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Pioneering a new route into social work

Two apprentices studying

There are many reasons why City of York Council decided to partner with The Open University to run its new Social Worker Degree Apprenticeship. One of them, according to Lesley Furnival, Practice Consultant in Children’s Social Care at the council, is that the apprenticeship has created a great learning and career path. In particular, it enables non-qualified staff to work towards a qualification that will give them a big step forward in their careers. With that qualification, they can apply for registration as a social worker.

“It’s enabling learning and training for existing members of staff and gives them opportunities which they haven’t been able to take up, maybe due to finances or personal circumstances,” says Lesley. “It may be one of the main opportunities they’ve got to actually look at qualifying. And it gives us the opportunity to really support people who’ve probably worked with us in our workforce for a very long time.”

One of those apprentices is Louise, who began working for the council about 12 years ago in an administrative role and then moved into various roles in adult social care teams and children centres. She has wanted to become a social worker for a very long time and it’s this opportunity that is helping her to realise that dream.

It’s a really great opportunity that’s come at the right time for me. I’ve not been able to afford not to work to go back and study. It’s fantastic that we’ve had this opportunity through work to do it by distance learning with support within the organisation as well.

Apprentices, Claire and Louise

Claire, another apprentice and one who has worked for the council within children’s social care for almost 17 years, tells a similar story. “An Open University apprenticeship is a perfect fit for myself because it means that I can continue working on a full time basis and the flexibility of the study enables me to continue with commitments that I’ve got outside of work.”

The ability to earn and learn at the same time makes the apprenticeship very accessible to new and existing employees. And the flexible nature of the apprenticeship means they are able to fit the learning around work commitments and personal commitments. As with all apprenticeships, the apprentices take 20% out of their roles each week to concentrate on learning. That learning is tailored to individual, departmental and organisational needs and will feed back into the apprentice’s existing role.

Ralph Edwards, principal social worker at the council, says the apprenticeships will form an important part of the overall training provision. “It’s really important that we support all our staff through all of their career in developing their training and skills so they can do the job in the most effective way. It’s about making sure that we have quality staff and that the way we do things is professional.”From the council’s perspective, another advantage of rolling out these apprenticeships to existing staff is that they know that they definitely want to work in social care and understand the demands of the job. “They already know the reality of social work and the profession they want to train in because they are working in teams where social work is already happening,” says Lesley. “We already know them, they know us and they’re motivated and keen, which is a real benefit for us.”

When the council was looking for an apprenticeship partner, it wanted to make sure that partner had a good track record in delivering apprenticeships and would provide a high level of support. Karen Darley, workforce development adviser at the council, said it soon became apparent that The Open University was a great fit. “We were really keen to work with The Open University because they’ve got a very well established record of delivering distance learning courses, especially at degree level,” she says. “It was really important to us because this is a new course. There’s not many other providers available that have got the breadth of knowledge and history of delivering distance learning courses.”

Because it’s a new approach to upskilling the workforce for City of York Council, Karen says it was essential to get buy in, from the top down. The OU has supported the council all the way, from helping design the programme through to getting senior level buy in and to forthcoming inductions for the new apprentices. The OU helped deliver information sessions to staff, including the senior management team, so that everyone knew what was involved and the level of commitment that was required.