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

How is partnership work taught?

See also: Good practice examples

One of the most important issues for those planning social work education is the question of where and how partnership work sits, both within the curriculum and within programme structures and processes. Is partnership learning more effectively delivered in a discrete module or should it be integrated throughout the curriculum? The ‘separation’ or ‘integration’ arguments also apply to other aspects of curriculum development. There are also issues about how partnership teaching should be delivered and what constitute the most effective teaching materials to support learning.

Key information from the knowledge review

By far the majority of teaching initiatives concern discrete courses or practice-learning projects, many of them demonstrating the ‘creative and inclusive methods of promoting partnership’ called for by Levin (11) on behalf of SCIE. From these, there runs a continuum from more comprehensive partnership-oriented development to (more rarely) wholesale integration of partnership throughout the curriculum. The knowledge review characterised the two ends of this continuum as the embedded and discrete approaches.

The embedded approach

The case for fundamental integration of partnership working into the structures and processes of social work education has some strong advocates. In this approach there is no separately identified ‘partnership’ module during the course:

we are addressing together how partnership work is taught and by whom, rather than try and deal with them as separate entities.’ (educator interviewed in the practice survey)

The advocates of this approach feel that it enables partnership to be central to all the teaching rather than a ‘bolt on’. The main question for educators in adopting this approach is whether teaching that is embedded and frequently implicit enables students to identify and apply the learning in both college and practice. Within this approach the main risk is that ‘It must have been integrated because we didn’t notice it’. (3)

The embedded approach also emphasises the importance of modelling good partnership practice throughout the programme. Examples include partnerships between students, practice assessors and educators in the negotiation of practice learning contracts, ensuring that students’ views are heard and that people who use services are valued in the contributions they make.

The discrete approach

An alternative approach to teaching partnership is the discrete model, in which a specific ‘partnership module’ is delivered. The aims and content of these modules is diverse, ranging from those with a focus on skills and values to others where the emphasis is on organisational structures and interprofessional working. For example, the practice survey identified modules called Learning Partnership through Community Profiling, Partnership Learning and Management and a Partnership and Participation module, which explored partnerships in health and social care. The wide and varied content is inevitable given the conceptual confusion about partnership. However, this diversity also reflects the significance of the concept in a range of social work arenas.   The advantage of adopting the discrete approach is that partnership is identified as a key concept, significant enough to warrant a specific module. However, this may not answer the charge of tokenism if partnership is not explicitly identified in and linked to teaching at all points in the course.

Apart from these differences to the organisation of teaching, both models share similar approaches to partnership in respect of other aspects of programme design and delivery. This includes reflecting social work values and good partnership relations in the management of the programme. Scheyett and Diehl (12) summarise these characteristics:

… [in] a true partnership between clients and social workers in social work education … Clients would have significant roles throughout the educational process, working together with educators in establishing goals for social work education, creating strategies to meet these goals, and implementing and evaluating these educational strategies in formal academic settings. (p 436)

Although their views relate to user partnerships they are equally relevant to the goals of other stakeholder partnerships.

A summary of the two main approaches



Partnership work is integrated into aspects of the classroom or practice curriculum, but is not necessarily explicitly identified.

Specific modules focus on aspects of partnership work. Examples include modules that take an organisational or a values and anti-oppressive practice perspective, or those which look at work with particular user and carer groups.

Students may learn partnership work by seeing others doing it and/or doing it themselves. The modelling of partnership within the course culture is a source of learning about good partnership practice.

Specific learning activities are designed to inform and develop student understanding of the experiences and views of users and carers, confound stereotypes, learn skills in communication and inclusive behaviour and question their own roles and status.

Practice learning is an important resource for modelling partnership work e.g. in collaborative relationships between students, educators and agency colleagues.

There remain questions about whether the learning about partnership in specific modules can be transferred to practice.

Partnership with users and carers may be integrated into parts of the overall organisation of programmes, or into specific activities such as selection.

Partnership with users and carers may be integrated into parts of the overall organisation of programmes, or into specific activities such as selection.

Interprofessional and uniprofessional partnership education is very unlikely to be implicitly integrated into the organisation of a programme. There are examples of other professionals making contributions to teaching and assessment.

Interprofessional and uniprofessional partnership education may be designed into parts of the organisation of a programme, but partnership is rarely identified as the main purpose of the learning.

Embedded: modelling partnership in staff–user and staff–carer relationship

The practice survey identified programmes that aimed to integrate partnership with users and carers across their structures (see Good Practice examples). Several authors (for example Levin (11)) have been careful to draw attention to key practicalities and points of principle in managing the process of user and carer participation in social work education. Among these are

Embedded: modelling partnership in the student–educator relationship

If social work education about partnership work is to have meaning and integrity, it must accord with the reality of students’ lived experience. Two reports of specific initiatives to model a partnership-based approach in the educator–student relationships are both to be found in the USA. Huff and Johnson (13) describe postgraduate social work students who worked in partnership with teachers and with each other, using learning contracts to define the scope and goals of their work and, to an extent, determine the nature and weight of their assessment. Bordelon (14) describes how the participatory learning approach adopted in a community-based project engaged him as educator/facilitator with his students in a shared and, according to his account, mutually beneficial learning experience.

Discrete: interprofessional partnership work

The how and by whom of interprofessional education are addressed in depth in the sister publication by SCIE: Interprofessional education for qualifying social work. (2) It is worth noting here in relation to interprofessional partnership education and comparing the benefits of interprofessional and uniprofessional education, that Glen15 argues strongly that lack of clarity about the priorities of interprofessional education will lead to resentment and a perception that uniprofessional learning opportunities are being diluted. This was indeed reported by two studies of an interprofessional programme. (16,17) By far the strongest message from several of these studies is the difficulty of fitting it all in.

Discrete: Learning from users or ‘experts by experience’

The term ‘experts by experience’ is one adopted in Guide 13: Learning, teaching and assessment of law in social work education. (18) In considering how that experience is used in learning and teaching, three different approaches are emerging to using experience in the classroom.

Learning and teaching partnership work in practice placements

Placements are assumed by some to offer the best opportunity to learn about partnership in practice. The process of negotiation between practice teacher, tutor and student in setting up placements itself provides a basis for partnership learning that could be better recognised and developed. (3) Paradoxically, however, there is also a view that partnership work is not commonly found in practice, particularly in the statutory sector. The mosaic of regulatory requirements for partnership work (see Regulatory Context) does not enhance this situation, particularly in England where the National Occupational Standards for Social Work are not explicit about ‘partnership’ requirements in practice.

To date, the planned opportunities for learning interprofessional partnership practice have predominantly been in health or health-related settings. The more recent governmental focus on integrated children’s services seems likely to shift the interprofessional partnership practice agenda to include a range of services such as education and youth and community work. As already noted, the discourse has also shifted from ‘partnership’ to integration’.

There are accounts, primarily in the USA, of interesting community-based practice learning initiatives. The focus here is on student learning, in collaboration with community groups and outside the framework of agency settings, about users’ and carers’ lives and lifestyles and their service needs. Students are encouraged to work with and learn from users as community members and as resources, rather than as victims.

See also: How is partnership work taught? Good practice examples