The learning, teaching and assessment of partnership work in social work education
Ways forward: Developments in partnership working
The work undertaken for this guide identifies other aspects of education practice which have been developing since the review was completed. The literature and interviews with educators suggest a move towards increasing the range of stakeholders involved and an increase in the extent and depth of user involvement. (35) One educator described the decision to involve more diverse user groups in partnership work during the last few years. Another respondent outlined the increased involvement of people who use services at strategic levels in programme management, an issue also raised in the article by Baldwin and Sadd. (20)
We have chosen to highlight here recent developments in user involvement in strategic management and university-based assessment. This is partly because they identify some of the positive changes taking place which have been discussed in the literature, but also because these examples illustrate some of the complexities and ongoing dilemmas of making partnership work a reality in the current educational context.
Involvement of people who use services in governance
In discussing their 2004 audit of qualifying social work programmes in Scotland, Ager et al (5) found (with some exception at the Open University in Scotland) very little evidence of user and carer involvement in the governance of education programmes. This finding was reflected in the review, in which the model of the Service User and Carer (CU) Group at the University of Dundee probably came closest to illustrating this aspect of partnership (see Why teach partnership work? Good practice).
One of the respondents to the review, the University of Plymouth, was re-interviewed for this guide. In a programme in which users and their carers had been extensively involved in the design and delivery of the degree since the programme started, the main focus now was to increase their involvement at a strategic and management level. The university reported:
- confidence of people who use services had increased as the programme developed;
- the group was now more involved in formal forums making decisions about strategy and governance – an example of this was facilitating a day for employers, exploring strategic developments;
- the next potential area of development identified was to offer training for user involvement in committees.
June Sadd (5) comments on the advantages of user involvement in the programme management group (PMG):
Being part of the PMG opened many more doors to us … When focused work was needed to develop the programme we became members of the many task groups in our role as agency member … being part of these groups afforded the same respect and strengthened us in our self-empowerment (p 353).
She later comments that some people who use services chose not to take part at a strategic level as ’the discussions at the PMG do not seem meaningful to them’ (p 354). This suggests that for some users problems remain in achieving valid roles and status.
Other respondents identified resource limitations as the main barriers to taking forward greater involvement in strategic developments, including:
- lack of certainty about funding from the General Social Care Council and within the university
- whether the ‘hidden costs’ to all stakeholders could continue to be borne in a resource-limited environment
- the benefit and other bureaucratic difficulties affecting payments to people who use services.
Involvement of people who use services in university-based assessment
Since the review was completed developments in assessment have been reflected in the literature. (36,37) Some examples of these developments model good partnership practice and relate to increasing user involvement in assessment. From Advocacy in Action (19):
It is the process of service delivery, its underlying values and power relationships that people on the receiving end are best placed to experience and to assess. (p 339)
The research review identified few examples of stakeholders being centrally involved in assessments. Various explanations were given for this situation, including the lack of flexibility in university systems, particularly in relation to assessment, the time involved in training and the complexity of co-assessment. At that stage, people who use services were more likely to be involved in the assessment of practice by making evaluative contributions to student portfolios. Cuming and Wilkins (38) suggest some of the issues to consider in order to ensure involvement is real rather then tokenistic:
- Involvement in practice assessment involves preparation by the practice assessor, who should indicate that user views will be sought at the outset.
- Clear criteria must be provided that relate to social work competencies.
- Resources are required to provide relevant training so that involvement is meaningful.
A range of literature published since the knowledge review further explores some of the complexities of co-assessment with users in the classroom. In one example, Advocacy in Action and colleagues from the University of Nottingham provide a valuable discussion of some of the specific challenges of user-led assessment in a context of entrenched university processes. (19) The ideas presented were developed as a result of a longstanding partnership with a group of people who use services and highlight issues which should be considered when developing collaborative models of assessment:
- user assessment, essential in social work training where social workers become the assessors and people who use services the assessed;
- the necessity to develop creative approaches to work out assessment processes that are meaningful to users and can be accommodated by university systems;
- a culture that supports taking risks;
- the importance of a university-based contact to mediate process between university systems and user educators;
- the value of supportive feedback from past students.
This example highlights the importance of developing a culture which is ready to push the boundaries of assessment practice in a number of ways. As the number of students graduating with social work degrees increases, their views are likely to be increasingly significant. Educators re-interviewed for this guide suggest users and carers are a significant resource in relation to assessment and it is likely that they will begin to take a more prominent role in other aspects of programme development.