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

What do we mean by ‘partnership work’?

Although an understanding of partnership is taken for granted there is little theoretical clarity about the concept. Educators have to enable students to understand the issue with little help from core research literature or textbooks. The danger is that this lack of clarity will lead to an uncritical approach to partnership learning both in the classroom and in practice.

Key information from the knowledge review

The research review examined partnership work as this referred to studies of education for partnership work with people who use services and their carers, students and agency colleagues, and included interprofessional education where there was a clear focus on partnership work. Essential as it was to differentiate in this way, it was only the beginning.

There is a pervasive conceptual confusion about the meaning of ‘partnership’, and the wide range of terms used causes considerable variation in approaches to the learning, teaching and assessment of partnership work. Furthermore, although it is regarded as self-evident that partnership will be central to learning, partnership work is more often implicit than explicit and simultaneously contested and taken for granted.

Different terms for partnership

shared learning




joint education/practice

interdisciplinary partnership working

multi-disciplinary working


A single, unambiguous definition of partnership work did not emerge from the research review. Most respondents (students, tutors, practice teachers, users and carers) had difficulties defining partnership. In the practice survey, both college and practice-based staff identified partnership as:

an umbrella term embracing different relationships, complex and under-theorised and therefore not recognised.

Terms commonly used to characterise partnership referred to sharing power, joint decision-making and recognition of respective roles and responsibilities. The conclusions argue strongly for greater transparency in the concept of partnership, acknowledging that it has different meanings in different contexts.

A working definition of partnership

The following definition is offered as a benchmark and starting point for discussion, to illuminate what it omits as well as what it includes:

The essence of partnership is sharing. It is marked by respect for one another, role divisions, rights to information, accountability, competence, and value accorded to individual input. In short, each partner is seen as having something to contribute, power is shared, decisions are made jointly and roles are not only respected but are also backed by legal and moral rights. (3) (citing Jo Tunnard, 1991)

This definition may be misleading in that it implies shared power and ‘jointness’, which may not be the experience of all stakeholders. There needs to be an acknowledgement of differences in power. The advantage of this definition, however, is that it could apply to partnership with a range of stakeholders, including users as well as other professionals.

Levels of the learning, teaching and assessment of partnership work

Confusion about the meaning of ‘partnership’ has caused wide variation in approaches to the learning, teaching and assessment of partnership work. This requires us to be particularly clear about the use of terms here.

Taking into account the ambiguous nature of ‘partnership work’, the use of other terms to define partnership and the need to differentiate the practice survey from interprofessional education, the research team identified the following possible levels of partnership work:

We will be exploring examples of good practice that address one or more of these levels.

Defining and recognising good practice

Good practice is a notoriously difficult concept to define. Ideally, evidence to demonstrate that practice is ‘good’ would be research-based, but there are at least two related problems with adopting this approach.

This problem was very usefully discussed by the research team, including the project’s stakeholder group, whose members comprised undergraduate and postgraduate social work students, users and carers, practitioners and employers. As a result, the research team identified the following good practice criteria and agreed that to determine good practice, criteria 1–4 must be met, and criteria 5–7 are desirable.

Criteria for selecting good practice examples

  1. User and carer involvement in programme design or delivery
  2. Teaching, learning and assessment of partnership work specifically identified
  3. Innovative features in the design or delivery of teaching, learning and assessment of partnership work
  4. Partnership work and the new degree disseminated in the public domain, for example, through refereed conference presentations or journal articles
  5. Consideration of partnership with other professionals
  6. Consideration of the ‘pay off’ for users and carers
  7. Evidence of research or evaluation of partnership practice.

Why are criteria 5, 6 and 7 desirable rather than essential?

Criterion 5: Interprofessional education had been included in the research review only if it focused explicitly on partnership work.

Criterion 6: The notion of ‘pay off’ for users and carers emerged during the practice survey as an important issue. However, beyond payment to users and carers, generally accepted as a norm for practice in social work education, thinking about other kinds of rewards, such as accreditation of training for users and carers, was at an early stage.

Criterion 7: By designating ‘evidence of research or evaluation of partnership practice’ as a desirable and not essential criterion, we risked downgrading the value of research. However, as indicated above, the practice survey revealed some interesting and potentially significant practice that if disseminated more widely might in itself result in increased research activity.