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Social Policy into Practice - learning through volunteering

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Who: Social Policy into Practice is a module offered by the Institute of Applied Social Studies (IASS), at the University of Birmingham

What: An optional 20 credit module in the second year of the BA Social Policy degree, which enables students to volunteer with a local organisation, community group or in other settings of their choice

Why: The module is designed to provide an opportunity for students to gain some practical experience of organisations and settings in which social policy is put into practice at 'ground level' without the formality of a work placement

Where: Students find their own volunteering placements through the universities existing links with local communities, the support of the Guild of Students and through their own efforts and interests

When: Volunteering is undertaken throughout the academic year, with the final presentation, sometimes attended by the placement agency, in the third term 

Project description

Social Policy into Practice is an optional module for students in the second year of their BA Social Policy programme. The module has now been delivered since 2004 and each year about 30 students (up to two thirds of the programme intake) opt to take module.

A series of lectures and workshops are given at the beginning of the first term to prepare students for their placement and offer them a contextual framework. These focus on social policy areas, themes, concepts and introduce issues related to service delivery organisations. Specific support is also given to students before they start their placement through an induction course run by the Guild of Students. After this the students, with the support of the module co-ordinator, the Student Guild and other volunteering agencies, arrange their own volunteering placements. Many also take part in induction training run for volunteers at the host organisation, for example Victim Support.

Throughout the volunteering placement students keep a reflective diary to critically reflect on the placement within its social policy context. Students are then assessed through the completion of a 2000 word critical and reflective report on the voluntary placement, which includes a brief description of the organisation and a discussion of students learning within the placement, from a social policy perspective and a critical assessment of the effectiveness and impact of the organisation, specifically looking at the contribution of its volunteers. Finally, students prepare and deliver a 20 minute presentation in front of fellow students, staff and where possible the host organisation. (Social Policy into Practice assessment criteria PDF (417Kb))

The module builds on links which members of the academic teaching team have with local organisations, particularly in the public and voluntary sectors, through research or professional experience. 


The motivation for this project arose within the Social Policy department, through a desire to provide more practical experience through the social policy programme. This opportunity is intended for students to:

  • Be able to research and negotiate voluntary opportunities, to organise a placement
  • Have a critical understanding of the policy and organisational context of their placement
  • Be able to critically reflect on and analyse the policy and practice issues raised within the placement
  • Identify their learning within the placement 

Results and outcomes

What worked well

  • The presentations, which are assessed, provide the opportunity for students to demonstrate their learning, their enthusiasm and growing understanding of their subject. They also give an opportunity for students to share their experiences with each other and other members of staff and the voluntary agency that they are placed with
  • Many students continue to volunteer for the same organisation and for some it provides the impetus for their choice of dissertation topic or career
  • There is some evidence that students are encouraged to take on more volunteering with the same placement organisation or with others, and we know that some students use their volunteering hours towards a Guild certificate or a personal Skills Award
  • Students, many with some assistance from the Guild of Students, are able to secure voluntary placements which offer a balance in terms of reciprocity – students find a rich venue for learning and host organisations and their clients and receive some form of valuable suppor
  • The module has proved sustainable and will continue for the foreseeable future, being evaluated in the context of a programme review every three years.

"I have begun to help one young person by being a positive role model and encouraging them to make better decisions. I definitely feel the partnership is helping her, as well as providing me with invaluable experience in working with other people in a real life social policy setting." Volunteer with a mentoring organisation

"This has been the most beneficial part of the course to me. I have really enjoyed the volunteering and started to understand things in a practical policy context." Volunteer with an advice organisation

What didn't work well

  • The main barrier is time, as the coordinator has to run the module with the same time and support constraints of more standard teaching modules
  • It has not yet been possible to follow up and develop ongoing relationships with all of the organisations where students volunteer
  • Some students need more support in finding and negotiating a placement and this can be time consuming at times when other teaching duties are also demanding

Resources required

  • The module has developed incrementally over the years from experience and the requirement to take larger numbers of students. It takes the close attention of the module coordinator and support from the Student Guild – which is offered free of charge, tailoring existing support for student volunteers to the needs of the social policy students

  • As this is an accredited module the setting up time included the accreditation process as well as preparing the initial module materials. The numbers of students taking the module was capped at 15 for the first year to allow the coordinator to assess how the module worked in practice. As this is an accredited module which is included within a study programme costs are absorbed in overall programme costs

  • The new module being developed for post graduate students will mainly attract international students so additional support will be required for students for whom English is not their first language and for whom the UK is unfamiliar. Therefore, the support of the University International Office and specialists from the Student Guild and the Careers Service will be important in setting up this module 

Top tips

The organisers offer the following tips for anyone contemplating putting on or becoming involved with similar activity:

1. Check out the accreditation process within the University and talk to the 'gatekeepers' as soon as possible

2. Has the University/Student Guild/Union got a policy on volunteering? If it has include this in your proposal

3. Consider how the student's volunteering experience and learning, directly and indirectly, contributes to the study programme they are undertaking and make this explicit. We organised a volunteering session in the first year then followed it up with this optional module

4. Learning how to research and apply for volunteering opportunities is good preparation for getting a job

5. Consider how you can best 'advertise' your students' skills and experience to potential placement organisations


Name: Liz Ross, Lecturer in Social Policy, MA Policy into Practice programme coordinator

Name of organisation: Institute of Applied Social Studies (IASS), The University of Birmingham


Telephone: 0121 414 5717