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Outstanding curriculum, exemplary partnerships: social work training at The Open University

The Open University (OU) delivers an outstanding social work curriculum, partnerships with employers are exemplary, and learning is flexible and responsive. That is the conclusion of the recent Periodic Quality Review of OU social work provision.

Since 1997, The Open University has partnered with over 300 employers to train more than 6,000 registered social workers across all four nations of the UK. We’re delighted to be the largest provider of Social Worker Degree Apprenticeships in England (based on new 2019/20 official registration data from the Department for England (DfE)).

We offer three work-based routes into social work – undergraduate degrees tailored to the requirements of the devolved regulators across the UK, a degree apprenticeship (England only) and a postgraduate pathway (England and Scotland).

The recent quality review drew on expertise from academics in the field, service users and carers, students and employers. They concluded that social work education at The Open University was to be highly commended for its quality, flexibility and collaborative nature.

Our provision was particularly recognised for its:

  • Flexibility and responsiveness, especially in response to COVID-19
  • Outstanding support for students and employers
  • Collaborative approach to working with employers and the positive outcomes this delivers
  • Service user engagement in programme delivery
  • And for our Welsh students, excellence in embedding of the Welsh language and culture

This reaffirms our status as one of the leading providers of social work education in the UK, giving employers added confidence when choosing to train their future workforce with The Open University.

Flexible social work education that widens participation

Cornwall Council two ladies

Recruiting social workers can be a challenge, so the ‘grow your own talent’ approach is an attractive option for many employers.

Our flexible work-based programmes are delivered through a combination of online, tutor-led and practice-based learning. This makes it possible to train social workers on-the-job, fitting study around professional and personal commitments.

This helps attract untapped talent into the profession, widening participation to include employees who can’t commit to traditional full-time study. For example, experienced social care workers who have the enthusiasm and experience to excel as social workers, but who can’t afford the time and expense of a full-time degree programme.  

It also benefits often-overstretched employers, who don’t have to accommodate rigid study timetables and travel time at the expense of service delivery, as well as employers in Higher Education ‘cold spots’.

An outstanding social work curriculum

Our curriculum is designed by experienced social workers and educators, in partnership with employers, national regulators, service users and carers, to deliver the best outcomes for students and the people they support.

Students learn the practice and academic elements of social work in parallel. 

The key is integrating the knowledge, skills and values with practice. It’s an iterative way of learning. Students draw on their new knowledge in practice, and also bring their practice to bear on what they’re learning. It creates social work practitioners who are critical thinkers, and that thinking is underpinned by knowledge and understanding.

Dr Jo Rawles
The OU’s Head of Social Work for England

The Open University is the only four-nations provider of social work training in the UK. The PQR commended the curriculum for the way it adapts to different regulatory needs in each country and reflects their cultural-specificity, such as embedding Welsh language and culture within the curriculum for students in Wales.

Exemplary partnerships with employers

The PQR also commended The Open University’s outstanding partnerships with social work providers.

Whilst it’s a regulatory requirement for training providers to consult with employers, the OU’s employer link is more embedded than most, including:

  • Supporting the recruitment process with employee presentations and participation on recruitment events, to help employers identify candidates with potential for success
  • Engaging employers in curriculum development and as critical readers for learning materials
  • Involving employers in practice assessments to ensure students achieve rigorous professional standards

Service users are also involved in decision-making and delivering the programme, from the recruitment of students to participating in curriculum content through interviews, podcasts and more.

A proactive and value-based response to COVID-19

The PQR also commended the OU for their student-centred and client-focused response to COVID-19, which was firmly in line with social work values.

Thanks to our distance learning model, study processes required only minor changes, whilst practice-based learning was quickly adapted in consultation with employers and regulators.

This allowed employers and the OU to continue delivering training and services safely for all participants, without compromising on outcomes.

Communication with students and employers, alongside support and flexibility, enabled the programmes to preserve the student learning experience and ensure they are prepared for the demands of the workplace and – importantly – able to respond to those in need and at risk.

Deirdre Fitzpatrick
OU Head of Social work (Scotland)

Conditions for placement viability were assessed and practice tutors received guidance to support students effectively, alongside regulatory guidance.

This allowed employers and the OU to continue delivering training and services safely for all participants, without compromising on outcomes.

Whilst support for students is important, our consideration needs to go beyond this. Social workers and social work students are doing critical and difficult work that impacts significantly on the lives of other people. For their sake, we can’t cut corners and our response to Covid shows that we don’t.

Dr Jo Rawles
The OU’s Head of Social Work for England

To find out more about our social work programmes, please contact us by email.

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