Social work students learn much of their practice in field settings. In the United Kingdom this kind of practice learning has long constituted 50 per cent of the programme; this continues to be the case with the three-year social work undergraduate degree which has become the minimum qualification for social workers across the UK. During the 1990s the content of practice learning in the UK was closely prescribed

by ‘six core competences’ (CCETSW, 1991a). This approach reflected the view that students should focus on learning competences, which in turn centred on the training function of placements. It emphasized what social workers do rather than what social work is. However, during this same period, the notion of the reflective practitioner also

gained ground. Here, learning about social work practice was based on principles of adult learning, with an emphasis on the education, rather than the training, of students, and a greater awareness of context and meaning. The tension between these two approaches led many to polarize the debate. Eventually, however, a holistic view of this apparent conflict emerged, which enabled students and practice teachers to find ways to synthesize competence and context (Doel et al., 2002). Taking the most common structure for the new award in the UK, the move from a

two-year period of study (the Diploma in Social Work) to a three-year undergraduate degree is increasing the length of time for students to learn about social work practice by over 50 per cent (on average, from 130 days to 200 days).1

However, it is not just the amount of time which has increased. A desire to see changes in the kind of learning has been reflected in a change of language, such as the development of the notion of a ‘practice learning opportunity’ rather than a traditional placement. Although the occupational standards for social work practice have to be taught, learnt and demonstrated, like the six core competences before them, there is less prescription about how, when and where (TOPSS, 2002).