The question of the extent to which qualifying education prepares social work students to become effective practitioners has long been debated. This article reports the quantitative findings of the UK arm of a four-country comparative study that sought to explore one critical quality of a competent social worker—their ability to make decisions about individuals at risk, and to take appropriate action. The study involved 202 social work practitioners working with vulnerable children and 228 students enrolled on a social work qualifying programme. Participants were presented with a factorial survey using a case vignette of alleged child maltreatment and asked to determine whether maltreatment was substantiated, assess risk and recommend an intervention. The impact of case characteristic relating to the mother’s wish with regard to removal and the child’s wish in regards to reunification were assessed. The study found that beginning practitioners made significantly different decisions compared to students and more experienced practitioners. This beginner dip should be seen as indicative of a necessary part of a process of abandoning and amending ‘context-free’ rules and developing ‘situational rules’ as beginning practitioners learn to integrate both technical and practical knowledge in forming judgements and making decisions.

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