Teaching and learning communication skills in social work education

Changes in social work training

Learning aims and outcomes

Preparing and putting into place the new three-year degree programme in social work, at the same time as phasing out the current Diploma in Social Work qualification, posed an enormous challenge for those involved in the education of social workers.

It may be helpful for everyone involved in the new social work degree to be knowledgeable about the background to its introduction and, above all, its main purpose.

At the time of writing, this guide refers mainly to the degree requirements in England. The degree requirements for Wales are set out in the National Assembly For Wales Requirements for an award of a degree in social work11. These requirements were developed in partnership with the social care sector in Wales to reflect the key principles for the reform of social work training in Wales set out by the Minister for Health and Social Services in June 2001. They underpin the Assembly’s objective of improving standards through the introduction of degree-level training. The requirements are part of the overall 'Qualification framework for the degree in social work in Wales’ and are reflected in the Care Council for Wales’ 'Approval and visiting of degree courses in social work (Wales) Rules 2003’ as the required standard of proficiency in relevant social work. For detailed information go to: www.wales.gov.uk/.

In England, the consultation paper on A quality strategy for social care (DH, 200013) signalled the introduction of the changes. It included the modernisation of qualifying training for social workers in its proposals to support quality and continuous improvements in social care. The registration by the GSCC of all social workers and students under the 2000 Care Standards Act from 2003 is also part of this strategy. The thrust of all the new arrangements is that service users and carers get high quality social work services in terms of both processes and outcomes. Thus the changes, including service user and carer participation in training, are the means to the ends of improving experiences and outcomes rather than ends in themselves.

Issued under the 2000 Care Standards Act, the Requirements for social work training in England9 specify "what providers of social work training must do”, covering the entry, teaching, learning and assessment requirements for the degree courses. The national occupational standards for social work (TOPSS, 200213) and the Benchmark statement for social work (QAA, 200214) form the basis for the assessment of competence at the end of the programme and the award of the degree. Taken together, the requirements, standards and benchmark statement comprise the prescribed curriculum for the degree. The emphasis is on practice with academic learning to support it. To this end, students will spend at least 200 days gaining experience and learning in practice settings. For detailed information and access via the Internet, go to: www.dh.gov.uk/.

Key documents

Listed below are a number of key documents and web links that give detailed information about the changes in social work education and the initiatives that are being implemented to support this process:

  1. A quality strategy for social care (DH, 200012): the process of change in social work education began with this consultation paper and included the modernisation of qualifying training for social workers in its proposals to support quality and continuous improvement in social care.
  2. 2000 Care Standards Act (www.legislation.hmso.gov.uk/acts/ acts2000/20000014.htm): the registration by the GSCC of all social workers and students under this Act is a component of the quality strategy for social care above.
  3. The Department of Health have a dedicated website for social work education with updates and further information about requirements for training and assessments; entry requirements; and teaching, learning and assessment requirements: www.dh.gov.uk/
  4. The Practice Learning Taskforce was established in 2002 to work with statutory, voluntary, private, user and carer-led organisations and with HEIs to help secure sufficient quality, quantity and diversity of practice learning and assessment opportunities for social work students (www.practice-learning.org.uk).
  5. Performance indicator: the provision of social work practice learning will be a performance indicator for local authorities, which takes effect in 2004. Local authorities are being asked to provide the Department of Health with the number of practice learning days currently provided for Diploma in Social Work students, as part of the Performance Assessment Framework for social services departments. This information will be used to develop targets against which the Department of Health will monitor performance in local authorities. This new monitoring is an indication of the importance attached to the successful delivery of the new degree (www.dh.gov.uk/).

Implications for teaching and learning communication skills

The changes to social work education have direct implications for teaching and learning communication skills:

The new emphasis on teaching and learning through practice is closely linked to another of the degree requirements of 'learning from, about, and with other professionals’. Communication skills are likely to be a prominent part of such collaborative practice learning. (See Whittington, 200317 and www.dh.gov.uk/)

Supporting initiatives and opportunities

Two of the government initiatives to support practice learning are of particular relevance to teaching and learning communications skills through practice. They offer ways to strengthen the relationships between employers and programme providers, and to promote practice learning in practice agencies.

Parallel development in health

The Department of Health (England), Universities UK, the Health Professional Council (HPC), the General Medical Council (GMC) and the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) have prepared a joint statement setting out guiding principles relating to the commissioning and provision of communication skills training, and the required support for healthcare students, at pre-registration and undergraduate level.

The NHS Plan for England (DH, 2000) stated that by 2002 it will be a precondition of qualification to deliver patient care in the NHS that an individual has demonstrated competence in communication with patients. In addition, reports highlighting failures in health and social care systems, such as the Kennedy Report (The Bristol Royal Infirmary Inquiry, July 2001), The Cancer Plan (DH, September 2000), the Health Service Ombudsman’s Report for England (2002, Annual Report, 2001-02), and the report from the Victoria Climbié Enquiry (Lord Laming, January 2003), reinforce the need for improved communication skills for all health and social care staff.

Ensuring that healthcare students are suitably prepared for their first post is only the foundation on which they will continue to build during their careers. Developments in specialist communication skills, improving the skills of existing staff and induction programmes for all healthcare staff are being developed by the National Health Service University (NHS U) in partnership with experts, patients and local health communities. This will build on the work of others, including the regulatory and professional bodies.

The NHS U will develop programmes for developing and improving specialist communication skills that are likely to cover both health and social care.

The health guidelines are available at: www.dh.gov.uk/