How we’re supporting struggling practice educators

Repeated change to placement requirements has been confusing for practice educators and supervisors

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By Liz Clarke, lecturer in social work at Oxford Brookes University

The role of a practice educator or supervisor is a crucial one. They are responsible for supporting, educating and assessing students on social work placements, and so act as the gatekeepers to the profession. They also play a major part in workforce development. At Oxford Brookes University, we found that some practice educators and supervisors were struggling with supporting students, and having difficulty with the annual changes in placement requirements.

In response to this, the university, in collaboration with staff from Ruskin College, the Open University and Oxfordshire County Council, decided to offer a programme of eight free workshops for practice educators and supervisors, to enable them to keep up-to-date in their practice.

There have been many changes in placement requirements in recent years. Some of these were made by higher education institutions, such as changes about the evidence of practice to include in a student’s portfolio. Then there are those alterations made to the assessment framework – from the national occupational standards (NOS) to the professional capabilities framework (PCF) – and practice educator reports (holistic assessment). And there have also been changes in evaluating the placement; a move away from the QAPL (quality assurance in practice learning).

We felt that some practice educators and supervisors were struggling with how to best support students, and would contact staff at the university to ask questions and seek guidance. This was frustrating for practice educators as well as time-consuming for university staff. Students also spoke about the variation in the quality of induction, supervision, education and support from their placements. Some students were getting excellent support and others weren’t. This was evident in ad-hoc feedback from students on placement, as well as the feedback collected via the QAPL.

Placement improvement

However, our most recent QAPL review, for the academic year 2016-2017, has been overwhelmingly positive.

The significant majority of students and placement staff said they are happy or very happy with the placements and placement support provided. We think this demonstrates the workshops have contributed to improved satisfaction with placements among staff and students. Some of the feedback we have received include this comment from Dr Maureen Sears, an independent practice educator:

“These workshops provide an opportunity for practice educators to discuss their work in relation to the students but also give time to explore changes in social work practice and agency organisation related to amendments to the legal framework and the numerous published papers and reports referring to child protection and social care issues. Social workers operate in a fast changing climate of local authority re-organisation, the birth and demise of non-statutory agencies at the whim of funding cuts or the diversion of funds to other areas of social need. Having this opportunity to discuss the above trends and issues with colleagues is essential for the independent practice educator. This in turn improves the quality of the support and assessment they give students, alerts them to the ever changing learning opportunities available and enables them to contribute to the current debates in social work education.”

Essential learning

The workshops we offer are each two hours long, and involve formal didactic teaching, small experiential group exercises, case studies and opportunities for question and answer sessions. Eight different members of staff from the four organisations are involved in delivering these workshops, which ensures diversity in the teaching curriculum. A variety of teaching methods is used to meet the differing learning style of attendees, and handouts are provided with references for further reading.

The workshops are designed to cover the essential information needed for supporting students on placement, and include subjects such as setting learning objectives, supervision, developing resilience, values and ethics, theory to practice, supporting failing students, reflective practice and assessing students/ writing a holistic report.

Practice educators are introduced to a number of teaching tools and models (such as reflective models, learning styles questionnaires, supervision frameworks, values exercises) that they can use with their students. The workshops are offered in a particular order to mirror the student in their placement journey: the first session in September is on setting learning objectives, and the final one in March is on writing holistic assessments. Paul Taylor, a practice educator at local further education college Activate, said:

Previous workshops have provided me with more confidence and understanding of how to work with students on placement, especially around the area of relating theory to practice.

Attendees are provided with a certificate to add to their continuing professional development portfolios. During the 2016 – 2017 academic year, most of the workshops were oversubscribed (30 people per workshop), and this year most have 15-25 people booked on to them, which prove their popularity and need. Feedback following each workshop has been positive; we have had requests to offer day-long sessions. Meg Quainton, a practice supervisor from Witney mental health team said:

I attended the supervision workshop, and found it really interesting. I will definitely think more carefully about the power imbalance inherent to the student – supervisor relationship.

If any higher education institution or local authority would like to find out more, or would like to set up a similar program of workshops, please feel free contact Liz Clarke at e.clarke@brookes.ac.uk for further details.

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