Learning, teaching and assessment of law in social work education

Evaluating learning and continuing to learn

Law appears to lend itself to multifaceted approaches, with little evidence to support 'one best way’ of promoting students’ learning. While educators have a clear sense of the need for alignment, and a strong rationale for the approaches adopted, more robust evidence is required. Social work education is now poised to move on from providing descriptive and conceptual accounts of teaching and learning, to engage more empirically with evaluation of processes of learning (Carpenter, 2005). Assessment of learning is typically formative and summative. However, assessment might also usefully focus on measuring the distance travelled by individual students in their learning. This may enable academic tutors and practice assessors to identify more effective approaches to teaching and assessing law in social work education. Some of the learning and assessment tools presented in Section 2, when used at various points before, during and after teaching, enable the measurement of change over time. For example, repeated use of the attitude scales, whether administered by individuals themselves or in conjunction with their supervisors, opens up discussion of what has impacted on the outcomes of such an audit. The collection and analysis of social work law and social welfare materials collected by students can be assessed at several points throughout their learning, for example during each practice learning opportunity.

Recent evidence is equivocal as to whether standards of competence for social work law practice are improving. Barnes (2000) found that, while most students were competent when answering questions on law, carers reported that social workers were ill-equipped with practical legal skills. Mathias-Williams and Thomas (2002) found that almost half the students surveyed believed that they did not have sufficient knowledge of relevant legislation. They were hoping to gain additional legal knowledge, and experience of its practical application, in their first year of practice in order to strengthen their understanding.

Lyons and Manion (2004) found that 75% of students ranked their law teaching as good or better. However, Willis (2002) reported that the majority of one sample had received no training in court skills on social work courses and only limited in-house opportunities subsequently. The majority rated management support as poor or very poor, and argued that it was difficult to work with lawyers when they lacked training in law and legal proceedings.

Research on priorities for the development of e-learning materials (Waldman et al, 2005) also identified court skills alongside child care law, adult and mental health law, knowledge of law and the legal system, and the interactions between different areas of law.

Insecurity in one’s knowledge base and uncertainty about one’s skills in applying it can result in practitioners inappropriately deferring to supervisors and to exaggerating hierarchical distance between social workers and legal practitioners. The potential exists for social work thinking to be overshadowed.

The national occupational standards (TOPSS, 2002), in key role 6 on demonstrating professional competence in social work practice, require social workers to review and update their own knowledge of legal, policy and procedural frameworks. Practice teachers in the knowledge review (Braye and Preston-Shoot et al, 2005) had a range of unmet needs in relation to developing and updating their legal knowledge, many feeling that it was left to individual, personal responsibility and that not everyone fulfils this. Some blamed the lack of explicit legal focus in their work for the absence of easily available knowledge updates. Those working in sectors where recent legislation had been introduced, or those in specialist roles such as approved social workers, felt in a favoured position. The constantly changing nature of law was experienced as a problem, along with the challenge posed by the complexity of legal information, and it was seen as difficult to secure up-to-date, clear information that was not mediated through agency interpretation.

The literature provides little evidence of whether and how universities and organisations with social services responsibilities are enabling practitioners to avoid learning decay, and to retain, develop and integrate legal knowledge and skills into their practice. Read and Clements (1999) describe one approach to continuing professional development. This connects law learning with policy and practice development. It also connects training with performance review and follow-up, and practitioners with their managers. Preston-Shoot (2003) describes a taught programme for practice teachers, designed to facilitate their own continuing law learning and that of their students.

However, protected title and registration mean that social workers must maintain their knowledge base and skills. Keeping up to date in law forms part of this requirement, which adds further impetus to researching what works in terms of student retention of law learning. Here the approach by Read and Clements (1999) seems promising. Their workshop participants engaged not only in updating their legal knowledge but, with their managers and course leaders, reflected over time on how they had applied their new learning in practice. Several of the tools in Section 2 of this guide can be used to orientate social workers in training towards continuing professional development, for example the collection of materials and the use of self-audit.

This review of the evidence highlights the importance to continued law learning of:

The legal rules never remain static and neither should reflection and research on learning, teaching and assessment of law in social work education. The knowledge review (Braye and Preston-Shoot et al, 2005) identified the paucity of evidence for the effectiveness of different methods of teaching and assessment, and the relative neglect in the literature of law learning and evaluation in the practice curriculum. It is to these areas that the authors of this guide have now turned for further research (Braye et al, 2006), alongside the development of e-learning objects that might assist social workers in training and those engaged in post-qualifying education to retain competence in practising social work law.

Law learning is a challenging journey. However, it is also an exciting and stimulating journey. This is partly because it engages with profound social issues that lie at the heart of professional practice. It is also because those same social issues will affect individuals, including quite possibly ourselves. Hopefully, this guide will have communicated not just the challenge but also the feasibility and richness of the journey.