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

Ways forward: Conceptualising partnership

The confusion about how to define partnership continues to be significant. Evidence from this guide suggests it is important to achieve greater clarity in our understanding of partnership for a number of reasons:

Recent research exploring partnership work and the involvement of stakeholders in a range of settings provides some pointers to encourage greater clarity in the concept of partnership and in defining the different elements of partnership.

The meaning behind a word

It is important to recognise that confusion within the discourse on partnership is about more than a name. It also reflects the complexities of fast-changing policy and practice.

Fifteen years after Tunnard’s definition of partnership, Clarke and colleagues (31) suggest that ‘partnership’ and ‘respect’ comprise two New Labour keywords.

Baldwin and Sadd, in their discussion of partnership work between the University of Bath and the Wiltshire and Swindon Users’ Network, (20) describe how they now use the word ‘ally’ rather than ‘partner’. They view ‘partnership’ as implying equal power between partners which is clearly false as power lies with the academic institution. ‘Ally’ ‘allows for a meaningful relationship based on respect and being valued, despite and probably because of inequalities among its members’ (p 353). Significantly they also discuss the importance of acknowledging power differences:

Having acknowledged that inequality, we make every attempt to redress the imbalance, from the strategic level to the level of individual practice, precisely because we have acknowledged the power imbalance’ (p 353).

Finally, Branfield et al (32) offer the term ‘networking’ as crucial for positive user participation. Networking allows people who use services to be able to work collectively for change and mutual support, and to make their experience, views and ideas known in a context and culture which too often erects barriers to users and carers, or where they lack resources to develop and share their knowledge. Networking is a means for people using services to increase credibility and visibility.

In summary:

Author(s) Keywords Main concepts


sharing, respect, power sharing

Each partner has something to contribute with power shared and roles respected. Such partnerships are backed by legal and moral rights.

Clarke et al

partnership linked to respect

People who use services identify respect as a key component of partnership. Indifference, impersonality and rudeness demonstrate a lack of respect.

Baldwin and Sadd


‘Ally’ rather than ‘partner’ emphasises the quality of respect which redresses inevitable power imbalance.

Branfield et al


Networking enables people who use services to work together to provide mutual support. Networking increases credibility and visibility.

Emerging themes

With the exception of the article by Baldwin and Sadd, the authors cited above are not specifically discussing partnership within social work education. However, some of the concepts they discuss can be applied to the complex stakeholder partnerships required in the delivery of social work education. Particularly significant are the management of unequal power and the importance of respect, both of which appear to be relevant to the maintenance of effective partnerships with all stakeholder groups.

These themes are also evident in the National Occupational Standards for Social Care. (33) The requirement to demonstrate respect is included as a core aspect of values and ethics throughout the National Occupational Standards key roles and units. For example, the indicative knowledge base for Key Role 1 identifies:

respect for each person as an individual, and respect for the ‘dignity and privacy of individuals, families, carers, groups and communities’ as core values (p 19).

Networking is the focus of Key Role 2, Unit 7 by which, among other requirements, social workers must be able to:

examine with individuals, families, carers, groups, communities and others support networks which can be accessed and developed

The management of power is less straightforward and is related to the appropriate use of legal powers and responsibilities and to the concept of empowering people who use services and their carers, for example providing information and support (such as Key Role 3).

The knowledge review provided also provided some evidence that these issues were recognised by stakeholders in social work education. For example, student participants in the Practice Survey commented that partnership provided a framework for learning about power relations and respect:

Partnership is about giving up power.

It comes down to basic respect for each other.

It comes down to the basic standards and humanist principles of social work, really.

They linked good partnership practice with social work values and anti-oppressive practice.

Similar themes have been highlighted in accounts of partnership work with a range of stakeholders. (20,29,34) While these accounts suggest that partnership education ‘on the ground’ is at least keeping pace with and maybe in advance of conceptual development, the conceptual confusion about the distinctive nature of partnership remains.