Learning, teaching and assessment of law in social work education

Key messages from Knowledge Review 08: Why teach law?

The first important question for educators is to reflect on the purpose of teaching law to social work students. What are you seeking to achieve? There are two trends in the literature, which are mirrored in education practice. One expressed aim is for students to become critical thinkers who can engage in critical analysis of the relationship between law and professional practice, interrogate the role of law in the lives of service users and use it to promote social change. A counter argument is that we should seek to produce skilled technicians, with reliable technical competence in the roles and tasks for which they are responsible, able to apply their legal knowledge accurately and effectively to practical problem solving. The same debate is found in legal education, where the critical thinker is likened to the Greek philosopher Pericles, and the skilled technician to a plumber (Twining, 1967).

Debates in the purpose of law teaching for social workers
  • Engages in critical thinking
  • Questions the origin, organisation and purpose of legal rules
  • Reflects on purposes and values
  • Promotes social change

The plumber

  • Possesses technical know-how
  • Applies knowledge of legal rules to hands-on practice
  • Carries out roles and tasks
  • Engages in problem solving

These positions will have very different implications for the content of law teaching to social work students. The literature indicates that technical competence must be accompanied by critical competence, as only a broader critical and political perspective offers social workers the potential for tackling root causes of discrimination and oppression, as well as meeting individual need. Technical competence without context offers technical proficiency that fails to understand why the powerless are powerless. Thus it is important to understand how the legal rules disadvantage particular social groups, how the law regulates and affects institutions and social groupings, and how social workers may take corrective action. But in education practice, this broader political perspective is less commonly found, leaving the focus more on developing straightforward knowledge of legal systems and mandates for professional practice. While critical perspectives may be taught, they are not as commonly assessed - thus there exists a bias towards technical competence in the outcomes of learning.

Common themes in learning objectives

  • Awareness of legal systems and the range and status of different sources of law
  • Understanding of how the law influences (guides, empowers and controls) social work practice
  • Knowledge of the legal frameworks for social work practice (professional law)
  • Critical analysis of that framework, to evaluate it from a political and moral perspective
  • Understanding of the application of law to practice

Less commonly expressed learning objectives

  • Understanding the broader legal frameworks (beyond those that mandate social work intervention or services) that influence the lives of service users
  • Using appropriate legal knowledge for the purposes of advocacy and representation
  • Knowing how to use legislation to support, defend, represent, challenge and advocate for human rights and justice
  • Understanding the role of law in countering different forms of discrimination and recognising the contribution of law to anti-oppressive practice
  • Understanding the underpinning values and ethical frameworks within which law and use of law are located and linkages with social work values

Experts by experience who attended the stakeholder conferences for the knowledge review strongly supported the notion of technical competence. They felt that social work students did need to 'know their law’. A persistent complaint was that qualified child care social workers claimed to know the law but often did not, consequently giving misleading information and failing to engage effectively with legal processes. Yet they also recognised that social work students need to think more broadly and more positively about the law, being able to use it to empower and promote access to resources. This meant developing knowledge of a wider range of legislation and developing a more critical perspective on the role and functions of law in society and in the lives of service users. In effect the plea from experts by experience was for 'plumbers plus’, or 'critical fixers’ - practitioners who were both skilled technicians and critical thinkers. They also emphasised that practitioners should involve people using services in determining what issues needed addressing, and in why and how this was to be achieved.

Learning outcomes are also related to the notion of academic levels. Social work qualifying training may be located at either undergraduate (H) or postgraduate (M) level within the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) framework, thus making some differentiation appropriate. Some programmes locate critical perspectives on the legal framework more overtly at postgraduate level, or at least require a greater degree of complexity and sophistication of argument at this level. While clearly appropriate in academic terms, arguably critical competence in the professional sense is an appropriate learning objective regardless of the academic level at which a programme is located.

The subject benchmark statement for social work (QAA, 2000), coupled with the national occupational standards for the profession (TOPSS, 2002), supports this perspective. Students must be competent not just in identifying the need for legal and procedural intervention and in implementing legal and policy frameworks, but also in critically analysing the law and its application. Thus, educational objectives should include both the vocational and the critical/analytical aims.