Teaching and learning communication skills in social work education
Appendix B: The SCIE practice review: Teaching and learning in social work - Communication (full text)
- Findings by question
- How do you distinguish and differentiate between core transferable skills and specific skills including technical skills?
- What is the breadth and depth of skills training needed to perform the range of duties and tasks for beginning practice and for qualifying level?
- How do you identify the underpinning principles and values of communication for all categories of social work delivery?
- What are the range of teaching and learning opportunities that can be incorporated into the preparation for and in practice settings?
- Findings by stakeholder
This practice review addresses the area of communication skills with children, adults and those with particular communication needs, although it is, of necessity, a general review within its remit and further research could focus more specifically on each group identified.
The work reviews current practice in the teaching and learning of communication skills in social work from the perspectives of all the stakeholders: academics, practice assessors, students, service users (including adults and children) and carers. Findings are presented first by question, where academics’ views are predominant, and then by all other stakeholders, to ensure that their views are strongly voiced.
The practice review was undertaken by a team of academics from Brunel University.
1. How are communication skills currently taught and how are they delivered?
Respondents were asked to give an overview of what communication skills are taught at their institution and to give a description of the teaching and learning methods used.
The researchers did not provide respondents with their definition of communication skills as it was felt that respondents’ own definitions (implied or explicit) would be interesting in themselves in indicating the range of perspectives across social work educators. For example, some respondents reflected on the definition of 'skill’, one arguing for a distinction between a technical 'act’ - for example, sensitive direct work with children - and a 'skill’, which is putting that act into practice appropriately.
For purposes of initial analysis, however, the researchers used as a working definition the QAA benchmark standards for communication skills required in social work practice, which state that:
… honours graduates in social work should be able to use CandIT methods and techniques for a variety of purposes including professional communications, data storage and retrieval and information searching. (3.2.1, QAA, 2002)
These "do not attempt to define professional competence at qualifying level” (1.4, QAA, 2002), but rather to define the range of communication skills required. They are expressed in the National Occupational Standards (NOS) in terms of practice competences (many of which 'embed’ communication skills, although some refer to them explicitly, for example, in 16.1, "Maintain accurate, complete, accessible and up to date
records and reports”, and part 3 of 'Specific areas of practice’ in each NOS, 'Values and ethics’, which states "recognise and facilitate each person’s use of language and form of communication of their choice” and "maintain trust and confidence … by communicating in an open, accurate and understandable way”. We prefer the benchmark statements for these purposes as they are more immediately accessible as working definitions.
The benchmarks require that graduates "should be able to communicate clearly, accurately and precisely (both orally and in writing) with individuals and groups in a range of formal and informal situations” (3.2.3, QAA, 2002). A comprehensive list of required standards is given:
- Make effective contact with individuals and organisations for a range of objectives, by verbal, paper-based and electronic means.
- Clarify and negotiate the purpose of such contacts and the boundaries of their involvement.
- Listen actively to others, engage appropriately with the life experiences of service users, understand critically their viewpoint and overcome personal prejudices….
- Use both verbal and non-verbal cues to guide interpretation.
- Identify and use opportunities for purposeful and supportive communication with users within their everyday living situations.
- Follow and develop an argument and evaluate the viewpoints and evidence of others.
- Write accurately and clearly in styles adapted to the audience, purpose and context of the communication.
- Present conclusions verbally and on paper, in a structured form, appropriate to the audience for which these have been prepared.
- Make effective preparation for and lead meetings in a productive way.
- Communicate effectively across potential barriers resulting from differences.
In summary of this section, the researchers offer a brief initial analysis of how the practice review measures up to the benchmarks as a starting point.
There are three key trends in what is being taught and learnt about communication in social work: dedicated teaching; dedicated teaching specific to social work pathways; and non-dedicated learning which is integrated.
The most common pattern of teaching and learning of communication skills is the inclusion of a dedicated communication skills module early in the course, or a strong communication component within an early module about methods, skills and practice.
The trend is that this is then followed by further, often more specialised, communication skills, which tend to be associated with particular client groups, and addressed within teaching of specific pathways, for example, children and families, mental health, and community care.
A complementary trend lies in the attention paid to the development of communication skills through its integration across modules. As one respondent put it, "we would make a distinction between teaching and learning” in this respect; in other words, while the explicit teaching in communication skills might be restricted to one module or part of a module, respondents were keen to emphasise that the continued practice and formative assessment of these skills throughout the course was equally important as part of the students’ development of adequate communication skills.
There are a number of key themes arising from the data relating to what is currently being taught regarding communication in social work, as follows:
1.1. Dominance of interviewing and interview skills
The most common skill to be identified in the teaching of communication is interviewing. While this is often undefined, in many cases respondents go on to identify particular contributory or 'sub’-skills, including listening, questioning (in particular, asking open questions), non-verbal communication and empathy.
These were also the kind of skills most likely to be identified in students’ responses, wherein the focus group suggested that interviewing was the most prevalent communication form they have learnt.
1.2. Neglect of written communication skills
There is a clear emphasis on verbal and nonverbal (other than written) communication teaching and learning in current practice.
However, where written communication was mentioned, respondents tended to express anxiety about lack of attention to this area, and academics and practice teachers felt that students need particular support with their written skills. Indeed, there was serious concern among all the groups about literacy levels, with the exception of the students group, who did not raise it. This suggests that they do not see this area as problematic, while other stakeholders do.
In addition, questions of disability, including learning disabilities such as dyslexia, were notable by their absence in the responses and this may be an area for future research in the practice of teaching and learning of communication skills.
1.3. More communication skills training in new degree
Where information was given about the changes planned for the new degree, most respondents stated that the communication skills module on the Diploma in Social Work would be expanded or a new dedicated communication or interpersonal skills module was planned, and/or that there would be greater focus on skills training. Specific themes reported within the changes planned for the new degree include:
- increased user involvement, with users coming in to deliver teaching and also being involved with assessment;
- increased interprofessional teaching - both teaching in mixed groups with other human services students, and teaching about interprofessional communication;
- increased assessment by observation as well as written assessment;
- increased use of observation and shadowing, that is, students shadowing experienced social workers in practice.
The issue of interprofessional communication emerges as a key theme. Some respondents mentioned that there was already teaching in this particular area, and several stated that teaching of communication in this area would be increased in the new degree.
1.4. Experiential learning principles
Overall, there was a strong emphasis on experiential teaching and learning, reflected in the strong showing of participative activities such as role play, video work (students being videoed and observing themselves and each other) and small group work. Typically, respondents described sessions beginning with a short period of tutor-delivered theory or background, followed by exercises and role plays in small groups, with feedback. Where direct input from tutors was mentioned, however, all respondents emphasised that this was kept to a minimum - one respondent described them as 'mini-lectures’.
Few attributed models were mentioned, but among these, Egan’s SOLER model (2002) was the only one to be mentioned more than once, indicating a continued emphasis on the teaching of counselling skills as a basis to communication skills in social work. Although the standards do not explicitly require this, several of the requirements could usefully draw on such skills.
1.5. Usefulness of (child) observation in developing communication skills
Observation was referred to by several respondents as not only a place where communication skills with children could be developed by observation, but also to introduce the idea of not 'hiding behind the social worker role’ and communicating through listening, staying neutral and 'using your senses’. Observation skills can be used in a variety of contexts and not just infant observation which is a highly contextualised activity, for example, in interviews, observing practice assessors practice.
See Practice example 10, 'Learning and observation’ module from Sussex University, where observation is used as the basis for developing professional identity (p 43).
1.6. Make effective contact with individuals and organisations for a range of objectives, by verbal, paper-based and electronic means
There was no systematic approach to teaching and learning about 'making effective contact’ that distinguished between individuals and organisations or different objectives. Nevertheless, evidence was found that many of the skills needed for doing so are embedded in curricula, for example, counselling, networking, advocacy and interviewing. It appears, however, that much of this needs to be thought through against the benchmarks and NOS in an explicit way.
In terms of modes of communication ('verbal, paper-based and electronic’), there is an emphasis on verbal communication. Nevertheless, paper-based communication skills are reported in terms of 'report writing’, 'written communication’, 'recording’, and 'writing letters’. Electronic means are also referred to in terms of 'IT skills’ and 'telephone work’.
The impact of disabilities, including learning disabilities such as dyslexia, is not addressed in the responses.
1.7. Clarify and negotiate the purpose of such contacts and the boundaries of their involvement
Again, many of the skills underpinning this benchmark appear to be evident but are not specifically linked in a systematic way. For example, respondents report teaching and learning about 'listening/attending’, 'questioning’, 'summarising’, 'reflecting’, 'responding’ 'frames of reference’, 'clarifying’, and 'checking out’, all of which are key in achieving the benchmark.
1.8. Listen actively to others, engage appropriately with the life experiences of service users, understand critically their viewpoint and overcome personal prejudices…
While there is evidence of teaching and learning about 'listening actively’ (see above), there is little that links explicitly with 'engage appropriately with the life experiences of service users…’. Responses include 'working with difference and diversity’, 'political/social context of social work’ and 'adapting skills to users’ situations’ (practice teachers’ focus group), each of which can be seen to contribute to the benchmark but not in a clearly defined way.
1.9. Use both verbal and non-verbal cues to guide interpretation
Significantly, respondents refer specifically to 'non-verbal communication’ as a key skill, and this is supported by reports of other related skills being taught and learnt, for example, 'self-awareness’, 'rapport building’ and 'communication through art and play’ (practice teachers’ focus group). Verbal cues are also addressed in current teaching and learning in terms of 'questioning’, 'feedback’, 'clarifying’ and 'checking out’, but, again, not clearly drawn out.
1.10. Identify and use opportunities for purposeful and supportive communication with users within their everyday living situations
Practice teachers in particular identify 'adapting skills to users’ situations’ as key and academics refer to related skills, for example, 'working with difference and diversity’.
1.11. Follow and develop an argument and evaluate the viewpoints and evidence of others
Again, there is little that explicitly links to this benchmark, but respondents do report using critical skills in teaching and learning which might develop these capacities, for example, the writing of a 'reflective essay’, and use of video and peer review to reflect on self and practice.
1.12. Write accurately and clearly in styles adapted to the audience, purpose and context of the communication
Writing skills are raised as a concern for all groups except students. Teaching and learning is reported which seeks to address this skill, for example, 'report writing’, 'written communication’, 'recording’, and 'writing letters’. Questions of adaptation are not addressed except in as much as different modes of writing are referred to (for example, 'report writing’ and 'recording’), and there is a reference to 'adapting skills to users’ situations’ (practice assessors’ focus group).
1.13. Present conclusions verbally and on paper, in a structured form, appropriate to the audience for which these have been prepared
See above. In addition, it is noteworthy that no explicit reference is made to the ways in which academic essay writing is used to support the development of competence in this area, although presumably this is a central tool for doing so. This is a question that should be addressed with the assessment review.
1.14. Make effective preparation for and lead meetings in a productive way
No direct evidence was found of teaching and learning about communication in 'meetings’, although there are references to 'working in teams’ and 'role play’ where it might reasonably be expected that such skills could be addressed.
1.15 Communicate effectively across potential barriers resulting from differences
Respondents refer to 'adapting skills to users’ situations’ (practice assessors’ focus group) and 'working with difference and diversity’.
2. How do you distinguish and differentiate between core transferable skills and specific skills including technical skills?
Respondents were asked what they considered to be core transferable and what specific skills, what criteria they would give for identifying them as such, and what skills were taught under these categories.
The understanding of 'core’ skills here follows the NOS and the range required by the NOS and QAA benchmarks for qualifying level (to begin to practice). 'Core’ skills here are regarded as transferable in the sense that they are a base line required for qualification to practice across all social work settings and user groups. These include an understanding or awareness of the communication process (information to be transmitted, mode of transmission, destination of information, receiver, receipt, decoding). Core also refers to knowing about the difference between verbal and non-verbal modes, active listening and awareness of self in the situation (Okitikpi, 2003). They stand in juxtaposition to 'specific’ skills that we regard as those skills which emerge as important or necessary within particular settings or user groups during placements or upon taking up employment post-qualifying. They may include 'technical’ skills, which are skills associated with methods and techniques of communicating, especially where there are particular communication needs. The data shows that this understanding is shared with respondents where a distinction was drawn.
Nevertheless, the most striking finding from the responses was that little distinction was drawn between 'core’ and 'specific’ skills. Where definitions are offered, they fall into three categories: respondents who suggested that communication skills may be seen variously as core or specific depending on the context in which they are deployed; others who identify 'specific’ skills as those used in working with a particular client group; and a number explicitly stated that there was no such distinction either in practice or in theory.
2.1. Variety of responses - what is a skill?
A key theme lies in the sheer range of responses given. There was little consensus as to definitions of 'core’ or 'specific’ skills. Responses to the question of what the respondent would give as the core skills for social workers ranged from 'measurable and discrete skills’ such as 'writing reports’ to more general or 'subjective’ ones such as 'immediacy’, 'conveying respect’, and 'knowledge of social context’. These areas correspond to those found in the literature that relate to knowledge rather than to skills acquisition.
Additionally, many responses could be seen as describing collections of skills rather than clearly identifiable discrete skills. As one respondent put it, empathy might be defined as a skill for some purposes, but "it’s really a bundle of micro-skills”, of which many would also appear elsewhere among the responses, for example, 'listening’, 'non-verbal communication’, and 'not using jargon’.
Similarly, the range of skills identified as 'specific’ was also diverse, ranging from 'use of information and communications technology’ to courtroom skills and working with conflict. However, around half of the skills identified as 'specific’ are also defined as 'core’, indicating a lack of clarity of definition. The pervading evidence is twofold: that the idea of 'specific skills’ is either seen to denote 'core skills taught at a deeper level’ or that specific skills are seen as 'skills which are pertinent to a specific client group’.
2.2. Emphasis on interpersonal skills and skills for personal development
'Core’ skills appear to be regarded as those which support direct interpersonal work and personal development, namely 'listening’, selfawareness, empathy, choosing appropriate forms of communication for users’ needs, questioning, non-verbal communication, and awareness of diversity and difference. This is particularly true from students’ perspectives wherein all the suggested core skills are ones used in direct interpersonal communication - except 'observation’, which was identified as core in the development of communication skills.
The importance of personal development was also indicated in an emphasis on 'assertiveness/ confidence’. This emphasis was reflected vividly in one institution’s plan to introduce 'personal and professional development groups’ as an innovation for the new degree, taking students through all three years and involving tutor and peer assessment of behaviour, self-presentation and so forth. This would appear to be a development of the idea of practice seminars as a space for considering the theoretical and feelings level implications of placement, which already are fairly common.
2.3. Emphasis on communication learning in placement
A pattern of experiential and participative teaching and learning methods was also apparent in terms of how core skills are taught and their transferability identified and practised. However, a large proportion of respondents also stated that in terms of transferability, the most important teaching, learning and/or assessment of communication skills took place on placement.
The balance between assessing in placement and in the academic setting emerged in this context as an important issue. One view is that it is inappropriate to assess performance of communication skills in a university setting because they are very practice-focused skills and university is theory-focused. This is a rather worrying idea that fails to take into account what is known in the literature about the relationship between theory and practice (for example, Schon, 1995).
Another view that emerges is that institutions should not formally assess core communication skills as a matter of principle because they are 'difficult to quantify’, and the emphasis should be on students’ learning 'in a relaxed environment’. These responses may indicate gaps in educators’ knowledge about assessment and learning of communication skills and this could be a key area for further study.
2.4. Overlap between core skills and values
Some of what is reported as 'core skills’ appears to refer to items that could be described as social work values (see discussion of values, below). Elements such as 'selfawareness’, 'awareness of diversity/difference’, 'conveying respect’, 'confidentiality’, 'working to empower users’, and 'aiming to equalise the relationship between user and social worker’ are all identified as communication 'skills’.
Where the issue was addressed, core skills were generally identified as being by definition transferable, and particular emphasis was placed on the importance of teaching core skills as transferable. For example, one respondent suggested that the absence of pathways within the course at their institution "ensured transferability [of core communication skills] by the absence of guiding students in any particular direction”.
At the same time, there is some concern, especially among students, that it is sometimes assumed that skills are being transferred where this may not automatically be the case.
Another respondent noted that drawing attention to the transferability of skills in the teaching of core skills was particularly important because it makes students aware of the skills they already possess and raises their confidence, which itself is crucial for communication.
2.6. Technical skills
Some respondents said that they felt there was room for more specific communication skills training - working through interpreters and British Sign Language were the two most commonly identified technical skills in this category. However, current teaching and learning of technical skills appears to be very limited. The key factors restricting the level of technical skills training are identified as time and resources, although the difficulty of choosing which specific skills to teach was also an important concern.
As it stands, the level of teaching of specific skills was often described as 'touched upon’ or addressed at a 'theoretical’ level - students were given information about where to go for resources and support in a situation where specialist techniques would be required. Where these specific technical skills are specifically taught, this is in the form of oneoff sessions with specialists either from within the institution or, much more often, from an outside speaker, usually a specialist practitioner and sometimes a service user. The frequency of these sessions was, however, often described as 'erratic’, and very often respondents stated that whether such specialist teaching was given depended on the students’ own interest or experience.
3. What is the breadth and depth of skills training needed to perform the range of duties and tasks for beginning practice and for qualifying level?
Although it is recognised that the benchmark statement "does not attempt to define professional competence at qualifying level…” (1.3, QAA, 2002) it is again, used here (3.2.3, QAA, 2002) as a working definition of 'skills training needed’. This is because it describes in a clear and explicit way the expectations of communication skills in practice at qualifying level.
In identifying current practice in teaching and learning it has been possible, to some extent, to grasp the breadth of existing practice. In this question, respondents were asked for their perceptions of what is required, what can be used as a measure against what is actually required in the benchmarks (and embedded in the NOS).
The researchers regard the question of the depth of skills teaching and learning, as addressed in the benchmark statement (3.2.3, QAA, 2002), to be incomplete for their purposes: "Honours graduates … should be able to communicate clearly, accurately and precisely…”. No other clear and explicit statements are known of the depth to which communication skills are expected to be taught and learnt. Respondents’ understandings of 'depth’ therefore are reported below.
The distinction between 'beginning’ and 'qualifying’ level is that there is the point at which candidates begin to be social work students and go out to placements ('beginning’), and the point at which they qualify as practitioners ('qualifying’). Again, the researchers have been interested to investigate respondents’ understandings of this distinction and to relate this to the question of depth in terms of how 'depth’ changes between these levels.
There are a number of key themes arising from the data relating to breadth and depth at beginning and qualifying level, as follows:
3.1. Writing and interprofessional skills
Of the skills explicitly identified as necessary at this level, the most frequently mentioned was written communication. While this also appears as both a core and a specific skill in Section 2, the frequency of its appearance in response to this question reflects the feeling, explicitly stated by some respondents, that there is a particular issue around the quality of social workers’ written communication skills at qualifying level. While this is obviously a fairly long-standing concern, the findings of recent enquiries such as the Laming Report (2003) may have brought this to the forefront of people’s minds.
Nevertheless, it is notable that no respondents raised this in relation to dyslexia or learning disability, and this may suggest a lack of addressing this issue in current teaching and learning practice. This may be a matter for further research.
Another area relating to the findings of the Laming Report is that of interprofessional communication. Again, while responses to Question 1 show that teaching in this area is already established in many institutions, the frequent reference to the need for competence in communicating as a professional across professional settings and values at qualifying level shows the prominence of this area of concern at this time.
3.2. Anticipating a different intake
Academics anticipate an increasing need to cover 'basic’ micro-skills such as walking into a room, introducing oneself, using the telephone, or taking messages, as intakes of much younger students on the new degree are expected to be starting from a lower skills base. One member of a teaching faculty suggested that "sometimes people want to go a bit too deep”, that is, address theoretical or conceptual issues, before they have ensured that skills such as these have been mastered.
It was also noted that a younger student body would be likely to have less social care experience. As one respondent put it, competent beginning level social workers would ideally have more experience, but "experience is not something you can teach”. Specifically, the respondent reported that younger students are likely to have less experience of working with different client groups and identifies a gap in training in this respect. But "there aren’t any books on how to talk to teenagers or old people” - the only way to learn this, he argued, is by experience. A key role of the university setting, therefore, was seen as building up students’ confidence to prepare them for real-life situations.
Literacy was again a particular and increasing concern in relation to this issue. One faculty member suggested that, while social work has long been committed to widening participation, there is nevertheless a limit to what a social work course is able to provide in terms of basic literacy, although many of the students coming on to social work courses need support in this area. Another respondent stated that "you can’t now rely on an Access course as a guarantee of sufficient written skills”. While the widening participation agenda is widely supported, there is also frustration that teaching time is taken up in raising students’ literacy levels for the beginning of practice. It is interesting, and of fundamental importance, that no respondents raised the issue of dyslexia in this regard, despite evidence of increasing incidence and a new legislative requirement in the 2001 Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA).
Another area of frustration is the perceived increase in bureaucratisation in the social work profession. One tutor specifically stated that one of the hindrances to a more 'substantial’ level of competence at qualifying level was ideology; he argued that "the current agenda means that social work is being driven towards becoming a task-led, outcome-driven profession”. The emphasis on outcomes over processes was identified by more than one respondent as constraining a desirable level of skills training by the beginning of practice - as one respondent put it, "good teaching of communication skills in particular needs attention to process as well as outcome”.
The 'increased bureaucratisation’ associated by respondents with this outcome-driven approach was seen to be focusing on skills such as filling in a particular form, rather than dealing with human situations. There was significant feeling that "currently social work training produces bureaucrats”, although it was also felt that this was more a product of practice and policy emphases than academic agenda. This bureaucratisation was seen to be to the detriment of the development of creative problem-solving skills, the ability to make the most of chance encounters, and the development of more in-depth counselling skills. As one tutor reported, "there’s lots of legal and structural knowledge to get through before the student can roll up their sleeves, get down on the floor and talk to a five-year-old”.
There was some frustration that, for students, placements can be sanitised 'light weight’ versions of the 'real thing’, giving them a false impression of what life as a social worker will be like, particularly if they go on to work in statutory settings. One student told her group that she is leaving the UK and going to work in Australia, after graduating less than a year ago, because of her frustration at having done nothing but care proceedings since qualifying. The tutor commented, "What are we training them in communication skills for if the job is purely bureaucratic?”.
4. How do you identify the underpinning principles and values of communication for all categories of social work delivery?
Only a small proportion of respondents were able, unprompted, to distinguish between values and principles, a large number asking for clarification on the distinction, although they do appear to be strongly embedded in the collective and individual consciousness of respondents. A consensus about values and principles which emerges from the data, despite an inability to pin it down explicitly, supports this.
Clark (2000) suggests that "There is no dependable consensus about what type of concept, principle or precept merits the implied high status of a social work value and there are different views about the specific character of social work values”. Any definition of values is therefore going to be inherently controversial.
Nevertheless, Clark, along with Banks (1995), suggests that there are four essential elements that between them accommodate the insights contained in statements about social work values:
- the worth and uniqueness of every person;
- the entitlement to justice;
- the claim to freedom;
- the essentiality of community.
These rather heady categories, it may be argued, find at least one expression in the former Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work (CCETSW) statement of values, which is used here as one benchmark for the purposes of this review. They are:
- Identify and question values and prejudices and the implications for practice.
- Respect and value uniqueness and diversity and recognise and build on strengths.
- Promote people’s right of choice, privacy, confidentiality and protection while recognising and addressing the complexities of competing rights and demands.
- Assist people to increase control of and improve the quality of their lives, while recognising that control of behaviour will be required at times.
- Identify, analyse and take action to counter discrimination, racism, disadvantage, inequality and injustice, using strategies appropriate to role and context.
- Practice in a manner that does not stigmatise or disadvantage either individuals, groups or communities.
These statements do little to account for any distinction between values and principles, although it is proposed here that principles are the practical expression of the ontological category of values. In other words, principles may be said to operationalise values.
It is beyond the remit of the practice review to conduct a fully critical account of the literature on this matter. Suffice it to say for these purposes that what emerges in the practice review is an understanding of values as those which are given by CCETSW (or the General Social Care Council [GSCC]). Our probing revealed that respondents were unable to define these values closely or to relate them to practice implications. Our conclusion is that the value base for communication skills teaching and learning is taken for granted and, in the process, that much of their sharpness of meaning is lost or muddied.
Anti-discriminatory practice (ADP) is identified as the major value underpinning social work communication and social work overall while, in terms of principles, user perspectives and using students’ own experiences in learning are identified as central.
A key trend is in the explicit identification of the values underpinning communication, including ADP, with the former CCETSW values, although their relationship to principles is rarely elucidated. A ready-made bundle of values such as these, while arising out of the social work community originally, therefore seems to have lost much of its immediacy in terms of everyday application to the practice of teaching and learning. Values seem to be referred to frequently although their practical implications remain undefined.
The maintenance of a 'social work value base’ is also identified as important in the context of increased emphasis on interprofessional learning. The different value bases of the professions within the human services (social work, health visiting, teaching, occupational therapy, general practice, psychology, psychiatry and counselling) is raised by several respondents, and the need for social work to maintain its unique focus in teaching and learning emphasised.
Another important strand lies in the ways in which social work has drawn on a variety of other disciplines and procedures while nevertheless maintaining a distinct values ethos of its own. These influences include psychology and counselling, psychosocial and socio-psychological perspectives, anthropology and sociology, political science and social policy and youth and community work, including community development. One respondent who emphasised counselling values as important in underpinning his teaching, did so "while recognising that it’s not a counselling course”. These discourses are seen as 'appropriated’ by social work and given expression in terms of social work values.
Notable by its absence, however, is any discussion of the ethnocentricity of a social work value base that 'appropriates’ from other Western academic and philosophical disciplines without reference to the practice realities of social work with black and minority groups, including asylum seekers and refugees. This point may also apply to other 'centrisms’ around gender, sexuality, age and disability. The practice review found no evidence of teaching and learning of communication skills that takes this on board in terms of the values underpinning that teaching and learning. It is suspected from anecdotal evidence that some of this thinking is there but conclude from the practice review that it may not be 'on the surface’ of many courses in relation to communication skills.
There are a number of key themes arising from the data relating to what is regarded as 'core’ and 'specific’, as follows:
4.1. Adult learning principles and students’ values
A large proportion of respondents explicitly refer to the importance of using 'adult learning principles’ in teaching and learning about communication. These appear to be derived from community work where adult education is recognised as a major force for community development (Freire, in Twelvetrees, 1982). This is frequently related to principles such as drawing on students’ own experiences, students taking responsibility for their own learning, and peer learning. These modes of learning are understood to encourage the sustained internalisation of skills as approaches and as 'deep knowledge’.
Some difficulty is recorded around the principle of participation in the academic setting where tutors identify the difficulty of balancing between acknowledging and challenging students’ own values. One tutor described her perspective on it thus: that values cannot be taught, but that the task of the social work teacher is to raise students’ awareness of their own values and beliefs. She identified two strands to this: first, that "this is OK - everyone is entitled to their beliefs”, but also, that this will, not just may, have an impact on how they communicate with others, and that this may require the learning of new behaviours.
A similar perspective on the place of students’ own beliefs was given by a tutor who felt that more could be done to help students to make "the transition from the personal to the professional”, involving the principle of putting one’s own issues aside and putting the client’s first. This perspective placed more emphasis on the second strand identified above, stressing the need for awareness that social work happens in a particular context with particular goals, and therefore social workers take up particular professional roles in these contexts.
4.2. Values and principles in daily life
Many respondents emphasised the principle of using students’ own experiences in learning. Others added to this by identifying the principle of using real-life examples in case studies and so forth, to avoid 'distancing’ from the subject. One tutor also described trying at every point to 'bolt on’ what is being taught to students’ experiences, so that they have their experiences valued, and then encourage them to reflect on this.
4.3. Tutor modelling
The role of the tutor is seen as particularly important by tutors themselves in relation to this question. Several tutors emphasise that they and their colleagues try to implement the principles of ADP, respect for the individual, honesty and so on at an interpersonal level with students and at an institutional, or at least departmental level, as well as in the teaching and learning situation. As one tutor put it, the principles underpinning communication arise from "the culture of the department’” and are themselves based on "communication and consensus between the staff group”.
4.4. Students’ own communication needs
As well as attending to the values and principles underpinning the communication skills that social work students are taught, some respondents also explicitly mentioned the principle of supporting students who have particular communication needs. One tutor identified, for example, ensuring access for students with hearing impairment. Another noted that, due to the specific kind of intake at their institution, there was a commitment to the principle of helping those for whom English is not a first language, and the UK not their culture of origin.
4.5. Critical thinking, reflection, and issues with competencies
While it is found that, generally speaking, increased attention to skills training is welcomed by respondents, it is also the case that there is a tendency for the focus on identification of competencies to produce a 'tool-box’ approach. This is seen to compromise awareness of context in their students.
Similarly, a significant minority of respondents felt that there had been a 'withering’ of the principle of supervision of students, partly as a result of the emphasis on competencies. She suggested that supervision encourages reflection, which she felt has been neglected, but noted that "they were coming back to” the new standards as a key part of learning about communication.
4.6. Social justice The issue of inequality and social justice was also prominent in the responses, and feelings ran high on this issue. One tutor, identifying respect for the individual as a key value, went on to clarify that this was not just based on human rights principles, but because the user is subject to processes of social injustice and discrimination that precisely dehumanise. A key skill in social work is therefore to attempt to communicate in the context of that discrimination and oppression. Related teaching and learning principles include the valuable learning experience to be had in playing the part of user in role play - to attempt to feel what it is like from users’ perspectives.
Similarly, it is felt that learning should take in the role of the social worker as an agent of change at levels beyond the immediate situation of the user, in other words at an organisational and social level. This would also include what the respondent identified as 'radical practice’, which he noted "is rarely taught or discussed now”, involving giving the user the role of change agent him or herself, and communicating to them their capacity to take on this role. Communication skills for such approaches are distinctive and conceive of communication in a 'different way’ - as emancipatory and powerful. These are seen as key principles and values that are distinctive to social work.
4.7. User involvement, ADP and critical thinking Anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice feature very strongly in the responses to this question, and several tutors identify this as something increasingly neglected as a principle - there is even concern that it might 'fall off the end’ in the new curriculum. For example, one tutor noted that while ADP was 'still there’ in the NOS, it was less explicitly so, and that 'user involvement’ was the new buzzword. This respondent felt "why not stick with ADP?” because "it covers everything”.
On the other hand, some respondents do not single ADP out as a principle in teaching because "it can become a 'hat’ that students put on”, rather than something that pervades their practice as a whole. It was also noted by a couple of respondents that, while crosscultural anti-discrimination was now well established as a value and principle, some other areas of discrimination, such as discrimination on the grounds of sexuality or of disability, were being neglected.
It is also noted that from a number of perspectives, user involvement is not a new discourse, although its explicit recognition in a clear language of its own underpins a valuecentred and principled approach to the involvement of users.
4.8. Child-centred principles While there were very few values and principles identified as unique to specific client groups, the maintenance of a child-centred perspective is identified as a matter of value and principle. The notion of partnership is identified as even more important when working with children.
4.9. Empowerment A principle that was strongly emphasised across stakeholders was that of empowerment. This was seen as particularly important by users with disability who expressed their need to have their ability to speak for themselves facilitated and respected.
Tutors also recognised the empowerment of users to communicate effectively as an important principle in the teaching and learning of communication. One emphasised the importance of recognising that users might be discriminated against precisely because of their lack of communication skills. He stated that "If you’re a good communicator you can get a lot of information out of people, but this is irresponsible unless you’re doing it with them, with agreed outcomes, and passing on these communication skills to them”.
4.10. Difficulties and dilemmas While the majority of respondents describe the values and principles they identified as universal, many added that the relative emphasis on certain values and principles would vary across work with different client groups. In particular, certain client groups or settings might make the application of values and principles of communication less obviously achievable.
A key issue in applying values and principles underpinning teaching and learning of communication is identified as resources. This is seen to put pressure on the size, make-up and frequency of seminars, lectures and tutorials, the practice teachers’ time and energy and the students’ need to set time aside for reflective learning when their circumstances require them to work in order to maintain themselves financially.
5. What are the range of teaching and learning opportunities that can be incorporated into the preparation for and in practice settings?
Although one tutor states that "students just have to go out and get on with it”, most respondents describe preparatory and placement-based teaching and learning to some degree or another. The Department of Health Requirements for social work training in England state that providers must "Ensure that all students undergo assessed preparation for direct practice to ensure their safety to undertake practice learning in a service delivery setting”.
Respondents’ understanding appears to be that teaching and learning is taking place primarily in the academic setting, although a significant number of respondents also identified learning (which they distinguish from teaching) as taking place in practice. There is the suggestion that the focus for the teaching of communication skills lies in the academic setting only because this is where most of the 'formal’ assessment happens and the award is made. This fails to take into account the assessment role of practice teachers. In addition, teaching and learning are understood as rather 'formal’ activities and it is likely that opportunities for teaching and learning outside academic departments are somewhat underestimated in the responses because they are (wrongly) not understood as 'learning’ (Jackson; Brown; McGill).
In the academic setting, tutors report that all teaching and learning is seen as practicerelevant, although it is not always described as such. Some courses make use of practice assesors and users in the seminar room specifically to think about the practice setting, allied with tutorial sessions in which students are encouraged to make explicit their learning. This is reflected in an emphasis on supervision in the placement, although links between theory and practice often remain underdeveloped because the three-way relationship between practice assessor teacher, tutor and student is difficult to sustain creatively under the respective pressures of the roles. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of goodwill between these parties, all of whom tend to emphasise the importance of the relationship for teaching and learning between universities and practice settings.
In addition, the newly formalised role of shadowing in the new degree (as opposed to learning in an 'apprenticeship’ model as is current in placements), is highly rated, although most institutions plan to start this with the introduction of the new degree and there is as yet little experience of this role to draw on. Observation, role play and case study are much more widespread, and most institutions report an emphasis on such practice-focused learning across their courses. Elsewhere, student respondents suggest that role play can feel 'artificial’ and 'staged’, and there is some concern that this can compromise the usefulness of such exercises. The community role play described in Practice example 13 (p 47), however, suggests, on the contrary, that students find role play extremely useful and "get a lot from it”. These different perspectives may indicate differences in approach and environment that might fundamentally affect the experience of role play and there is literature that discusses the elements of successful exercises of this kind. It may be a matter for future research to look more closely at factors contributing to a positive role play experience for students, including in terms of learning impacts and outcomes. Examples of a range of role play experiences and formats and a discussion about their impact on learning can be found in Practice learning for professional skills: A review of literature(15).
Another key learning mode is the use of the peer group in preparation for practice. Some courses make use of this approach currently (for example, see Practice example 14, the Video Suite at Plymouth University (p 49). Responses suggest that this is likely to be taken up more widely. For example, a student mentoring scheme, running parallel to observations and in-placement shadowing, is planned in some universities, drawing on the experiences of second or third year students.
Overall, there is the feeling that, however good the preparation, there is "no substitute for practice”.
Themes 5.1. Personal and professional preparation for practice A number of respondents describe a specific module in the area of 'Personal and professional preparation for practice’. Such modules usually take the form of student-led seminars and address the students’ personal experiences of professional learning, very often through the identification of personal issues and difficulties the student might encounter, and address learning needs and the drawing up of learning contracts, sometimes with attention to different learning styles. They also address issues around professional conduct and interprofessional communication.
The most striking aspect of these modules is the emphasis on general preparation (focusing on self-awareness and confidence, for example), rather than on practical issues in communication such as conduct at core groups, case conferences and team meetings or the negotiation of learning agreements and use of supervision. This may reflect a focus on general skills associated with 'approach’ and transferability. If so, it suggests that this is contrary to a focus in the new degree on practice-focused learning.
5.2. The academic setting/placement relationship The centrality of the relationship between practice assesors and teaching institutions is also a key theme, whether explicitly identified or implicit in responses. Many respondents identify a good relationship with placements as central to good communication skills training, both in preparation for and in placement. Where it is strong, practice assesors are involved in teaching sessions at the university, feeding into curriculum development and assessment and, in one case, working on practice-related academic research alongside academic teams in practice settings.
However, while the vast majority of respondents were positive about the learning opportunities available on placement, one tutor argued strongly that experiences of practice placements can be thoroughly detrimental to students. She argued that the link between theory and practice, crucial to the development of effective communication skills, was not being made, and indeed that on placement "students learn that they don’t need theory”. She also had little confidence that good skills training went on in placement, arguing that "[the students] pick up bad habits”.
5.3. The usefulness of role play The question of the usefulness of role play as preparation for practice generates a lot of discussion, especially among the student respondents. While there seemed to be a general feeling that role play is "useful to a certain extent”, there is some feeling that it can feel very "staged”. However, where role play is not formally observed or assessed, it is felt to be less intimidating as an exercise and students overwhelmingly report feeling better able to learn in this environment.
5.4. Shadowing and observation The question of the value of observation is also prominent among responses. The requirement of shadowing as part of the new degree is particularly welcomed among tutors, and students’ responses reflect this. There is consensus that the opportunity to observe a variety of practitioners at work, and thereby observe a variety of personal styles, would be extremely useful in the development of students’ own communication skills.
Similarly, it is felt that students themselves benefit from being observed and assessed on placement. This is happening fairly frequently by means of informal and indirect observation throughout the placement from all or several staff members, rather than by means of direct observations from a single practice assessor. Overall practice assesors and students reported feeling that this less formal approach to observation makes for a better learning environment.
5.5. First placements: voluntary and community work The choice of first placement is identified as particularly important in terms of the development of good communication skills. Work in the voluntary sector and community work are picked out as particularly useful. One tutor reported that at her institution, the first placement is always in a voluntary setting, where communication skills are prioritised and crisis pressures on time and resources are often less pronounced.
Some institutions describe community work modules as a kind of introductory placement, wherein students produce a community 'profile’ or 'resource file’, which requires students to go 'out into the community’ before they begin a service provision role.
Another tutor described an explicit emphasis on communication skills during the first placement, through the preparation for placement and through the input of the practice assessor, on the principle that, as she put it, "if they can’t communicate they won’t get off the starting block”.
While key themes and messages emerge across the data, they represent predominantly the views of academics who have been the primary stakeholders in the practice review. The review has sought also to represent the views of other stakeholders through focus groups. The practice review therefore also highlights the views and experiences of a range of specific partners in teaching and learning in social work education who have responded from their particular perspectives. These are:
- adult users
- users with learning disabilities and their carers
- users with physical disabilities and their carers
- users who are children/young people
- practice assesors
The review does not specifically address the views of academics here as they are so fully represented in the remainder of the review (although the views of the other stakeholders here are also incorporated into the body of the review).
In this way the research seeks to highlight the particular views and experiences of other stakeholders in the teaching and learning of communications skills and to make clear specific issues arising for each group. It is hoped that this may set the perimeters for consolidating strengths and addressing areas of weakness and concern.
1. Adult users This focus group consisted of adult users who do not have physical or learning disabilities and who are not otherwise involved with social work. The group contained 15 participants equally split between family centres in Southwark and Lambeth, South London, social services children and families users in a North London borough.
1.1. Adult users were largely dissatisfied with their experience of social workers’ communication skills, although they also felt that social workers are well intentioned, genuinely concerned to help, and honest, and that many of the deficiencies in communication are a result of organisational pressures.
1.2. Complaints arose in two key areas: the failure to communicate purpose and approach; and the failure to intervene and respond imaginatively to the users’ realities.
1.3. In terms of purpose and approach, users were concerned that social workers do not communicate the reasons for their actions, their thinking or their expectations. The group particularly asked for written notes of all meetings, especially home visits, to be taken and shared with clients after the event.
1.4. In terms of imaginative intervention, the group felt that social workers are poor in some basic areas of communication such as responding to calls, dealing with basic enquiries adequately, appearing to respect people, appearing capable of getting the right balance between being hands-on and handsoff, and sympathetically understanding the realities of people’s lives. In addition, users felt that they were uninformed and uninvolved for much of the time.
1.5. Although this group represented a crosssection of social work settings and client groups, a key message arose in the area of children and families where there was a strong sense that social workers’ communications indicate that they are interested only in the child and not in the wider family system. This was consolidated by the view that social workers misinform and over-promise, giving assurances that are unmet.
1.6. These issues arise in the context of a recurring theme for adult users - the poor level of communication within social services and the lack of cooperation and coordination within the service. People reported that they generally find themselves repeating the same problem to different people. This causes a great deal of distress, anger and frustration and a sense of bewilderment with the service.
1.7. They nevertheless made a clear distinction between workers in statutory departments and their experience of social workers in community-based organisations. Social workers in community organisations were seen as more likely to respect and value them and provide an acceptable service. They were also seen as much more likely to provide continuity of personnel.
1.8. People also felt that, in initial conversations, more sensitivity needs to be shown towards clients. In their view, the reactions and attitudes of people in social services departments (including social workers) in first conversations was casual and this was seen to frustrate the making of a trusting working relationship.
2. Users with learning disabilities and their carers
2.1. A key message from this group was the importance of social workers being patient when communicating with users with learning disabilities. While one respondent stated that his social worker had always seemed to be in a hurry, and that this "wasn’t very good”, another spoke very positively about her social worker who had time to sit down, have a cup of tea, and chat with her.
2.2. Some respondents also felt that social workers have assumed that because of their learning disabilities, they lack the ability to make choices for themselves. The group identified the most important social work role as listening to what activities a user might want to get involved with, and follow this up as best they could, rather than imposing activities on them that they might not be interested in. Thus, it was strongly felt that social workers should "let you speak up for yourself”, for example, in reviews, rather than assuming they are not able to contribute directly, and speaking for them. Related to this was the importance of social workers being skilled in communicating with other services and advocating for users. This was seen as central in helping them get involved with activities, go on holiday, get a job or go to college. The role of advocate was seen as central, therefore, to the users’ social experience and development.
2.3. Some participants also identified a difference between the way they were treated as children, and the way they were treated once they became adults. One respondent reported that when he was a child (under the age of 18) his social worker had been very "bossy” but that when he turned 18 this stopped and the adult services social worker treated him much more as an equal. At the same time, others reported feeling that social workers had continued to talk to them as though they were children, even when they became adults.
2.4. For users with learning disabilities who are entering adulthood, a key issue arose about help with filling in forms and writing letters. These skills are crucial at this stage when clients begin to be more independent in running jobs and home life, and some felt that this was overlooked.
This was related to the need to listen carefully to what a user wants to say, and making sure that what is written accurately reflects their views.
2.5. 'Kindness’ and warmth were also qualities strongly emphasised by respondents. One male respondent specifically stated that he would feel more comfortable with a female social worker as he felt they were "kinder”; he felt that men were "too hard”.
2.6. Users also identified the importance of the environment in which they met and spoke to their social worker as important. For example, one respondent described very positive experiences of her social worker spending time with her at home. Nevertheless, what was emphasised above all was that it should be users’ choice where they meet their social worker, and whether they come into theirhome or not. "Peace and quiet” were identified as particularly important when working with this group of users to help their concentration.
3. Users with physical disabilities and their carers
3.1. Perhaps the most important key message to come out of the focus group with users with physical disabilities was the need for social workers to be patient, and to devote sufficient time to working with users in this group. While users understood that time constraints were often forced on social workers by their heavy workload, participants felt that they had experienced some extremely bad practice. For instance, one participant described an annual review that had only lasted five minutes, during which he had been given no opportunity to express a view. Even where the relationship between the individual user and social worker was felt to be very good, lack of time impaired good communication.
3.2. It was reported that social workers often speak to users’ key workers or personal assistants, rather than to the user him or herself. Speaking to the user directly was felt to be of vital importance. It was noted that professionals tend to speak to the carer, but members of the general public are more likely to speak directly to the user.
3.3. The participants in this focus group had little or no verbal communication. Therefore, they reported that it was much easier for them to respond to closed questions, and suggested that this was a simple skill that social workers could develop when working with users with communication impairments. A specific strategy was to break topics down into smaller parts, using closed questions to offer the service user a sequence of options so that communication could be built up.
3.4. 'Checking out’, identified as an important skill by other groups of respondents, was seen as particularly important by this group. It was felt that in some cases social workers assume that something has been understood by the service user where this might not be the case, and that time and attention needs to be devoted to ensuring that the service user understands what has been said and decided and that responses have also been understood clearly.
3.5. While some of the participants could read, it was suggested that letters could be audiotaped for service users without literacy. Another option was e-mailing letters to service users, rather than sending them in hard copy. This would help to ensure that letters came directly to the service user. One user reported that she does not see letters that come to her from her social worker, and that information from these letters comes through to her via carers. Hence the need for social workers to check that communication has happened is not only important in an interpersonal situation, as described above, but also in terms of formal written communication.
3.6. In addition to some of these 'technical’ barriers to effective communication, the group also identified some 'attitudinal’ factors. Courtesy was identified as crucial in aiding communication. It was seen as particularly important that social workers convey respect in their interaction with users, and while experiences were mixed, several participants reported positive experiences in this respect.
3.7. Further, the keeping of appointments, or apologising and giving a reason when appointments have to be cancelled, was seen as a crucial part of treating the user with courtesy, particularly where meetings require a great deal of organisation in terms of transport and personal assistance. It was felt that, particularly where users were in residential care, failure to keep appointments amounted to discrimination.
3.8. Another skill required to support courteous and successful communication, and also requiring time and patience, was preparation for the required communication, including good research before the meeting. Participants identified the importance of reading the user’s files well before the meeting, not just as the meeting is about to begin. This would avoid the kind of situation arising, as reported by one participant, where a social worker began an annual review unaware that the user was profoundly deaf. Further, it was seen as important that users were given adequate notice of the date of their annual review, so that they too could prepare for it.
3.9. It was also suggested that it would be useful if the social worker could meet the service user before an annual review takes place. Here the social worker could identify the user’s specific communication needs and the way in which they communicate, and so that trust could be built up between the social worker and the user.
3.10. There were three values or principles that were felt to be of most importance when communicating with users with physical disabilities. The first was being nonjudgemental, and not assuming anything about a user’s abilities simply because of a disability. The second was that of building a relationship of trust with users, because without this, the user may be reluctant to communicate fully with the social worker. The third important principle, again reflecting that identified by several other groups, was that students training to be social workers need to have as much experience of working with people with disabilities as possible, as part of their training.
4. Users who are children/young people
4.1. Young people expressed their view of deficiencies in social workers’ listening skills, saying that they need to "open their ears” and "think before they talk”. Women were seen as being better listeners.
4.2. Another crucial issue was the need for social workers to explain to young people what is happening, discussing situations with them, and letting them have a say in what happened. For example, some children reported that the first time they had heard about the possibility of their going into care was in court. There was widespread experience of decisions having been made without consultation with or explanation to the young person.
4.3. The need for children to have a say in less dramatic circumstances was also expressed. For example, it was felt to be important that social workers took an interest in the child’s own taste and preferences when, for example, choosing activities. This issue is related both to the idea of 'communication through action’ and to that of having respect for the child as an individual.
4.4. When asked about good experiences with social workers, the young people often mentioned things like "doing things with you”, "playing football”, "taking you out”, and so forth. While this might not strictly be regarded as communication, it does indicate that for these young people, actions often speak louder than words, and a way to initiate and sustain good communication is to participate in activities they enjoy with them.
4.5. As with the adult users’ and carers’ focus groups, a common complaint was that social workers "say they’ll do things that they don’t do”. Generally speaking, this 'following up’ was felt to be an extremely important and neglected element of communication between social workers and young users.
4.6. When asked what they would like from their social worker, one young participant stated that he thought they should "check in” more often. Regular visits were felt to be important, or just a telephone call to see how the young person was. There was a sense that lines of communication between social workers and young people were often cut off or inactive for long periods of time, which made the young people feel frustrated and abandoned.
4.7. The communication of warmth and genuine care was also felt to be crucial to building the relationship between social worker and young person.
4.8. There was a perception among many young people that social workers regard what they are doing as 'just a job’ - "they are getting paid for doing a job so they don’t really care”. Again, this suggests that social workers need to communicate commitment and genuineness as part of their work. A young person’s social worker might be one in a long line of professionals that the young person has been in contact with. Social workers need to be able to anticipate and prepare to be able to tackle user assumptions in a useful way that helps to gain an insight into the relationship.
4.9. There was some debate within the group as to the best way of training and selecting social workers to be able to communicate with young people. Some participants stated that social workers needed to go to college and pass exams - one younger participant said they needed to be "brainy”. Invited to explain this, he referred to the facilitator, and the facilitator’s direction of the group in listening to one person at a time.
4.10. Many participants said that they felt that social workers judged them on the grounds of what was in their file. Several stated that some things in their file were not true. Another stated that when she had been allowed to see her file, the many positive comments in it boosted her confidence. Overall there was some anxiety that young people should be allowed to see their file, and that the information in it should be agreed upon.
4.11. After the focus group, one of the facilitators, who had noticed one of the participants doodling some graffiti during the session, asked him if he would draw his 'tag’ on the flipchart. Other participants also volunteered to do this with their own, and there was general chat about the tags, what they mean, where they might be and so on. This incident was important because it demonstrated that these young people may be communicating through other media, such as graffiti or art more generally, and that social workers might be able to use this as part of their communication with young people.
5.1. In this focus group, carers tended not to focus explicitly on communication skills per se. Rather, what they described were desirable principles and outcomes which, in order to be implemented successfully, need to be underpinned by good communication skills, or values which need to be expressed through good communication skills.
5.2. A key theme was that, while there is a perception of poor communications practice among individual social workers, these are seen to be the result of systems and organisational structures. For example, the lack of time social workers have to spend with carers not only means that there is simply less opportunity to communicate, but also that carers feel they are not being treated with respect and care, which inhibits the development of a good relationship.
5.3. Listening was once again identified as a crucial skill. Carers specified that social workers need to listen "and really hear” and accept what carers were saying. In addition, workers need to "check back” to make sure that they have understood what has been communicated to them.
5.4. A strong theme was the need for social workers to respond to carers’ needs and requests more quickly. Indeed, "getting in touch in the first place” was identified as a particular difficulty - the accessibility of social services in general was an important issue for this group.
5.5. Communication between social workers and interprofessional communication was felt to be crucial in providing a good service to carers. The keeping of good, accurate records, and the keeping of these records so that they could be referred to by other workers or at a later date, was felt to be extremely important. There was some frustration that, particularly now with the opportunities opened up by IT, social workers seem to have to replicate work and ask the same questions repeatedly which is seen as a result of inadequate record keeping.
5.6. The perception that social services operated on an issue-by-issue basis, rather than responding to the individual in a consistent and holistic way, was another organisational barrier to good communication.
5.7. A related group of problems was grouped under the heading 'honesty’. Carers found it frustrating when social workers said they would respond, or that they would do something, and nothing then happened, leaving the carer themselves to chase it up. One carer described the phrase 'we’ll get back to you’ as "the famous last words” in this context. Again, problems and obstacles at an organisational level were identified as part of the problem here.
5.8. However, it was also felt that social workers needed to have the personal communication skills to be able to say honestly when they could not help with a problem, but to be able to refer the carer on to other appropriate sources of help and support.
5.9. Another central issue was that of communicating respect and care for the carer themselves. This consisted in particular of addressing the carer’s own needs as well as the user’s. One carer said "my social worker did a brilliant assessment for my daughter, I couldn’t fault it, but there was absolutely no assessment of my needs”. For example, it was suggested that social workers need to address whether carers want to carry on being carers at all, rather than assuming that they would. It was also felt to be important that social workers recognise the loss of dignity people experience when approaching social services for the first time - the 'cost’ in this - and respond sensitively.
5.10. The principle of treating the carer as expert in their own situation was identified as crucial in the successful communication of respect between social worker and carer. The principle of partnership was also identified as important. There was a perception that social workers tend to come across as arrogant or behave as if they are 'superior’, although they may not intend to but rather are 'naïve’ about a carer’s situation.
5.11. It was felt that carers often were not given the information they need in order to make the most of their abilities. The expression 'need-to-know’ basis was used, and again this was identified as something coming 'from on high’ - it was felt that social workers were worried that the more information carers were given, the more demands they would make, both in terms of time and financially.
5.12. There was a need for clear, accessible written information for carers. Carers described many of the forms they have to fill out as 'difficult’, and felt that they needed more support with this. One carer also described the experience of being given a 25- page leaflet in response to his enquiry about benefits, in which the information he needed was 'buried’ in the final paragraph.
5.13. One carer identified the need for social workers to be taught 'psychology of perception’, and be taught awareness of the various ways in which a situation might be perceived, rather than making assumptions.
5.14. On the whole, carers did not feel it was necessary for social workers to have a wide range of specialist communication skills. However, it was felt to be important (a) that social workers were aware when users were able to communicate but not directly - for example, where they could communicate through their carers, and to make the effort to engage with that, and (b) that social workers referred to specialists, particularly medical specialists, when necessary. Overall, a need for good background knowledge of the user and carer’s situation (related to good record keeping), together with a basic understanding of the particular needs of the user (for example, that there are degrees of learning disability, or that people without hearing may communicate in different ways) was felt to be important to support communication.
5.15. The use of jargon, primarily in written communication but also in spoken communication, was criticised across the board. One carer described her experience with social workers over the years as "like learning a foreign language”. Carers did feel that, with the increased opportunity for carers to become involved at an organisational level, they were able to challenge social workers where unnecessarily complex or technical language was used. While they recognised the usefulness of jargon as a short-hand between professionals, they felt it was important for social workers to use language appropriate to a situation.
6. Practice assessors
6.1. In terms of what is taught and learnt, practice assessors’ main perception is that there is a range of key core skills that students will already have acquired by the time they get to placement. They also identify the importance of confidence and 'emotional maturity’ for readiness to learn in practice. The main skills identified are interviewing and report writing. As these appear high on the list of skills taught in the academic setting it appears that practice assessors and academic tutors share this understanding.
6.2. Specific and technical skills are regarded as secondary and no specific teaching and learning is identified as necessary. Nevertheless, it is recognised that such skills may be important in certain settings and with certain client groups. The emphasis here is on learning through experience in placement, rather than teaching in academic settings.
6.3. This also raises a key question about assessment. Practice assessors overwhelmingly suggest that the assessment of communication skills is challenging for two main reasons: first, that such skills are amorphous and subjective; and second, that the act of assessment is dangerous to the demonstration of effective communication skills as it becomes artificial.
6.4. The relationship between practice assessors and the teaching institution is central. Practice assessors are not always clear about their role in relation to the academic setting and there is considerable concern about this, even where academic institutions are providing workshops and other support to the practice teachers with whom they work. This concern pervades both at the level of teaching and learning and at the level of assessment, for the reasons described above.
6.5. Practice assessors identify some ways in which the teaching and learning of communication skills on placement can be supported by teaching institutions. For example, profiling of students’ individual learning needs and specific knowledge of the curriculum are seen as important.
6.6. A lack of clear distinction between core and specific skills is also a key issue for practice assesors, as is the case across the research. Nevertheless, practice assesors do identify a small number of technical skills that they feel are important. These are British Sign Language, Makaton, communication through play, and communication through art. These skills, rarely identified as being taught in teaching institutions, are identified as the kind of specific skill that should be taught in practice, although only where the setting or client group demands it. There is no expectation among practice assesors that specific and technical skills should be taught in the academic setting.
6.7. A range of principles underpinning good communication were identified which reflect the practice assesors’ own day-to-day experiences. A key concern is what they describe as 'working with reality’, including acknowledging frustrations inherent in the work, and setting realistic aims and expectations both for users and for workers. These principles are also related to the aims in communication of empowering users, being aware of power differentials, and of breaking down institutionalisation where possible.
7.1. The students’ responses across the range of research questions indicate a strong awareness of and concern with the establishment and maintenance of the social worker role. In particular, they indicate a strong awareness of the importance of interprofessional communication skills.
7.2. At the same time, students share with academics the perception that there is a range of core skills which are key to social work and the respective skills they identify overlap with their academic teachers’. This is unsurprising since they are currently studying on Social Work courses and responses are likely to reflect that learning. Nevertheless, students’ own identification of core skills does not reflect the concern with written communication that is raised by both tutors and practice assessors.
7.3. At the same time, they also make little of learning in placement in an explicit way although a great deal is implied about their view that it is in practice settings that they pick up practice-useful communication skills.
7.4. While students have a very user-centred sense of values and principles, the principles they identify also suggest an emphasis on the extent and limitations of the social worker role. For example, one of the strongest statements of principle to emerge is that of "speaking for the client but not actually doing everything for them”.
7.5. Students also describe the need to "know what’s happening for the user”. This means making sure that they have done sufficient research into the background of the user’s case, to have good knowledge of the situation in advance of face-to-face communication. It would also manifest itself in appropriate selfpresentation, including dressing in a way that makes the user feel most at ease. This raises the question 'How will they get to know this?’. What if it is a name badge that makes the service user most at ease?
7.6. Students also suggest that shadowing is good preparation for practice. There is consensus that the opportunity to observe a variety of practitioners at work, and thereby observe a variety of personal styles, would be extremely useful in the development of, and building confidence in, students’ own communication skills.
7.7. Students, along with tutors and practice assessors, emphasise the importance of learning communication skills by putting them into practice - as one student put it, "there’s only so much you can learn from text books”.
7.8. Nevertheless, on the question of assessment, there is concern that the academic setting has a preference for assessment in the written mode, while assessment of communication skills is more properly the concern of placement emphasising verbal and non-written modes, which are seen to come more naturally to practice settings. A fault line is identified between these settings and their concomitant modes of assessment, and it is unclear how the gap can be bridged in such a way that students do not experience learning about communication as fractured.
7.9. In particular, there is a general feeling that, while observation and role play is "useful to a certain extent”, it can feel very "staged”. There was some doubt as to whether this can effectively reflect students’ competence in communication.
- Banks, S. (1995) Ethics and values in social work, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
- Clark, C.L. (2000) Social work ethics: Politics, principles and practice, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
- Egan, G. (2002) The skilled helper: A problem management and opportunity approach to helping, Pacific Grove, CA: Cambridge Brooks/Cole.
- Laming, H. (2003) The Victoria Climbié Inquiry: Report of an inquiry, London: The Stationery Office.
- Okitikpi, T. (2003) 'Communication skills in social work education’, Paper presented to staff team at Brunel University, unpublished, London.
- QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) (2002) Benchmark statement for social work.
- Schon, D. (1995) The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action, Aldershot: Ashgate/Arena.
- Twelvetrees, A. (1982) Community work, Birmingham: BASW.