By Cathie Jasper
At last and about time! As someone who has been involved with the training and education of practice educators for some time, I warmly welcome the detailed attention the Croisdale-Appleby review pays to the central place of practice educators within social work education. The review recognises the pivotal role practice educators play in enhancing the quality of placements through the spectrum of activities they undertake, including the supervision, support and assessment of social work students. However, it is the review’s renewed emphasis and the promotion of the educational task and content of the practice educator role that particularly resonates with me.
For too long, the educational task of the practice educator has been the invisible “art and heart” of placements, the quiet hum that pervades the placement, but is often not acknowledged by practice educators themselves or supported and nurtured by their employers. Given that the role is called practice “educator” and the Practice Educator Professional Standards (PEPS, 2013), at both stages one and two, expect practice educators to “supervise, assess and teach social work degree students”, we might ask why the educational element of the role – and I include here the direct teaching undertaken by practice educators as part of their role, along with other less direct “enabling learning” functions such as discussion, reflection and guidance that take place during supervision – has not been more conspicuous.
This is in part because prominence has often been given to the assessment function of the practice educator role. The title of practice assessor, which accompanied the introduction of the social work degree (now no longer in use) is an example of this; the more recent move to the Professional Capabilities Framework and the myriad documentation on the holistic assessment of social work students on placement that accompanies it, also focuses emphasis on the assessment of practice.
It may also be related to how teaching is conceptualised and considered by practice educators themselves. In a recent small scale research study, I asked practice educators for their views on the teaching and enabling elements of their role. They were reluctant to name part of what they did as teaching or to consider themselves as teachers. They did not view teaching as a distinct, formal or direct activity carried out by practice educators; rather, it was considered that the educational task of practice educators was infused within the supervisory relationship (with teaching tools and tasks used to facilitate this) and was a process that permeated the practice and the occupational task of the practice educator. They variously described the teaching element of their role as “subconscious”, “slightly hidden”, “almost subliminal”, “everyday”, “fluid” and “everything we do”.
It is also acknowledged, within Croisdale-Appleby’s review and elsewhere, that these are testing times and that some practice educators, with their own full caseload and often operating in situations of resource and operational constraints, can yield to the notion that the aim of placements (in particular final placements) is to transform students into functionally ready workers. In situations such as these, the educational element of the practice educator role, or even providing in-depth opportunities for students to reflect upon and explore practice, can be significantly curtailed – as observed recently by a student writing anonymously in Community Care.
Like other universities, my own regularly offers practice educator training courses to experienced social workers, to equip them to offer placements to social work students and to meet the requirements of the PEPS. Croisdale-Appleby will be pleased to know that the requirements he indicates should be in the prescribed training for practice educators – assessment, giving feedback, relationship building, theories of adult learning – are taught within our current training course. As are other important aspects of the practice educator role, such as providing reflective supervision, enabling learning, developing reflection with students, relating theory to practice and dealing with difficulties on placement.
Witnessing the enthusiasm, enjoyment and learning that social workers have demonstrated on our practice educator courses has been a delight. I have observed, heard and received feedback on the real awakenings, understanding and learning that has taken place. I have felt reassured that these practice educators have a secure knowledge base upon which to build a relationship with a social work student and, with continued mentoring and support, provide a high quality learning experience. However, these newly trained practice educators return to the workforce and it is here that workload pressures, operational constraints and lack of support and recognition for the role can serve to dampen the spirits of practice educators, affecting both those newly trained and with more experience.
Croisdale-Appleby suggests that the training of practice educators should be formalised and that universities should be robust in assessing both the quality of placements and practice educators. I also hope that the conclusions of the review – that practice educators need more support, an enhanced profile and greater recognition within a framework of continuing professional development – have a corresponding impact on employers. This will help to ensure that the foundations provided within practice educator training can be extended within the workplace and the necessary focus on the educational content of the role can be further nurtured and developed.
Cathie Jasper is a senior lecturer in the Department of Social Care and Social Work at Manchester Metropolitan University. She is writing in a personal capacity. Practice Education in Social Work: Achieving Professional Standards by Pam Field, Cathie Jasper and Lesley Littler, will be published by Critical Publishing later this month.