04 February 2015

5 key findings from social work programme approvals

Jamie Hunt, Education Manager at the HCPC, talks through some of the observations and trends following the second year of social work programme approval visits.

The 2013-14 academic year saw the Education team complete the second year of approval visits to social work programmes. In total we visited 113 programmes at 43 education providers, 16 of which were new programmes.

The purpose of the process is to ensure an education provider:
  • has a robust framework to manage all aspects of their programme effectively;
  • holds responsibility for all aspects of their programme, including placement environments;
  • has curriculum and assessment which support the delivery of our standards of proficiency for social workers in England, and;
  • can make good decisions about those individuals who receive the final approved award.
If we find areas which do not meet our standards following an approval visit, we will set conditions which must be met before it can be approved.

With other professions previously new to HCPC regulation, we’ve found that education providers better understand our quality assurance approach over time, and therefore work effectively to align their programmes to our standards. This usually means that as the series of approval visits progresses, the fewer issues we identify. This was certainly true of our approval visits to social work programmes in the 2013-14 academic year, in comparison to the previous year.

Here, we have summarised some of the key observations and trends. Our full report – Review of the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) approval visits to social work pre-registration education and training programmes in the 2013-14 academic year – is available to download on our website.

Social work programme approval visits 2013-14: 5 key findings

1. On average, we applied 1.8 fewer conditions per social work programme in the 2013-14 academic year compared to the previous year. 

This result suggests social work education providers are becoming more familiar with our regulatory requirements. They are successfully providing the evidence to meet our standards prior to and at the visit itself.

2. Education providers are more aware of the importance of managing issues regarding student consent.

SET 3.14 requires education providers to ensure that: “where students participate as service users in practical and clinical teaching, appropriate protocols must be used to obtain their consent”.

Last year, we found we applied conditions to 56% of programmes but this has dropped to 33% in year two. This suggests there is greater understanding amongst programme teams regarding getting informed consent from students where they are involved in role play or are sharing personal information. 

3. Many of the conditions we placed on programmes were linked to:
  • Inadequate programme documentation
One way to demonstrate a robust framework is in place to manage a programme is ensuring all areas are clearly documented. This is why we ask education providers to submit copies of key programme documents (e.g. programme and placement handbooks). We commonly set conditions where we find inconsistency, or an absence of information, in these documents which could affect a stakeholder’s engagement with a programme.
  • A lack of documented policies and systems, used to manage a range of programme areas
To approve a programme, policies and systems must be in place, written down and appropriately applied. As a regulator, we do not solely rely on the establishment of good will and long-standing relationships between various stakeholders to support a programme’s delivery. We need to be satisfied an education provider can effectively identify, manage, mitigate and learn from issues and risks and in doing so, maintain the level of quality that our standards require of them.
  • Clarity regarding how the programme meets Standards of Education and Training (SETs) and supports individuals meeting our Standards of Proficiency (SOPs)
Education providers need to clearly identify how their programme aligns to our standards. This can take time and this is one of the reasons we provide education providers with a six month lead in time to the visit itself. Careful thought is needed to consider how the programme meets our SETs and SOPs and it is important that this is mapped clearly for the benefit of our visitors who will assess the programme. This process of mapping should also allow an education provider to identify any potential gaps in how they meet our standards prior to the visit.

4. A shift in the split between undergraduate and postgraduate programmes sees more social work programmes being delivered at postgraduate level.

At the point of transfer in August 2012, 47% per cent of programmes were delivered at postgraduate level. At the end of the 2013-14 academic year, 54% of programmes were delivered at postgraduate level.

5. All social work programmes visited in the 2013-14 academic year have now successfully completed the approval process.

This means that programmes with conditions placed on them have now evidenced that all conditions have been met. Once a programme has met all our standards through an approval visit it receives what is called 'open-ended' approval. This does not mean these programmes are approved indefinitely. They will need to continue meeting our standards through mandatory engagement year to year with our monitoring processes.

We prefer to keep regular engagement with the programmes we approve, rather than running a re-approval cycle. It allows us to assess incremental changes to programmes largely as and when they occur. Importantly, where significant changes are identified in our monitoring processes, we have mechanisms in place to enable a new approval visit to be initiated if required.

In conclusion

We are pleased to see that the work we have carried out with education providers is proving effective. Over the past two years we have delivered seminars aimed at those providers who were yet to undertake an approval visit, and have supported providers with guidance literature and through our newsletter, Education Update. We were also able to directly address any issues with members of programme teams before their visit. We also widely publicised the findings of our first year review and we’ll be doing the same this year, so have a read and share our findings.

Our second year report is not intended to be a comprehensive review of social worker education in England. We are still part way through our three year programme of visiting transitionally approved social work programmes, and it is too early to draw full conclusions about the impact of the standards of education and training (SETs) in assuring, and driving improvements in, social work education. We intend to begin a more comprehensive review at the end of the 2014-15 academic year.


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