The learning, teaching and assessment of partnership work in social work education

How can students be assessed on partnership work? Good practice

The knowledge review identified a number of examples of stakeholder involvement in the assessment of practice learning. Many of these were longstanding and built on collaborative arrangements which had existed since the delivery of Diploma in Social Work programmes. In contrast, few examples of the assessment of teaching and learning in the classroom had been identified. However, since 2005, evidence from publications and work undertaken for this guide suggest that considerable development has taken place in this area. (19) Admittedly this is happening from a very low base in terms of numbers, but the requirements of the degree have provided added impetus to an area which had not previously been given sufficient attention.

Academics, people who use services and their carers working in partnership

Involving people using services and their carers in the process of assessment models a reversal of the usual power relationship. The examples given here include assessment that counts towards a grade or pass/fail, and formative assessment with an emphasis on feedback. In each example, users and carers are given training and support to engage in this role.

Good practice example: University of Nottingham - MA/Diploma in Social Work, module L3D761: Users’ and carers’ perspectives in community care

Since 1990, Advocacy in Action has provided student placements. In a themed edition of Social Work Education, about user involvement in social work education, the organisation traces the development of its role from the assessment of student practice to involvement in a variety of classroom-based assessment. (19)

Its role has developed from completing early checklists about Advocacy in Action’s experience of students’ work (e.g.: do they care about and respect us? do they treat us as equal people?) to a 12-step experiential assessment framework that can be used in the classroom or in placement. Built into the framework are opportunities for the evaluation of the assessment process and outcomes when participants reflect on what worked and make suggestions for future changes. The article concludes that:

Throughout this experiential assessment process the framework energises and learns from partnerships within as it continuously experiences, incorporates and reshapes to meet their collaborative requirements. (p 343)

Advocacy in Action working with the University of Nottingham is the only example we are aware of where users and carers are completely responsible for the assessment of a module. The group’s involvement with this module explores one aspect of its involvement with assessment throughout the programme.

The example from the University of Plymouth, described by Elliott and colleagues, (29) demonstrates how people who use services and their carers may be involved in providing feedback which counts in the assessment of whether students are safe to practice and to embark on their first placement.

Good practice example: University of Plymouth - BSc Hons Health and Social Care Management: The service user conversation (Level 1, term 1)

One of the users who took part in the assessment describes it as a ‘breakthrough concept for student learning’ (p 465). People who use services and their carers take part in assessing whether students are safe for practice. This takes place at an early stage of the course and students are prepared for the conversation through an earlier module, which includes opportunities for practising conversations through role play.

Students and users or carers are matched in pairs and take part in an individual conversation. A wide range of users and carers are involved and conversations take place in different venues, such as the university or practice agencies. The students then write an account of their view of the ‘qualities of a good social worker’. They receive formative feedback ‘in conversation’ with a user or carer. ‘The user/carer is invited to:

  • comment on whether the student made it clear as to why they were there
  • comment on whether the student listened actively
  • verify the student’s report and whether it was an accurate representation of the conversation’. (p 458)

Students are given the opportunity to respond to this feedback, which is then evaluated by the same user, whose view affects the marking process.

Elliott and her colleagues identify a number of advantages to using this form of assessment at an early stage in the course. These include assessing:

  • communication skills
  • an initial ability to link theory with practice
  • accurate note-taking
  • ability to reflect.

This innovation has been evaluated and the idea has been developed at other stages of the course. During the second year, when students are completing an 80-day placement there is a similar process of working with a person who uses services who gives feedback on the student’s evaluation of what they did on placement and how they are progressing. This provides the student with additional feedback from a user perspective on how they are developing in the social work role.

The examples from the Universities of Sussex and Brighton and London Metropolitan University are of user and carer participation in the assessment of group presentations about partnership work, which in both cases count towards a grade. In the University of Sussex/Brighton example, students reported feeling more anxious about the views of the user/carer than about the views of academic staff. The presence of the user and carer made them more concerned to get it right.

Good practice example: University of Sussex and University of Brighton - BA Hons Social Work, Partnership and Interprofessional Practice, Level 1: Assessed group presentation

The group presentation is assessed by the two staff facilitators and two users and carers who have contributed to the teaching. Each of the following criteria are equally weighted; a group mark of up to 30 per cent is available:

  • how well the group identifies the interprofessional issues in the case study and the theories and research that help to understand them;
  • how well the group demonstrates an initial understanding of interprofessional partnership with users and carers as it applies to practice with the case study (Marilyn – see case scenario 2);
  • how well the group plans interprofessional practice with Marilyn;
  • how well the group evaluates collaboration by the study group in preparation for the presentation;
  • how well the presentation demonstrates coherence (including time management), accessibility and creativity.

Combined assessment of classroom and practice learning

The University of Bath provides one of the closest examples we have found to a model more typically found in the USA, of community-based practice learning initiatives where students are encouraged to work with and learn from users as community members and as resources, rather than as victims (see Good practice example on Partnership and Interprofessional Practice).

Good practice example: University of Bath - BSc Social Work and Applied Social Sciences

A community project combines university teaching with practice learning. The main outcome of the teaching and learning is the completion of a community needs assessment.

Students are assessed individually, on their groupwork and also their learning from the practice element of the project. Individual assessment consists of a written assignment, which makes up 70 per cent of the assessment mark. This also contains self-assessment, asking students to look critically at their learning by using material from their learning logs. This critical reflection requires students to think about how their knowledge, skills and awareness of social work values have developed during the course of the project. Knowledge includes use of material discussing, for example, community profiling, social research and concepts of need.

The group assessment consists of a project report which receives a single mark. Each report has to include a signed appendix which outlines the contribution made by each student.

The project also requires students to provide additional evidence of competence to contribute to the assessment of practice.

Learning and assessing partnership work in practice

I think the barriers we are going to come up against most are the practice attitudes that exist in social work ... We’ve been taught to work in conjunction with social workers in other agencies and for a consensus to be reached and that’s not the attitude of the majority of the social workers whose teams we are working in. To fight against that is going to be one of the great problems. But I am not sure that battling against those attitudes is something that can be taught on a course. I think it’s about being strong enough to say that’s what I believe in and this is the way this should be done, to your colleagues. Which is a hard thing to do when they have a lot more seniority and experience but just because they’ve got seniority and experience doesn’t mean they are doing things the right way. (Student social worker)

The University of Plymouth, consistent with partnership practice elsewhere on its programme, involves users and carers in the assessment of practice learning as follows. This example, which is similar to others identified in the practice survey, illustrates the involvement of people who use services in all stages of the practice learning process.

Good practice example: University of Plymouth - BSc Hons Health and Social Care Management: service user roles in assessment

Practice portfolios - The practice portfolio includes a care plan or review. One person who uses services discusses these plans with a group of three or four students and gives formative feedback to each student from a user perspective. Students are expected to note and respond to this feedback.

Moderating panels - Users are involved in moderating placement portfolios, giving the exam board their views about the quality of evidence and decision-making. There has been joint training for users, practitioners and university staff.

The 12-point assessment framework developed by Advocacy in Action, (19) can be used in both classroom and practice learning. The following quote highlights their role in assessing practice learning, giving the example of partnership in the designing partnership agreements:

We were especially proud of the partnership agreement. Because we built it up together it was truly owned and committed to by everyone. It was an open, non-punitive and empowering framework that valued potential, effort and contribution, encouraged learning, respectful challenge and risk-taking, and accommodated mistakes kindly. It permitted a working relationship based on mutual support and respect which felt safe enough to discuss difficulties, problems and conflicts as they arose and to celebrate achievements all round. (p 376)

Methods of assessment

The exploration in this section of assessing partnership working has highlighted a number of characteristics.

The last point implies that managing and learning about power differences should be a priority in the aims of assessment.

The partnership and participation module at London South Bank University exemplifies these characteristics.

Good practice example: London South Bank University - Module: Partnership and participation, BA Level 2 Social Work and BSc Level 2 Nursing and Social Work Studies

The partnership and participation module (see Good practice example: London South Bank University) uses posters to evaluate the learning alongside reflective writing and a group presentation. The method of assessment has changed during the last two years, although the assessment continues to involve a nurse and social work educator.

A weighting of 60 per cent is given to the design of an individual poster requiring students to represent their learning in relation to professional partnerships. Alongside the posters students also have to complete a bibliography and a 1000-word reflective summary which critically evaluates their partnership skills.

The other 40 per cent of the assessment consists of the group presentation. Each student group makes a 30-minute presentation, selecting three key concepts from a list including collaboration, communication, roles and boundaries in partnership working. They are required to relate these concepts to a case scenario. Students must also demonstrate a critical understanding of theories and the ability to demonstrate appropriate skills such as time management and coherence.

On their own, mixed methods are not sufficient to deliver the required outcomes in terms of assessing the complexity of partnership working. The poster, groupwork using a case scenario and reflective commentary are designed to target learning about partnership knowledge, skills and values. The convenor of this module regards the assessment methods outlined here as ‘work in progress’ since assessment has to be responsive to changes in available resources and the learning environment.

Evaluating partnership work with people who use services and their carers

Many of us would hesitate to commission a group of academics, users and carers to evaluate user and carer involvement in our social work programmes and to disseminate the outcomes publicly. Middlesex University provides one such enterprise.

Good practice example: Middlesex University - Social Work Programmes

Five users and carers and three academics critically evaluated user and carer involvement, using Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation. Arnstein suggests that the eight rungs of the ladder represent degrees of involvement ranging from non-participation at levels 1 and 2, to tokenism on the next three rungs to citizen power on the top three levels or rungs on the ladder.

Arnstein’s ladder

Level or rung

Nature of the partnership

Nature of citizen participation


citizen control

degrees of citizen power



degrees of citizen power



degrees of citizen power



degrees of tokenism



degrees of tokenism



degrees of non-participation



degrees of non-participation



degrees of non-participation

Arnstein, S, first published (1969) as ‘A ladder of citizen participation in the USA’ in Journal of American Institute of Planners 35.

In evaluating themselves, Allain and colleagues (30) concluded that they initially felt they were a public relations vehicle, on rung 1 (manipulation), moved relatively quickly to rung 4 (consultation) and then to rung 5 (placation), where they felt they were given every assistance in articulating their priorities. At the time of writing the article they felt they had reached rung 6 (partnership) ‘where we are just beginning to negotiate a more effective participatory role’ (pp 404-412).