Flexible study best way to attract next generation of social workers - Deirdre Fitzpatrick

The next generation of social workers are urgently needed now to support and protect the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our communities. The pandemic has highlighted the critical role of our wider social care workforce and the skills they have that can be developed into rewarding social work careers.

Unfortunately, there aren’t currently enough social workers coming through to meet what society needs. At the annual Newly Qualified Social Workers Conference, hosted by The Open University (OU) in Scotland in May, we heard about the continued demands on the sector, with the Scottish Association of Social Workers highlighting that a social worker lasts on average just 7.5 years in the profession.

A recent survey of social workers led by the British Association of Social Workers found a quarter of respondents planned to retire or find an alternative career, prompting calls for urgent investment in social work recruitment, education, professional development, and retention initiatives.

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Our programme of work-based flexible study at the OU utilises the skills and experience of the current pool of social care and support worker staff, meaning that the sector has a ready-made, committed source of new social workers ready to be trained. They have demonstrated remarkable resilience during the pandemic and can be developed further, often in partnership with the local authorities who they already work for.

Deirdre Fitzpatrick is the Head of Social Work for The Open University in Scotland.

Our social work students have often shared with us that before starting their studies they felt like they were hitting a “glass ceiling” in their career by not having a professional qualification.

Many of our students are already working in the sector and choose to begin their studies later on in their careers. Often with caring responsibilities and needing to continue working during their studies, the OU in Scotland supports these students to flexibly study at their own pace and continue to earn at the same time.

One of our recent graduates, Grant, was working as a Mental Health Support Worker based in the Highlands when he began his degree at the age of 30. Being able to continue living, working and playing as a professional bagpiper were a major factor in his decision to study with us. Grant’s now working in a Drug Treatment and Testing Order Team and involved in an amazing project that engages long-term offenders with traditional Scottish music, combining both his passions.

Another of our graduates, Megan, left school at 16 and had been working for a supermarket for nearly a decade when she began studying with the OU. Continuing to live and work in her community, Megan’s now in her dream job as a Criminal Justice Social Worker. With a young family to support, she says none of this would’ve been possible without the flexibility offered by the OU in Scotland.

Grant Milne, an Open University in Scotland social work graduate and professional bagpiper.

Working with employers to invest in the current social care workforce and nurturing them as the next generation of social workers is essential to meet the challenges facing Scotland. We believe at the OU in Scotland that flexible, work-based study is the best way to deliver this.

To find out more about studying for a social work qualification visit www.open.ac.uk/courses/social-work.

Deirdre Fitzpatrick is the Head of Social Work for The Open University in Scotland

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