3 Survey findings
3.1 Survey methodology
The target group for this research were social work students in their first year of either the undergraduate or the postgraduate degree. BMRB contacted all universities providing these courses in order to obtain the names, telephone numbers and addresses of those students. All students were given a chance to opt out before their details were passed to BMRB.
We successfully obtained the contact details of students agreeing to take part from Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow, Glasgow Caledonian, Stirling and Robert Gordon universities. BMRB obtained the details of 257 undergraduates and 152 postgraduates in total. Unless otherwise stated in this report the undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in social work will collectively be known as the 'social work degree'.
All students in the sample were sent a covering letter with the Scottish Executive letterhead, an 8-page questionnaire and a self-addressed envelope through the post on 27 May. The questionnaires for undergraduates and postgraduates were largely the same. Those who had not replied were sent a letter reminder on 8 June and a full-pack reminder, containing a reminder letter and an additional copy of the questionnaire, on 15 June.
By 4 July, we received 178 questionnaires from undergraduates, 88 from postgraduates, and 40 deadwood questionnaires (these are questionnaires where our postal contact details were not correct and envelopes were returned marked 'not known at this address'). Overall this represents a response rate of 72%. Questionnaires were punched and data cleaned. Further details on data scanning and editing can be found in the Appendices along with a copy of the questionnaire used.
Data in this report are not weighted.
3.1.3 Profile of respondents
Four-fifths (79%) of students in our sample were women, reflecting the fact that social work is a course mainly taken by females. The gender profiles of undergraduate and postgraduate students were similar (Chart 3a).
Chart 3a Gender profile of first year social work students
As can be seen from Chart 3b, students doing the Social Work Degree tended to be mature, with more than half (52%) over 30 years old. Although the median age of undergraduates and postgraduates were similar (both 32 years old), the undergraduate degree course consists of a wider range of ages, young and old. A fifth (19%) of undergraduates in our sample were aged 20 or below, as would be expected no postgraduates were under 21. Postgraduate students (47%) were more likely to be in their late 20s than undergraduate students (28%).
Chart 3b Age profile of first year social work students
Table 3a shows the highest education qualification respondents had completed so far. This is split into undergraduates and postgraduates.
Table 3a Highest education achieved
Further education/college course
School up to age 18
Base: All respondents (266)
As can be seen from the table, undergraduates come from a variety of educational backgrounds but completing a further education college course was the most common form of previous education (71%). Only 15% of undergraduates had no education beyond that obtained at school. Postgraduates are all degree qualified.
Ninety-five per cent of students described themselves as white.
Five per cent said they were disabled or required special help.
Given the high response rate obtained for this survey it is thought that the profile of respondents accurately reflects the actual make up of the student population. However no data is available centrally which records the detailed profile of first year social work students across Scotland.
3.2 Motivations for choosing social work degree
3.2.1 Motivations for choosing the social work degree
Students were shown a list of common factors associated with choosing to undertake the degree and asked to rank the three most important factors. The results are shown in the table below where the factors influencing students' choices are in rows. The first column represents the proportion of students giving that answer in their top three, the second column represents the proportion of students choosing that factor as the most important ( i.e. first in the ranking).
Table 3b Important factors when choosing Social Work Degree (split by factors in the top three and top factor)
Important factors ( i.e. top 3)
Most important factor
Degree is vocational and will equip with skills needed in social work
Mix of academic learning and practice placements
Degree will lead to a respectable professional qualification
Degree will give valuable transferable skills
The degree is funded
Degree is taught by social workers
Degree is mainly by continuous assessment
Base: All respondents (266)
Three-quarters (74%) of students chose that 'the degree is vocational and will equip me with the skills I need as a social worker' as one of their three most important factors, with 43% choosing this as the most important factor. Compared to other factors, this was by far the most popular prime motivator behind choosing the degree.
Fifty-six percent chose the 'mix of academic learning and practice placement' as an important factor ( i.e. in the top three most important factors) and three in ten (31%) thought that fact that the Degree will give valuable transferable skills was important. Over half (53%) considered it important that the degree will lead to a respectable professional qualification.
A quarter thought it was important that the degree was funded. Postgraduates (42%) were much more likely than undergraduates (17%) to choose this factor. Close to a quarter (23%) thought it was important that 'the degree is taught by social workers', and undergraduates were more likely than postgraduates to think this (29% vs. 11%). Fifteen per cent thought that 'the assessment is mainly by continual assessment instead of exams' was important.
However it is worth noting that although all of the above factors were important for many students, not many were rated as 'most important'. As stated above, students appear to be choosing the degree primarily because it will enable them to become a social worker. It is therefore important to examine why students want to become social workers.
3.2.2 Important factors when choosing social work as a career
Students were shown a list of statements on common factors for choosing social work as a career and asked to rank the three most important factors to them. Students were shown a list of common factors associated with choosing social work and asked to rank the three most important factors. The results are shown in the table overleaf where the factors influencing choice of social work as a career are in rows. The first column represents the proportion of students giving that answer in their top three, the second column represents the proportion of students choosing that factor as the most important ( i.e. first in the ranking).
Table 3c Important factors when choosing social work (split by factors in the top three and top factor)
Important factors (top 3)
Most important factor
A job that is meaningful and rewarding
Working with people who need support
Variety of jobs available and the ability to switch jobs within social work
Career development is good/opportunities to develop skills and qualification
The starting salary (£20-25k)
Ability to specialise in a particular field
The proportion of students gaining employment
Opportunity to gain employment in any geographical area
It is a respectable or professional job
It could be a stepping stone to other careers
Possibility of qualifying for the incentive scheme
Base: All respondents (266)
Over four-fifths (82%) of students chose 'a job that is meaningful and rewarding' as an important factor for choosing social work. Close to three-fifths (58%) of students said this was the most important factor. Compared to other factors, this was by far the most popular prime motivator behind choosing the social work. Half (50%) thought it was important to work with people who need support, with 15% saying it was their most important factor.
Other less important motivators include the way social work is structured as a career. The variety of jobs available and the ability to switch jobs within social work was chosen by over two-fifths (42%) of students. To a third (33%) of students, career development was an important factor. Other important factors include the starting salary (20%), the proportion of students gaining employment (13%), the opportunity to gain employment in any geographical area (12%) and that social work is a respectable or professional job (11%).
However it is worth noting that although these factors were important, not many were rated as 'most important'. Students appear to be choosing social work primarily because it is a rewarding job that helps those in need. Only one per cent of students mentioned the possibility of qualifying for the incentive scheme as a motivator, with no students saying this was the most important factor. The incentive scheme is discussed further at section 3.8.2. As is discussed later in the report the experience of working in social care was very influential on students' decision to undertake the degree.
3.3 Path to Social Work Degree
This chapter looks at how students found out about the course, how well-informed they thought they were and whether they had other plans before taking up the Degree. Finally we examine what students told us motivated them to choose the degree.
3.3.1 How became aware of the degree
Students were asked how they first became aware of the Social Work Degree and the results are shown in table 3d.
Table 3d Sources of awareness for the Social Work Degree
% first aware through this source
Someone in social work/care profession
Someone at work
Social Work Admission System
Personal experience in social care/work/voluntary work
Base: All respondents (266)
Most students heard about the degree through someone already in social work or care (19%). Place of work was a common way to hear about the degree, 13% said they heard through someone at work, and as we discuss later a large proportion of students have worked in a social care environment. An additional 3% said they first heard about the degree through their personal experience in social care or voluntary work. Students with full time work experience in social care were more likely than average to hear about the degree at work (25% vs. 13%). Additionally, older respondents were more likely than younger ones to say they heard through someone at work (6% of 16-30s vs. 19% of over 30s).
Academic or related sources were also important. Fifteen per cent said they became aware of the course through a teacher or lecturer, these respondents largely consist of undergraduates (only 3% of postgraduates said they first heard through a lecturer or teacher). Close to one in ten (9%) said they heard through a career advisor and the same proportion (9%) said they found out about the degree through a university website.
Over one in ten (11%) said they became aware of the degree through a family member. Postgraduates and younger respondents were more likely to say so. One in ten (10%) said they first heard through a friend.
In short, word of mouth seemed to be the most common source of awareness.
Students were asked how well-informed they thought they were about social work before they started the Degree. Their responses are shown in chart 3c.
Chart 3c How well-informed students were about the social work before degree before they started
Three-quarters of students (74%) said they were well-informed about social work, with 13% saying they were very-informed. Postgraduate students were slightly more likely than undergraduate students to say they were very well-informed (16% vs. 11%).
3.3.2 Likelihood of undertaking Diploma in Social Work without Social Work degree
Undergraduate students were asked if they were likely to have taken the Diploma in Social Work ( DipSW) if the new Social Work Degree was not available. The majority would have been likely to take the DipSW in the absence of the new degree (89% said likely, with 67% saying very likely).
3.3.3 Alternative plans before starting Degree
Respondents were asked if they had any other plans before starting their course. Thirty-seven per cent of students said they had plans to do something other than the social work degree. Students aged 16-30 (43%) were more likely than those aged over 30 (32%) to have an alternative plan.
Students who had another plan were asked to elaborate on their plans. We coded this open ended answer and the most common types of responses are shown in table 3e.
Table 3e Common career/study plans before starting degree amongst students with other plans
Note: for each alternative career/study path in this table figures represent the proportion of students from amongst those with other plans not the proportion of all first year social work students
%s of those with other plans
Teaching (in general)
Other study (in general)
General mentions of another area/choice of career
Getting a job in social care
Study social care
Base: All respondents who had other plans (98)
Students were most likely to have considered studying something else: 18% mentioned studying without specifying exactly what. 15% of students mentioned studying psychology. Sociology was another popular subject, mentioned by 7% of students. Five per cent said they considered studying social care. Six per cent mentioned studying degrees in other subjects.
Teaching was also a popular choice for students: 18% mentioned teaching in general and 6% mentioned primary teaching. Thirteen per cent said they had considered getting a job in social care.
3.4 Previous experience
This chapter looks at what students were doing before they started the degree. In particular, they were asked if they had any past work experience in social care and, if they did, what influence it had on their choice of degree.
3.4.1 Status just before starting Social Work Degree
Students were asked what they were doing just before they started the Social Work Degree and the results are shown in table 3f.
Table 3f Status just before starting degree
Paid work in social care job
Studying full-time at college, polytechnic or university
Paid work in any other job
Study full-time at school
Looking after home or family
Base: All respondents (266)
Most students were in a paid job before starting degree (58%). Postgraduate students (70%) were more likely to say this than undergraduates (52%), as were older respondents (70% of 16-30s vs. 44% of under 30s). Most of those who were working before starting the degree were in paid work in a social care job.
Thirty-seven per cent were studying full-time. Not surprising, undergraduates students were much more likely to be studying (45% of undergraduates vs. 20% of postgraduates), as were younger respondents (48% of under 30s vs. 26% of over 30s). Not many undergraduates came straight from school (only 7% of undergraduates said this), most came from a working environment (largely social care) or from college or university.
3.4.2 Relevant past work experience
Students were asked if they had ever worked or volunteered in a social care environment. Social care was defined as "providing personal care and support services to individuals, families or communities. This might include support for the elderly, people with mental health problems, people with additions, families and children being looked after in children's homes or by foster parents".
Nine in ten (89%) students had some relevant past work experience: 45% were in a full-time job in social care; 30% had a part-time job in social care; 33% were in voluntary work; and 20% in sessional work. Older respondents were more likely to have some experience (94% of over 30s vs. 85% of 16-30s) and have worked in a full-time job in social care (54% of over 30s vs. 35% of 16-30s).
Clearly the experience of working in social care was influential on students' decision to undertake the degree. Among those who had some work experience, 57% said that experience had a lot of influence on their choice of degree, 24% said it had quite a lot of influence and 11% said it had a little influence.
3.5 Views on course and placements
3.5.1 Experience with placement
Students were asked about their experience of placements. Forty-seven per cent said they currently were, or had already been, on a placement. A quarter (26%) said they would experience one in the current academic year. A similar proportion (25%) said they were unlikely to experience a placement in the current academic year (only undergraduate students said this). The likelihood of experiencing a placement depended on which University the student was placed at.
Those who were, or had already been, on a placement were asked if it was a statutory or non-statutory placement. Statutory placements are placements for local authorities where social workers can be involved in legal interventions. Close to three-fifths (58%) of students had a statutory placement.
Students who were, or had been, on a placement were asked how useful it was. Encouragingly, four-fifths (81%) said it was very or quite useful.
3.5.2 Intention to switch programme
All undergraduate students were asked if they had seriously considered switching to another degree.
One in ten (11%) undergraduates had considered switching to another degree programme. Those who had considered switching were asked why. Although the base size for this group is too small for detailed analysis, common reasons seemed to be 'enjoying certain aspects of the course and switching to concentrate on that aspect' and 'poor quality teaching'.
3.5.3 Change in view of social work
Students were asked if their view of social work had changed since starting the course.
Four in ten (39%) said their view had changed. Those who were doing or had already done a placement, younger respondents and postgraduates were more likely to say so.
Those whose view had changed were asked to describe in their own words how their view had changed. Answers to this open ended questions were coded and results are shown in table 3g.
Table 3g Common answers amongst students whose views had changed
Note: for each answer in this table figures represent the proportion of students from amongst those whose views had changed not the proportion of all first year social work students
Gained a better understanding of the role of social worker
Discovered the range of jobs
The area is more demanding/complex than I thought
My view of social work has worsened (general)
The job involved more law and statutory requirements than I thought
My view of social work has improved (general)
Realised the amount of paper work/bureaucracy
Realised the knowledge/education which is required for the job
Realised the controlling/monitoring side of social work
Realised how underfunded/under-resourced social work is
Realised that stigma is attached to social work
Base: All respondents whose view of social work had changed (105)
Students were most likely to say they gained a better knowledge of social work, almost a third of those whose views had changed gave comments of this nature. Many other comments suggest a deepened understanding of the role, such as a quarter (24%) found out more about the variety of jobs available to social workers. Seven per cent had a better understanding of the knowledge or education required for the job.
Many comments focused around the demands and technicalities of the job role. 18% of students whose views had changed said they now realised the role was more demanding or complex. 14% said the job involved more law and statutory requirements than first thought. Eight percent said the job involved more paper work than first thought, and seven per cent realised the job involved a large degree of monitoring.
13% of students whose views had changed said they had become more positive about social work in general.
A minority of students gave more negative comments such as saying their view of social work had worsened (18% of students whose views had changed said this). Seven per cent said they had discovered the role was more under-resourced than they first thought, and the same proportion said they had realised there is stigma attached to the role.
3.6 Social work as a career
This chapter looks at whether students said they would like to become a social worker after graduation. If they did we asked what areas they would want to specialise in.
3.6.1 Areas of interest
Students were asked if they wanted to become a social worker after they graduate. Almost all (96%) students wanted to become a social work after graduation. They were asked what areas they wanted to specialise in and the results are shown in table 3h.
Table 3h Areas students wanted to specialise in
Children and families
Criminal justice or youth justice
Substance misuse or addiction services
Older people or community care
Physical and sensory impairment or disability
Don't know/Too early to say
Base: All respondents whose planned to specialise in an area after graduation (255)
Children and families was the most popular choice, as chosen by 57% of students who wanted to be a social worker. Other popular areas include criminal justice or youth justice (42%), mental health (35%) and substance misuse or addiction services (30%).
Female students were more likely than male students to want to work in children and families (61% vs. 41%).
Younger respondents were more likely to want to work in criminal justice or youth justice (50% of 16-30s vs. 37% of over 30s), as were undergraduates (48% of undergraduates vs. 32% of postgraduates). Those with full time work experience in social care were less likely to choose criminal or youth justice than average (32% of those with experience vs. 42% average).
Undergraduate students (37% of undergraduates vs. 17% of postgraduates) and those who had not been on a placement (37% vs. 23% those who had) were more likely to want to work in substance misuse or addiction services.
3.7 Social work in society
This chapter looks at students perceptions of the role of social workers in society. They were asked if they agreed or disagreed with a set of statements about social work. They were also asked to compare social work with other professions.
3.7.1 Agreement with statements about social work
Students were shown a list of statements about social work and asked if they agreed or disagreed with each statement. The results are shown in table 3i. 'AGREE' includes people agreeing strongly or slightly and 'DISAGREE' includes people disagreeing strongly or slightly.
Table 3i Proportion of students agreeing/disagreeing with various statements about social work
There is too much pressure and stress on social workers
The image of social work has improved in recent years
Social workers can make a genuine difference to other people's lives
Social work has well-structured training and career development
Social workers often operate in an under resourced environment
Social work is becoming increasingly more professional
There is a lack of clarity about the role of social workers
There are recruitment and retention difficulties within social work
There is a clear political vision for the future of social work
Social workers are often unfairly blamed when something goes wrong in a social care situation
Base: All respondents (266)
There was a general understanding about the constraints and pressures faced by social workers. Ninety-six per cent agreed that there is too much pressure and stress on social workers and 94% agreed that social workers often operate in an under-resourced environment. Close to nine in ten (89%) agreed that social workers are often unfairly blamed when something goes wrong in social care situation. Most students (84%) also recognised that there are recruitment and retention difficulties in social work.
Seven in ten (71%) thought there was a lack of clarity about the role of social workers.
Views were equally split on whether the image of social work has improved in recent years (47% agreed whereas 48% disagreed). Similarly views were split on whether there was a political vision for the future of social work with 36% agreeing and 44% disagreeing.
On the positive side almost all students (97%) agreed that social workers can make a genuine difference to other people's lives. As mentioned previously this was a prime motivator for entering social work in the first place. Over nine in ten (92%) agreed that social work is becoming increasingly more professional. Close to three-quarters (73%) also thought that social work has well-structured training and development.
Male students tended to be less positive than female students across these agreement statements. For example, only 38% of males said the image of social work had improved (compared to 50% of females). 25% said there was a clear political vision for social work, compared to 39% of females. Males were also less likely to agree that there was structured training and career development (61% of males vs. 77% of females).
The experience of a placement seems to have influenced certain views about social work. Students were more likely to agree that there is structured training and career development if they have been on a placement (79% of students having placements agreed compared to 68% of those who have not experienced placements). However students experiencing placements were less likely to agree that the image of social work has improved (45% vs 50% of students who have not experienced placements) and less likely to agree that there is a clear political vision for the future of social work (29% vs. 42% of students who have not experienced placements).
Undergraduates were more likely than postgraduates to say there is a clear political vision for social work (42% vs. 24%). However, undergraduates were more likely than postgraduates to say there is a lack of clarity about the role of social workers (73% vs. 67%). Undergraduates were less likely than postgraduates to agree there is structured training and career development (71% vs. 77%).
Recruitment and retention difficulties were recognised by older students (93% of those 31 or over vs. 74% of those aged 30 or under).
3.7.2 Comparison of social work with other professions
Students were shown a list public sector professions and asked to indicate which profession best suited a list of statements. The results are shown in table 3j.
Table 3j Proportion of students choosing a public sector profession that best matches each statement
Are the most respected by the public
Work best in community partnerships
Are highly valued by the Government
Have an interesting and varied career
Are paid appropriately
Are exposed to the greatest level of risk
|Involve service users in the development of services|
Base: All respondents (266)
Being integrated with communities and service users were recognised as important features of social work. Eighty-five per cent thought social workers were the best at 'involving service users in the development of services' and 62% thought social workers were the best at working in community partnerships.
Over seven in ten (72%) thought social workers had the most interesting and varied career.
Although students were positive about their interest in social work, they also reported a low level of reward and recognition compared to other public sector professionals. Only one per cent said that social workers were the most respected by the public (nurses faired best on this statement) and only 2% said that social workers were the most valued by government (police were viewed as the most valued). Only 4% said social workers were paid the most appropriately, although most students were unable to decide which profession was actually paid most appropriately (41% said they could not decide).
Although police were most commonly thought to be the most exposed to risk, three in ten (29%) thought social workers were exposed to the greatest level of risk.
There were no particularly interesting variations by subgroup although younger students tended to be slightly more positive in their views of social work compared to other professions.
3.8 Campaign and recruitment initiatives
This section explores awareness and potential impact of any Scottish Executive sponsored advertising and the incentive scheme (a grant of up to £9,000 available in the first two years of employment for difficult to fill posts).
3.8.1 Awareness and impact of advertising and publicity
Students were asked if they were aware of any advertising or publicity encouraging people to become social workers. Eighty-four per cent said they were aware of advertising of this nature.
Those who were aware of advertising or publicity were asked if they recognised the Care in Scotland and Social Work: World Tour logos. Half of students who were aware of advertising recognised the Care in Scotland logo (this equates to 42% of all students). Older students were more likely than younger students to be aware of this logo (54% of over 30s who aware of advertising vs. 49% of 16-30s).
Forty-six per cent of students who were aware of advertising recognised the Social Work: World Tour logo (this equates to 39% of all students). Those aged 30 or below were more likely than those over 30 to recognise it which is not surprising as the World Tour campaign was targeted at a younger audience (60% of those aged 30 and under who aware of the advertising compared to 35% of those aged over 30 who were aware of advertising).
A fifth (19%) of those aware of advertising said the advertising had a lot or quite a lot of impact on their choice of degree. There were no interesting variations by subgroup on this question.
3.8.2 Awareness and impact of the incentive scheme
Students were asked if they were aware of the incentive scheme (a grant of up to £9,000 available in the first two years of employment for difficult to fill posts). They were also asked to estimate how large the grant was (this acted as a proxy for determining their level of knowledge about the scheme).
Under half (44%) of students were aware of the incentive scheme. Those who had been on a placement were less likely to be aware of the scheme (39% of those who had compared with 49% of those who had not been on a placement). Students who had completed a degree previously were also less likely to be aware of the scheme compared to those who had less education (39% vs 48%).
When asked how much they thought the grant was, half the students said they did not know. Of those who did report a figure, around half stated a figure much smaller than £9,000, half stated approximately the correct figure (51% of those reporting a figure guessed between £8,000 and £10,000). This equates to 11% of social work students being aware of the incentive scheme and knowing how much is offered, suggesting detailed knowledge of the scheme is not widespread.
Very few students (11 respondents or 4% of all respondents) said they would have been unlikely to do the social work degree in the absence of the incentive scheme. This suggests that the impact of the incentive scheme on student motivations is very minor. This is confirmed by the fact only 1% of students told us this was an important factor in choosing social work at question 14.