By Hilary Lawson
With the demise of the College of Social Work there is much debate about the future of the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF).
However, it seems to me what is largely absent from this discussion is any real evidence about the effectiveness of the PCF as a teaching and assessment tool for social work students.
Do we know, for example, whether it has been successful in raising the quality of social work students and their practice?
PCF changed practice
Along with colleagues, I have been involved in research with 50 practice educators and practice supervisors working with students on a university social work programme in their first and final placements.
Experiences and opinions of supervisors were gathered at both the midway and end point of the first year of the PCF’s implementation in 2014.
We found overwhelming support for the PCF and evidence that using the PCF encouraged social work practice educators and supervisors to re-assess and change their own practice as well as help students develop theirs.
Strong value base
Social workers reported its strong value base of rights and justice, coupled with the emphasis on using and creating knowledge for social work practice, helped them, and their students, gain confidence in their professional identity.
For example, because the PCF demands social workers at every level of their development show leadership, this enabled students to think about how they could contribute, not just to their own professional development, but to that of the profession as a whole.
Other findings from the evaluation included:
The PCF prompts personal and professional development
The PCF offers clear guidance about what is expected from students at different levels (first/final placement) and also newly qualified social workers. Respondents said it helped students aim high.
One practice educator told researchers: “It provides a focus which enables discussion on the next stage of learning and the student can move towards that.”
Another pointed out that because the PCF stated expectations of capability throughout a social worker’s career, continuing professional development was therefore highlighted and structured by the PCF.
PCF encourages professional autonomy
Many respondents said they had to exercise a greater degree of professional judgement in the assessment of a student when using the PCF. This was positively valued by respondents, enhancing their sense of professionalism.
One respondent noted: “[It’s] more creative, recognises my experience in assessing students”
PCF aids professional development
Respondents reported using the first domain, professionalism, to initiate reflective discussions about boundaries, conduct and what it means to be a professional.
Domain five, the application of knowledge, was also felt to be a crucial domain in the development of professional identity and building up a body of professional knowledge.
The domain encouraged students to develop a critical understanding of theories and other forms of knowledge including law, policy and research.
Our research showed the discussion of theory and, to a more limited extent, research, is now seen as a normal aspect of case discussion, and this represents a clear shift over recent years.
PCF shapes practice
Responses revealed that being prompted to teach and assess holistically “fitted” with a practice approach social workers held dear.
Within the PCF there is a driver to adopt an approach that is being pushed in certain academic and policy texts, such as the Munro report, but which front line social workers often find difficult to achieve within bureaucratic and managerial structures and processes.
However, respondents referred to adopting person-centred and relationship- based approaches in their assessment of students, hence the PCF could be seen as promoting a significant ‘bottom-up’ shift to more integrative, relationship- based practice.
The PCF has been emphatically embraced by those using it to assess, teach and learn because it represents a process, or the how, of practice rather than merely the content, the what, of practice.
Meaningful to practitioners
It would appear the PCF has been able to convey the fusion of different aspects of what it means to be an effective practitioner and this has been more meaningful to practitioners and practice educators than previous lists of standards and statements.
With the recent publication of Knowledge and Skills Statements from the Department for Education (2014) and Department of Health (2015) for the assessment of newly qualified social workers, the role of the PCF is being questioned for both this group and also student social workers.
However, the results of this small evaluative project indicate that, when used with social work students, the PCF provides a helpful tool which clearly lays out the foundation knowledge, values and skills of what it means to be a professional social worker.
It facilitates the development of a professional identity and makes a positive contribution to strengthening the professional body.
Statements of roles and tasks may have a place – helping social workers understand the demands of specific settings and contexts – but the results of this research indicate the PCF has a crucial role to play in the identity and confidence of the profession.
Dr Hilary Lawson is an Associate Lecturer of the Open University and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Sussex