Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching
The context of assessment: Collaborative assessment with other professions and agencies
The ‘modernisation agenda’ initiated in public policy by the New Labour government in 1997 gave powerful new impetus to the concepts, promoted by earlier governments, of collaboration and partnership between professions and services. In the years that followed, the ideas of partnership and joint working informed a large body of social policy initiatives and now underpin long-term planning (Whittington, 2003a; DHSSPS, 2006).
During the period, a series of terms came into common use in social work education and practice, including ‘interprofessional’, ‘multi-disciplinary’, ‘inter-agency’ and ‘multi-agency’. In addition to the nuances that sometimes separate the use of these different terms, three points are important to note for the purposes of this guide:
- the terms tend to represent two discourses in education and practice, the interprofessional and the inter-organisational (Whittington, 2007)
- learning in both discourses has the common goal of ‘learning for collaborative practice’, a term that transcends the terminological differences within and between the discourses (Whittington, 2003a)
- learning for collaborative practice with other professions and agencies has become a core expectation of social work education at qualifying and post-qualifying levels.
The significance of the first point for social work (and other professional education) is, in part, as follows. Educational spheres that are concerned with professional learning tend to be preoccupied with the interprofessional learning discourse and may neglect inter-organisational learning. In short, learning to work with doctors, nurses or teachers is not the same as learning to work with the cultures, working practices and priorities of, say, primary healthcare teams, mental health units or local schools. Neglect of the inter-organisational discourse can present a problem for social workers whose effectiveness in practice depends increasingly not only on managing interprofessional relationships but inter-agency networks too (see case examples in Whittington and Whittington, 2006). Social workers have to bridge these two related discourses and need assistance in making the necessary connections from academic and practice learning and from available models (Whittington, 2003b).
The second point above locates educational common ground between interpersonal and inter-organisational discourses in their learning objectives. Examples of the third point are found in social work post-qualifying expectations (e.g. GSCC, 2005) and in requirements for the social work degree given in the benchmarks for social work education (QAA, 2000) and in the NOS. Key role 2 of the NOS expects planning and review of social work practice with other professionals (TOPSS UK Partnership, 2004). Similarly, social workers are expected to work effectively in multi-disciplinary and multi-agency teams and networks (Unit 17). The developing literature is reviewed in publications on interprofessional learning and on partnership work in social work education (Taylor et al, 2006; Sharland and Taylor).
Given the recognition of these developments in practice and education, it is notable that Crisp and colleagues found several textbooks with little or no content on interprofessional or inter-agency assessment. This means that care must be taken in the choice of texts if they are to relate to contemporary practice in UK social work.
All the reviewed assessment frameworks anticipated that assessment may be multi-disciplinary, reflecting the origins of the frameworks in government departments and in the modernisation agenda. The framework for children and families is particularly explicit about the responsibilities of different agencies and professions and contains two chapters on roles and responsibilities in inter-agency assessment of children in need. The framework for older people refers to the organisational implications of shared assessment and inter-agency working (Crisp et al, 2005, p 185). All the frameworks recognised that a variety of professional views may be needed and that they should be sought in a manner that avoids the service user having to repeat information to different service providers or professionals (Crisp et al, 2005, p 49). This connects to the development of single assessment processes (SAPs) (ADSS, 2004) and to common assessment frameworks such as the one being developed for Wales (SCIE, 2006).
Engaging with the interprofessional and multi-agency dimensions of assessment requires recognition of two aspects of assessment: first, that assessment is a key skill in several disciplines in the fields adjacent to social care (Crisp et al, 2003, p 1); and second, that assessment is a function of many agencies. Recognition of this ‘multi-assessment environment’ is important because it gives the prospect of common ground between social workers and others, and the potential for professional differences that must be recognised and negotiated (Whittington and Whittington, 2006; Whittington, 2007).
Collaboration with other professions and agencies is one of two key dimensions of collaboration in which social workers must develop competence. The second is collaboration with service users and carers (see page 46).
Question for educators
- Does learning for collaborative assessment feature explicitly in students’ academic and practice learning opportunities?
- What sources and learning methods do you use to ensure that both the interprofessional and inter-agency dimensions of assessment are included in student learning?