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/.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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/
- 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).
- 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 social work degree and the current recruitment drive to attract and inspire young people to enter social work both suggest a younger intake of students. HEIs anticipate an increased need to cover basic communication skills for younger, less experienced, students.
- An increased emphasis on practice learning will require more rigorous systems and standards for teaching, learning and assessment of communication skills within practice settings. See Dick et al (200215). This report was commissioned by the Scottish Executive as part of the reform of social work education in Scotland. The literature review presents a summary of the current thinking, knowledge practice and research on practice learning within professional education, with particular attention paid to the area of social work. In particular, it consolidates the literature in three areas: theories of practice learning, methods of practice learning, and the use of e-learning strategies in conjunction with practice learning (see the document in full at www.scotland.gov.uk).
- The focus on practice learning opportunities, including the increased number of student days in practice settings, requires a shift in thinking about the types of opportunities and the range of practice assessors: The centrality of practice learning to the creation of confident and relevant social work professionals is recognised within the degree. The need to reform the way practice learning takes place and its aims have also been part of the development of the new qualification. The degree is committed to practice learning opportunities that include the primacy of users’ experiences and an understanding and experience of collaborative working with other professions. Achieving these goals requires a shift in perception from individual assessors of individual students to a workplace where every social care worker sees practice learning as their business. The costs of students in the workplace can be set against the benefits of extending learning and raising standards across the workforce 16 (SCIE Position paper 2, A framework for supporting and assessing practice learning).
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.
- Learning resource centres offer organisations the opportunity to develop practice learning for students and for the workforce. Ten pilot centres will be established in 2003/04, a further 15 in 2004/05 and by 2005/06 there will be 50. The initiative will be overseen by TOPSS England: www.topss.org.uk
- Skills laboratories are the responsibility of programme providers who have been provided with pump-priming funding for 2003/05 to enable programmes to realign their present arrangements for delivering social work training to a more practical focus for the degree. The laboratories could draw on the expertise of service users and practitioners to offer rehearsal opportunities to students, particularly in communication skills. They provide an environment for the development and assessment of social work students’ skills at each stage of the integration of learning between 'field’ and classroom settings (www.dh.gov.uk).
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/