Why is it so hard to fail social work students in practice learning settings? This was one of the topics under discussion at Kingston University’s conference on blame and accountability in social work on Wednesday.
Dr Jo Finch from the University of East London presented some of the findings from her ongoing research into the experiences of practice educators (PEs), tutors and practice assessment panels when it comes to failing students.
One of the key things to remember, she said, is that failing a student has a huge emotional impact on not just the student, but also the person doing the failing. She said many PEs and tutors report feeling angry and often very guilty, to name just two of a long list of emotions. Nobody likes to feel as if they are stopping someone from entering the profession of their choice – but at the same time, they have a duty not to let unsuitable people become social workers.
Finch largely dismissed the idea that sometimes there are simply clashes of personality, arguing that it is usually more complicated. She talked about the challenges of teaching a professional course within a university; the tension between protecting the public and the student’s rights.
The PE/student/tutor relationship can also complicate matters. Finch said the tentative findings from her as-yet-unpublished research into the experience of tutors were that tutors often felt a conflict of interest or loyalties. They found it difficult to support both the students and PEs at the same time, as many students would be hurt if they felt their tutor was taking the PE’s side.
She suggested that the emotional impact of failing students has led to the creation of an unofficial grading of passes, with some students given a ‘borderline pass’, for example, to make it clear that they only just scraped through the assessment. So how do we tackle this problem? Here was the advice:
- Acknowledge and reflect upon the difficult and painful emotional feelings that can emerge from failing a social work student
- Accept the need for and seek out support
- Remember there are complex systems at play