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Learning :: Practice Learning

Ainslie House

The importance of practice learning

Writing about the importance of practice learning in early social work training at the London School of Economics, Elizabeth Macadam states:

'The lectures aimed at being little more than sign-posts, guiding the path of our approach to the new interests and problems around us. The real training was to be found outside the lecture-room, in the practical work, and still more in the privilege of living in an unexplored region, in a world of labour where the conventionalities of middle-class society were dispensed with, and where new points of view could be acquired' (The Universities and the Training of the Social Worker, 1914: 3).

Similar sentiments are expressed by the-then Director of the School of Social Study and Training at the University of Edinburgh. Writing in the University of Edinburgh Journal, Nora Milnes says:

'... every student is required to devote a large part of his time to practical social work, or field work, as it is called in America. Without this, the student lacks the necessary training in the technique of his job, lacks the actual knowledge of the considerations under which the people among whom he will work in the future live, of their hopes and aspirations, of the difficulties with which they are daily confronted.   

It may at once be admitted that this practical experience is the side of the training which is most difficult to organise, and yet the importance of it cannot be over-estimated, for it is to the Social Study student what the hospital is to the medical student'. (University of Edinburgh Journal, 1925: 94).

From its inception practice placements were central to the Edinburgh School of Social Study and Training.  In 1918, practice learning was described as ‘visits of observation to a wide range of agencies and individual work’, supervised by Mr John Watson BA. Three days a week was spent in practical work ‘so as to afford a wide and general experience of social conditions, and of the methods that are being adopted to remedy some of the most pressing social ills’ (Edinburgh School of Social Study and Training 'Second Annual Report', 1918-19).

Practice learning and theoretical training have continued hand-in-hand since then, with practice placements serving a dual function: about learning for the students as well as assessing their suitability for social work practice.  However, this should not suggest that practice learning has stood still. On the contrary, this section offers a flavour of some of the changes, demonstrating how practice learning at the University of Edinburgh has evolved. We also celebrates the fact that, frequently, it is the practice learning element of the social work training that students remember the most (see our alumni page for testimonials of this). This is where theory and practice, and the personal and the professional, come together.

The University of Edinburgh Settlement

In the very early years of the School of Social Study and Training, there were close links with the University of Edinburgh Settlement for training purposes. The settlement had been established in 1905, with one of its central aims being to operate as a place where social work training could take place (Lynn 2012). As a result of the First World War, the Settlement struggled to operate because so many of the male students who worked there had gone off to fight. In 1920, it was agreed that the School would step in to take over the running of the settlement for a time, with all the assets of the settlement being transferred to the School.

This situation lasted until 1926 when it was agreed that 'the School and the settlement had both grown so considerably that the future of each could better be served by independence' (Edinburgh School of Social Study and Training 'Annual Report' 1928: 6). In 1926 the settlement warden reported that there were 9 students from the School at the settlement that term (Meeting of the Settlement Executive Committee, 26th January 1926) and in 1945 the local evening newspaper was reporting of the settlement that 'the social study students find it a valuable training ground and do very good work particularly amongst the children' (Edinburgh Evening News, 23rd April 1945).

Uni settlement

Practical preparation

The Diploma and Certificate in Social Study in 1936/37 noted that 'the general practical work required of all candidates consists of:

'(a) work under a Society recognised by the Board of Study in Social Study (i.e. office work; ii case investigation; iii club work for adolescents and adults)

(b) visits to public and private institutions to gain a general knowledge of existing agencies

(c) students are recommended, in addition, to gain a knowledge of the social conditions of some city other than Edinburgh'

Students were also encouraged to undertake more specialist practical work in their second year that would be relevant for their prospective careers, and for some jobs (such as probation officers, hospital almoners and house property managers), this specialisation was required (University of Edinburgh Calendar 1936/37).  

The role which students played in the practice organisations was viewed as valuable to the placement as well as to the students.  The Edinburgh Council of Social Service (based at Ainslie House) notes in its 1939 Annual Report that the Council co-operates with the university in the training of Social Studies students, with the Niddrie Committee recording in its report that 'we should also like to record our gratitude to the students of the University Department of Social Study, without whose unfailing patience and humour half our work could not be achieved.' (Edinburgh Council of Social Service Thirty-Third Annual Report 1939: 17)

However, the difficulties in securing appropriate practical placements for students was also noted in the Department of Social Study and Training Report for session 1943/44.  61 students are listed as having practical arrangements in place for the summer vacation of 1944, varied in both their setting and their geographical location.  These include a number in Edinburgh but also the Leeds Personal Service Society; Child Guidance in Dundee; Bishop Creighton Settlement, London; Almoning at the Hull Royal Infirmary; several placements in factories and also in Probation.

This variety reflects the fact that the diploma and certificate courses were general and designed to train students for a variety of positions.  Changes gradually saw the requirements for practice learning become less prescribed by the University for example, the suggestion that students gain knowledge of another city's social conditions disappears, as does visiting public and private institutions. Indeed, by 1968, the University Calendar simply states that:

'students are expected to undertake a period of fieldwork approved by the head of the department and must satisfy the Board of Studies that they have achieved an adequate standard in their fieldwork.  They may also be required to submit a written report on their work' (University of Edinburgh Calendar 1968/69).  

It is not clear why the requirements for placements became less specific, but presumably this allowed for greater flexibility of learning and placement opportunities.


Specialist training had been available through organisations such as the Hospital Almoners Society but the University of Edinburgh only started to offer specialised courses in the 1940s.  The Certificate in Psychiatric Social Work (PSW), introduced in 1944, required that 'at the end of the two years those who have passed the necessary examinations and satisfied the requirements in regard to practical work will be awarded the Certificate in Psychiatric Social Work' (University of Edinburgh Calendar 1947/48).  The introduction of the Certificate in Medical Social Work (MSW) in 1954 and the Certificate in Child Care in 1961 brought more specified requirements for practical learning.  For the Certificate in Medical Social Work stated:

'half of each week will be devoted to practical training and after the completion of the theoretical work two months must be devoted to supervised practical training on a full time basis in an almoner's department.  The practical work during the session will be undertaken under the supervision of an almoner in a hospital clinic or public health department' (University Calendar 1958/59).  

The Certificate in Child Care required that students needed to spend half their week in fieldwork under supervision, and that after their theoretical courses had been completed, a further eight weeks of full-time supervised fieldwork was required in a Children's department outwith Edinburgh (University of Edinburgh Calendar 1961/62).  

By 1968, the Certificate in Psychiatric Social Work stated that 'placements must be undertaken in both mental hospital and the department of child psychiatry' and had to be 'under supervision of experienced caseworkers in the relevant agencies' (University of Edinburgh Calendar 1968/69).  

By 1970, with the introduction of a new generic Diploma in Social Work course at Edinburgh (following the passing of the Social Work Scotland Act of 1968 and the publication of the Seebohm Committee report the same year in England), the writing was on the wall for the specialist courses.  The specialist courses were all closed by 1974/5.

Practice teaching

Practice learning for students must have been facilitated from the beginning by workers in the placement agencies but little formalised training arrangements for practice teachers themselves seem to have been in place until the early 1990s.  Practice teaching and supervision was an accepted element of the social workers' role and many did this simply as another aspect of their job.  In the 1990s the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work (CCETSW), which oversaw the training and regulation of social work education across the UK, made the decision that practice teachers required to be trained.  This was an attempt to ensure a standard of practice teacher but a consequence was also to limit practice placements at a time when the student population was growing significantly (Lyon 1999).

Here is one of the very early Practice Teaching Awards, from 1991:



While placements have been an integral element of social work training, it has, until recently, been up to the individual institutions to set their own parameters on what constituted 'practice learning'.  However, the 2003 Framework for Social Work Education in Scotland set out standards for social work education and as part of this, placed parameters upon both the length of practice placements and their scope.  Social work students were now required to spend at least 200 days in practice learning (160 of which needed to be directly supervised) and this learning needed to be assessed.  Students were also required to gain experience of working in at least two constrasting service delivery areas and gain experience of providing services to at least two service users groups (Scottish Executive 2003).

Recent practice placements organisations

Over the last 20 years the University of Edinburgh has worked with a wide number and range of organisations, both voluntary and statutory and, more recently, private sector, to offer social work students practice placements. These have been in both Edinburgh and the surrounding area.  Examples include:

  • City of Edinburgh Council, Midlothian Council, East Lothian Council, Fife Council, West Lothian Council, Borders Council, Barnardo's, the Edinburgh Young Carers Project, Multi-Cultural Family Base (MCFB), North Edinburgh Drug Advice Centre, Royal Blind School, Royal Edinburgh Hospital, and the Scottish Adoption Association.

Pass rates for students on placement are consistently high, reflecting both the standards of the learning they receive in their placements, and their suitability for practice.  


Lynn, Bruce (2012) Scottish settlement houses from 1886-1934, Unpublished PhD thesis. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.

Lyons, Karen (1999) Social Work in Higher Education: Demise or development? Aldershot: Ashgate.

Macadam, Elizabeth (1914) The Universities and the Training of the Social Worker, Liverpool: University of Liverpool.

Scottish Executive (2003) The framework for social work education in Scotland, Edinburgh.

Archives: Edinburgh School of Social Study and Training Annual Reports, University of Edinburgh Calendars, University of Edinburgh Journal 1925: 92-96.