Two student social workers have shared their experiences of training with a local authority during the lockdown.

26-year-old Sally Elders and 37-year-old Hayley Pound, were both part-way through their Durham County Council placements when the UK was largely forced to close down.
With support from the council, partners Think Ahead, and the higher education institutions of the University of Sunderland, the pair were both able to continue their placements, during a time of great change and demand for the social care industry.

The Council works with seven higher education institutions to offer social work training placements in its adult and health services: Northumbria University, Teesside University, the University of Sunderland, Durham University, New College Durham, Open University and Think Ahead.

During the government’s lockdown of healthy people, the adult and health service’s learning and development team has worked with all its partners to ensure that as many training placements as possible were able to continue and 37 placement learning opportunities were safely supported in its adult care teams.

As a participant with the Think Ahead graduate programme, a fast track scheme for graduates and career-changers who want to make a real difference to people with mental health problems, Sally’s placement was successfully maintained by the council’s Durham City Affective Disorders Team.

Despite the challenges presented by the situation, Sally and her fellow students’ education has not been impacted, and the council and Think Ahead have continued to offer the valuable learning opportunities and experiences required for qualification as social workers.

Council services quickly adapted their support service level to ensure practitioners’ safety, including home working, conducting appointments and meetings over the phone and via video conference, outdoor visits, and finding new ways to engage with colleagues and the people they support.

Sally, from Newcastle, said: “As a trainee social worker progressing towards qualification, my experience on placement and my day-to-day practice has changed dramatically in a short period of time. Despite uncertainty, for both practitioners and service users, the support available has resulted in a fantastic sense of community within teams and pride in the profession.

“The opportunities that myself and my fellow students have been offered has enabled us to remain on placement, as valued members of the team, meeting the capabilities required for qualification.

“Central to this has been the support we received from Durham County Council in flexible working arrangements and in equipment to use whilst working from home, with regular communication offering us reassurance that students are an important resource to the local authority.

“The support and guidance we have received from Think Ahead has played a big part in managing our anxieties, liaising with the council to ensure the standard of our learning experience has remained high.

“My recent experiences have reinforced my passion for social work and the integral role the profession plays in crisis management, response and recovery. The skills, knowledge and expertise I have had the opportunity to develop and observe during this time make me feel more ready than ever to qualify and begin my career as a social worker.”

The council and its many partners have also been working hard to safeguard students’ mental and physical wellbeing, putting in place a range of measures such as team breathing sessions, outdoor exercise, psychology drop-ins and a break away room for staff to take a pause.

University of Sunderland social work student, Hayley Pound, was supported to successfully complete her placement with the council’s East Locality Learning Disabilities Team, during the pandemic.

Hayley, who is originally from Darlington but now lives in Stanley, is due to qualify as a social worker later this month. She explained how the team continued to prepare her for practice, offering support and reassurance throughout the challenges of the period: “Pausing my placement was something I did not want to do and despite initial worries, due to the support offered by the team, I felt confident in working from home.

“I feel from the support and opportunities I have been given I have been able to continue placement and contribute to the team.

“I feel lucky that I have been able to continue placement knowing so many on my course have had to pause placement, to begin with this caused a lot of stress and anxiety but talking to my supervisors and course leaders has made it easier.

“Durham County Council gave plenty of guidance to the whole team with daily updates. This reassured me and the guidance from Social Work England was to carry on with placement if we could. Knowing I was supported by both organisations helped.

“I have found there have been highs and lows on this placement and without the support and encouragement from the Learning Disabilities Team I feel I wouldn’t have learnt as much as I have. I feel I have been very supported, and lucky to be on team that wanted me to continue my placement.”

Lesley Martin, the council’s adult and health services development and learning manager, said: “The service has worked very effectively with all of our universities and partners, including the University of Sunderland and Think Ahead, to maintain as many training programmes as was safe and practical.

“Teams across council departments and training organisations have pulled together, recognised the risks and kept going throughout this crisis to support our service users, while also supporting our students.

“Particular efforts have been made to manage staff personal wellbeing in a number of ways throughout this period, with regular briefings and guidance from the adult care head of service on the resources available for staff to access, examples of localised practice have included taking part in regular wellbeing walks, while observing strict social distancing guidelines.”

Social work training and employment opportunities for all 12 local authorities in the North East of England, can be found at

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