had a lot or quite a lot of impact on their choice of degree. However, it seemed that focus group respondents had only seen the advertising in the last year or so, once they had already decided to study social work or begun the course. When shown the various campaign images, respondents generally thought that grittier, more detailed and more realistic images might have more impact.

Undergraduate students were asked if they were likely to have taken the Diploma in Social Work ( DipSW) if the new Social Work Degree was not available. The majority of survey respondents were likely to take the DipSW in the absence of the new degree (89% said likely, with 67% saying very likely).

The research also aimed to assess the impact of the Scottish Executive's social work incentive scheme on new social work students, particularly its influence on their decision to study social work. Students were asked if they were aware of the incentive scheme (a grant of up to £9,000 available in the first two years of employment for difficult to fill posts). Under half (44%) of students responding to the survey were aware and less were aware of the amount offered. In total, only 11% of social work students were aware of the scheme and knew how much was on offer, suggesting detailed knowledge of the scheme is not widespread.

Very few students (11 respondents or 4% of all respondents) said they would have been unlikely to do the social work degree in the absence of the incentive scheme. This suggests that the impact of the incentive scheme on student motivations is minor. This is confirmed by the fact only 1% of students told us this was an important factor in choosing social work.

Correspondingly, in the focus groups, most respondents had only a vague understanding of the incentive scheme. They described the incentive scheme as having no impact on them. Their current and pressing concerns about mounting student debt meant that the incentive scheme - seen as patchy and restrictive in its application - was too far in the future to provide financial support now, when they need it most. Some respondents thought that there was a risk that students might drop out of the degree course as their debts became unmanageable. A bursary scheme, or a reduction of the duration of the undergraduate course from four to three years, might alleviate this risk.

Although the incentive scheme may not have had much direct impact on motivation, it is worth noting that the starting salary for social work (£20-£25k) was an important factor in choosing social work for approximately 1 in 5 students.