The past few months have been hectic for social work student Nicola Toh, who is nearing the end of her degree course at Thames Valley University.
For her third and final work placement, she has been working with 16- to 25-year-olds on a Prince's Trust programme designed to get them back into education, training and employment.
She has helped them organise a tea dance at an old people's home, supported them through their own work experience placements and been on a residential, which was "crazy - but in a good way".
Most importantly, she has been there when young people have had problems - emotional and practical - helping to talk things through and find solutions.
"I like the fact it's hands-on," says Toh. "I'm not sitting in front of a computer but working with young people every day from 9.30am to 4.30pm and, for me, that's real social work."
She is among those benefiting from the Prince's Trust Working for Wellbeing scheme, which offers placements working with vulner-able young people on its Team programme, a 12-week personal development initiative targeted at those who have previously struggled at school, who have a history of long-term unemployment, who have been in trouble with the law or are in care or care leavers.
Toh applied to work as an assistant team leader on the Mortlake programme in London and embarked on the 100-day placement in January.
So far it has been a rich learning experience, but it is not all plain sailing. "I'm quite young myself and it's hard because some of the young people are only a year younger," she says. "I'm trying to be a friend and gain their trust, but I also need some authority." She has helped resolve arguments, deal with challenging behaviour and coped with situations that have tested her skills, including a distressed young woman who had previously attempted suicide.
"She was crying and kept saying 'I'm not normal'," recalls Toh. "It was just about listening, talking to her and calming her down."
The scheme, which is funded by the Zurich Community Trust, started in 2009 and received additional funding in January to roll out nationwide.
The Prince's Trust saw bringing in social work students as a great way to strengthen the support it offered young people who might be struggling with problems including anxiety and depression and extreme lack of confidence, explains director of policy and development Ginny Lunn.
It was also keen to help tackle the national shortage of quality work placements.
Students deployed as "wellbeing support workers" get to go on a two-day Mental Health First Aid course. "It is meant to be the mental health equivalent of a more traditional first-aid course," explains Lunn. "It raises awareness of mental health issues and the kind of things you can do to support people at particular times and help them cope." Lack of training on mental health is a problem often raised by social workers, so this is a real advantage.
She believes young people and students get a lot out of the arrangement. "It benefits the young people because they're getting that one-to-one support," she says. "The students get that practical experience and more understanding of the problems young people face. They learn to deal with some quite challenging situations. Most of them go on a residential as part of the programme, so spend an intensive time with the young people."
It also arms students with effective techniques and strategies used by the trust and Toh says the trust's handbook for students has been useful in helping her meet the key requirements of her placement.
It has been an opportunity to put into practice some of the well-established social work theories she has learned about in lectures including Swot (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, psychodynamic approaches and task-centred social work. She has learned more about the wide range of other professionals involved in young people's lives and it has helped her think about the kind of job she would like when she qualifies.
"This placement has made me realise the problems young people face," Toh adds. "It is different to when I was 16, especially the negative perceptions of young people which really do bring them down.
"Young people have said it has changed their perceptions of social workers. They like the fact I'm hands-on and involved and say they'd like a social worker like me."
- The Prince's Trust's Working for Wellbeing scheme offers students the chance to gain first-hand experience of working with vulnerable young people
- To date, 144 students have been placed on 188 of the trust's team programmes - 12-week personal development schemes for 16- to 25-year-olds
- The scheme is funded by the Zurich Community Trust up to July 2012 and is being evaluated by Salford University
- It is still open for applications. For more information, call Charley Cullender on 020 7543 1255 or email email@example.com