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

How is partnership work taught? Good practice

Most professional programmes adopt a range of approaches to teaching and require students to be active participants, taking responsibility for their own learning. These characteristics of adult learning are particularly evident in teaching about partnership where students address experiences of partnership work in the classroom.

Teaching and learning can take different forms, reflecting the broad scope of the concept and the diversity of learning aims and objectives. Approaches include:

These approaches are not distinctly segregated and in practice they overlap, as the good practice examples here illustrate.

Learning in and from groups

Good practice example: London South Bank University - Module: Partnership and participation, BA Level 2 Social Work and BSc Level 2 Nursing and Social Work Studies

The partnership and participation module includes 80 nursing and social work students. The module is taught jointly by a nurse and a social worker with involvement from people who use services, carers and practitioners. Although there is some teaching delivered to the total group, much of the work is done in eight or nine small, interprofessional groups. The students work on a group task which explores a range of dilemmas generated by a case scenario. At the end of the module the students take part in a group presentation which makes up 40 per cent of the module assessment. Although the groups are unfacilitated, the students are introduced to groupwork theory in sessions that take place before the groups begin.

Before the module takes place the students identify themselves as different sets of professionals. The main aim is to introduce them to some key partnership concepts such as collaboration, boundaries, communication and roles. Students learn about these issues from the taught input and their experience of practice, but they also learn experientially from being in the groups. As the module has developed, greater emphasis is now placed on the experiential learning from the groupwork and what students learn from working in partnership in the ‘here and now’.

Good practice example: University of Sussex and University of Brighton - BA Hons Social Work, Partnership and Interprofessional Practice, Level 1

This module takes place in the second term of the first year. The student group consists of 50 undergraduate social work students both full- and part-time. Before the module begins they had already been taught introductory groupwork theory and had limited experience of working in groups facilitated by staff. However, this module provides their first experience of working in unfacilitated groups, preparing a presentation and working for the whole module on an extended case scenario. The following extract from the module handbook sets out the structure and expectations of the groupwork.

The purpose of the work - The goal is to develop your knowledge and skill in partnership practice and interprofessional work. You will focus in particular on partnership and interprofessional practice in a specific scenario – the case study. You will present the results of the work you have undertaken as a group in the group presentation. The material you explore and the experience of working collaboratively will inform your individually assessed essay.

The study group tasks - Each week the presentation to the whole group will be on a topic that is relevant to the situation described in the case study. In the small study group you must then explore this topic further, discussing together questions such as these:

  • Why is this topic important to the case study?
  • What knowledge do you already, individually and as a group, have about this particular topic? This might include knowledge from your own experience, knowledge from reading or study, and knowledge from ‘doing’ in employment.
  • What do you need to find out in order to understand more on this topic and its relevance to the case study?
  • What theoretical perspectives would help you understand the topic?
  • What research evidence would it be useful to search for?
  • What skills relating to this topic might be important in practice?
  • How are you going to find out?
  • What sources might be useful?
  • Who in the group will do what and how will you feed back to each other?

Working together - Working on this material, and planning for the group presentation at the end, will involve negotiation and collaboration between everyone in the group. Remember that if you work together your individual resources can be multiplied by the number of the people in the group, but you will only get the benefit of this if you work constructively together. It is important to create an environment in which, by working collaboratively, you achieve more than you would individually, and in which you can explore the dynamics of working towards cooperation. Finally, in the first session, you will need to consider the topic of the first lecture on Professionalism, Power and Partnership, and decide what work you need to do on this in the week ahead.

  • What do you need to know in order to consider professionalism in relation to the case study?
  • Who might read what?
  • Who might talk to whom?
  • Who might search which websites?

Case scenarios

In both these examples of using groupwork, the learning was focused on a case scenario.

Case scenario example 1: London South Bank University - Module: Partnership and participation, BA Level 2 Social Work and BSc Level 2 Nursing and Social Work Studies

Elliot Grant is a 10-year-old child of dual heritage, his mother is Scottish and his father is African Caribbean. Elliot’s parents separated when he was five and he and his sister Kelly lived with their mother Kay until she became involved in a new relationship with Andy Brown, who is White British. Mr Brown appeared to take an active dislike to Elliot, who increasingly became the family ‘scapegoat’, being blamed for everything that went wrong. He was constantly reminded by his mother and stepfather that he was ’just like your father, useless and not to be trusted’. Elliot was regularly beaten and physically disciplined by his step-dad. He became increasingly wary of his mother and sister and was clearly distressed in school and not achieving educationally. Following an investigation prompted by school staff reporting bruising and concerns about Elliot’s emotional and physical state, his name was placed on the Child Protection Register.

Despite attempts to work with the family and effect change, serious concerns continued about Elliot’s welfare and reported incidents of physical abuse and neglect. Eventually social services successfully applied for a care order and Elliot was placed with foster carers. He continued to have supervised contact with his mother and sibling, and attempts were being made to renew contact with his father, who had moved away from the area. Elliot was allocated to Jane, a social worker on the looked-after children’s team in social services.

Although initially settling well in the foster home, Elliott becomes more and more withdrawn and refuses physical contact. His overeating leads to rapid weight gain and he experiences difficulties at school, both socially with his peer group and educationally. The special educational needs coordinator at the school is very concerned about Elliot’s progress and seeks advice from a specialist worker from the Behaviour and Education Support Team service attached to the school and the local educational psychology team, who begin some initial screening of his behaviour and attainment. The Behaviour and Education Support Team worker and education psychologists work in close cooperation with each other.

In the foster home the carers, Sam and Belinda Watts, work hard to support Elliot and liaise with social services, school and his GP about his needs. Elliot has been recently diagnosed with some hearing loss and it is unclear how much this impacts on his development. The foster carers are also concerned about the impact of Elliot’s behaviour on their own daughter, Amy, aged seven. They raise their concerns with their fostering liaison social worker, Mike, as they feel Elliot’s social worker is preoccupied with his educational problems and not paying enough attention to the strain his behaviour is putting on the placement.

A statutory review meeting is held and attended by Elliot’s social worker, the fostering liaison worker, and Sam and Belinda Watts. Elliot’s mother is invited but does not attend; the school nurse is expected but gives her apologies. Elliot is in the review meeting but when he is told his mother is not coming he became very distressed and spends most of the meeting in tears in another room, being comforted by Belinda.

Later, telephone calls between the foster father and school identify that the school nurse is seriously concerned about Elliot’s overeating and increasing weight. There are ongoing concerns about Elliot’s development and educational progress. It also becomes apparent that the school nurse and special educational needs coordinator have quite negative views about the likelihood of a useful response from social services, due to a history of referrals from the school not being responded to promptly. In some cases there have been serious differences of view on how families have been dealt with by local social services.

Your task is to meet the assessment criteria (previously provided) and consider how an understanding of partnership working and selected key concepts might contribute to this scenario.

Mental health is the focus of a second case scenario example.

Case scenario example 2: University of Sussex and University of Brighton - BA Hons Social Work, Partnership and Interprofessional Practice, Level 1

Marilyn Hall is a single, 33-year-old, mixed race British woman. She was admitted to psychiatric hospital under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act (1983). She is being discharged from hospital under Section 4 of the Mental Health Act (1983) and as social worker on the Community Mental Health Team your task is to work with Marilyn and develop a plan for her discharge.

The hospital record indicates that Marilyn has a diagnosis of severe depression and a history of suicide attempts. She has had two prior compulsory admissions under the Mental Health Act (1983) over the last four years to the same psychiatric hospital. Marilyn’s behaviour prior to admission had become chaotic, she had been sleeping rough and is suspected of alcohol abuse and self-harming. There is a suggestion that while in hospital, Marilyn found some comfort in talking to the hospital pastor.

Marilyn has a history of abusive relationships, most recently with an older man whom she met during a previous hospitalisation. She is frightened of him finding her again and of being attacked. She does not have children but has had several pregnancies ending in terminations. There is little information about Marilyn’s family except she has lived with an older sister Sandra for brief periods since becoming an adult. There is reference to Sandra looking after Marilyn as a child following the death of their mother from an overdose. Sandra has three young children, is also in an abusive relationship and, although she is sympathetic to Marilyn and has visited her in hospital, feels unable to offer Marilyn support. There are reports of an older brother. Marilyn’s African Caribbean father has not been heard of for many years. Marilyn left school at 15 without any qualifications. She has worked for periods in a care home for older people and reportedly enjoyed doing that, but this ended following Marilyn turning up for work one day clearly under the influence of alcohol. Marilyn has not been employed for the past five years.

Marilyn is being discharged on medication for depression but the hospital staff are concerned that without structure she may not take it regularly. On the ward, Marilyn made very little contact with fellow patients and kept to herself. She appears vulnerable and much of the time comes across as withdrawn and unresponsive. She does not know where she will live when she is discharged and the concern is that she is at risk of once again living on the streets.

Learning from user narrative and testimony

Users and carers may be based in organisations that provide training and support to undertake the co-trainer role in the university, and/or training and support may be provided by the university itself. There are now many examples of users and carers working as co-trainers from a range of services including mental health, learning disability older people, care leavers, young people and children.

There is a developing literature discussing the contribution user narratives and testimonies make to teaching. A module at Nottingham University provides an example of the part played by one user group, Advocacy in Action, to learning on a Masters programme. (19) One aspect of their involvement with the programme is in a module in which students as well as people using services make presentations about their lives as a means of experiencing the power of narrative in social work relationships. One aim of this process is to alter the balance of power between the professionals in training and the user group.

Good practice example: University of Nottingham MA/Diploma in Social Work Module L3D761: Users’ and carers’ perspectives in community care

A number of people with direct experience of social work provide presentations throughout the module. The students are required to present their own life story to the whole group of students, academics, people who use services and their carers, requiring the students to demonstrate their understanding of their own life pattern and development. This exercise in empathy is seen as a critical element in the social workers’ ability to form a productive relationship with the user. This experiential model requires the student to consider how people using services and their carers experience the world. They do this by listening to users’ and carers’ personal experiences and considering the mechanisms by which users and carers become oppressed.

At the University of Bath, involvement in teaching was the start of a more extensive alliance with users and carers. The term ‘alliance’ has been adopted rather than partnership because of its implications for the management of power relations, an issue which is explored in greater detail in the Conceptualising partnerships section of this guide. Baldwin and Sadd (20) have written about the involvement of the Wiltshire and Swindon Users’ Network in social work education over a 12-year period. In terms of teaching, the members of the network offer a one-day workshop as part of a series called Discrimination and Empowerment. June Sadd gives an account of the content of the workshop:

We spoke with emotion about our experiences of discrimination, oppression and marginalisation. We told the students (and the lecturers) what it is like to be at the receiving end of services, which is what they wanted. But we gave them more. We spoke in an empowered way. We talked about rights including our right to take risks, our expertise as users... We touched people’s hearts. Or in the parlance of social work education, we were challenging people at the level of their value base, where it ‘hurts’ most. (p3)

There are some significant points which emerge from both these accounts of the use of user narrative and testimony:

The use of conferences

A module taught at London Metropolitan University to social work students and students from community health studies, which includes health visitors and occupational therapists, includes a simulated case conference. Participation in the conference forms part of the assessment of the student's work.

Good practice example: London Metropolitan University BA Social Work - Module CY310: Partnership working and management

Part of the learning and assessment for this module is a simulated case conference, based on a real case, with the students playing various roles. The aim of the conference is to demonstrate key aspects of partnership working. The students must demonstrate attributes of interprofessional working: communication, decision-making and recognition of power imbalances. The students are observed by a panel of users and carers who give feedback to the student on their performance.


The work undertaken for this guide suggests there is evidence of the increased use of e-learning as a teaching and learning resource throughout the social work curriculum. This example of an e-learning project involves a number of professional groups working together on problems related to partnership and collaboration.

Good practice example: University of Bournemouth - Interprofessional learning

An interprofessional curriculum was introduced at Bournemouth in 2005/6 involving social work, nursing (four branches), midwifery, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and operating department practitioner students (650 students). It involves 30 out of 120 credits of study at each of the three years of the programme. This learning is undertaken in interprofessional groups.

  • Year 1 – communication skills and preparation for professional practice
  • Year 2 – communication skills; risk assessment and risk management
  • Year 3 – team working and communication in health and social care

A challenge of this approach to curriculum design and delivery is how to facilitate interprofessional learning, rather than simply the experience of shared teaching, in a meaningful way for both students and educators within the constraints of large student numbers, multi-site teaching and the complexities of the course structures.

A simulated electronic seaside country town, Wessex Bay, was developed as a resource to facilitate student enquiry and effective learning, providing authentic scenarios which can be evolved and developed by educators to represent situations for collaborative practice. It can be used for both interprofessional and uniprofessional teaching and learning.

Wessex Bay, accessed through the Blackboard virtual learning environment, contains public services and potential users, including a university, hospital, care homes, day-care facilities, voluntary and community organisations, and the professionals associated with them. Some case studies have been produced by the user/carer educators working with the social work programme.

A two-year interprofessional project funded project from January 2006:

  • builds on previous e-learning projects at Bournemouth (including making practice-based learning work and placements online);
  • supports and informs the interprofessional curriculum introduced in 2005/6, using an action learning model.

Using a blended learning approach (21) in interprofessional groups, students are given a trigger to a user/resident, and ‘episodes’ can be released which develop the scenario. Using the tools of e-learning, bulletin boards can provide updates and synchronous or asynchronous chat-room or discussion-room activity can follow to debate pre-set issues, share interprofessional perspectives, explore dilemmas, and generate effective collaborative strategies for assessment, planning, intervention and review of relevant services.

Wessex Bay scenarios are also used in uniprofessional teaching units, for example in Year 1 (Models of Social Work Intervention), students:

  • read relevant book chapters on assessment tools (life road map, genograms etc)
  • choose a resident from Wessex Bay
  • complete an assessment, photograph it and load it up to the resources area, read about collaborative working
  • draw up a plan for collaborative working with this person/family
  • consider ethical dilemmas
  • arrange a role-play case conference (face to face or online)
  • read new developments posted on Wessex Bay
  • consider adjustments to the assessment
  • consider if new people need to be involved and what information should be shared
  • read about social work interventions and decide which one to use with this family (behavioural work, psycho-social casework, crisis intervention etc).

Data collection includes a baseline online survey, end of unit online student feedback, and focus groups with staff and students involved in IPE. External feedback is being provided by staff from other universities who have been given guest access and questions.

The Universities of Sussex and Brighton use an interactive learning resource, Moodle, to support the teaching and learning throughout several modules in its social work degree.

Good practice example: University of Sussex and University of Brighton - BA Hons Social Work, Partnership and Interprofessional Practice, Level 1

Moodle provides students with:

  • teaching and learning materials in advance of sessions
  • a forum to share the content and experience of working in groups
  • a general forum for the total student group to share information, seek support and share information
  • a forum where students can raise queries about assessment directed at their peers or the module staff. The e-learning resource provides opportunities to model partnership (student to student, student to educator). It is also a space where knowledge about partnership can be disseminated.