Social work lecturer Sharon Jennings remembers how visiting councils to talk about student placements used to feel.
“There was a sense of ‘Why are you here, we’ve got things to do?’ It wasn’t ever said but it felt like a split – this is the ‘real world’ and the university is not.”
But that relationship is changing. “We always worked positively together, but things feel much more connected now,” Jennings says. The creation of the South East London Teaching Partnership – a collaboration between Goldsmiths University and Greenwich, Lewisham and Southwark councils set up in 2015 – is helping to bridge the divide.
Across England, the government is investing £4.7m in these social work teaching partnerships. The model aims to boost social work education by cementing stronger links between universities and councils in their areas.
Councils in the south east London partnership guarantee students statutory placements. They also support local authority social workers to take on roles as teaching consultants on Goldsmiths courses. The combination gives social work students much needed experience and keeps the council’s experienced social workers linked to the latest research and theory.
Meanwhile, the Goldsmiths academics share their expertise with the councils to help with practice problems identified by principal social workers. And their students should benefit from an education rooted jointly in research and practice, with regular support from both teaching consultants and academics.
This morning Jennings and Benjamin Hoskins, one of the partnership’s teaching consultants, are teaming up to deliver a reflective discussion group for 10 trainee social workers.
This group meets for two hours every Friday. Each week, it focuses on a dilemma facing one of the students. It could be placement problems, the pressures of going to court, feeling isolated as a social worker in a multi-disciplinary team or difficult home visits. Nothing is off limits.
The aim of these ‘intervision’ sessions is to work towards solutions together. The name comes from the group model bringing a variety of perspectives to mutually address a problem, rather than the supervisor/supervisee split of supervision.
This morning one of the trainees tells the group she drew on their support last week while on placement in a referral and assessment team. A routine home visit suddenly “blew up” and she was left badly shaken.
“I went to the toilet to cry a little bit – I had make-up in my bag, which helps. I found myself going round the group in my head, asking myself ‘what would these people say to me right now?’” she says.
“And I thought about other issues we’d discussed, thinking ‘maybe I could use that advice in this situation’. I came out in a good position to make a constructive decision.”
Another of the group says the fast pace of social work can make space for reflection on one person’s issue feel like a “luxury”. But the support, she says, has been invaluable: “I just found the process really encouraging. I don’t know if we often hear enough good things about ourselves. It’s a nice experience to have a solid two hours for one person. I think more of that needs to be done.”
Teaching consultant Hoskins, who works as a clinical practitioner in a children’s services team, says he always goes back to the office feeling “refreshed” after running the intervision groups. He’s also enjoying the opportunity to have more direct input into teaching than when he was a practice educator.
“The job satisfaction I get from working with students is really important. I have a lot of respect for them. The complexity of the situations and cases they’re dealing with, when I think back to my placements, I don’t think anything comes close. And I feel respected by them. You can mention a book one week and see it in a student’s bag the next,” he says.
“When I was a practice educator, it would mainly be students coming with what they need to do to meet the PCF and so on. In this role, there’s a sense of having real agency in what’s actually delivered to students. You’ll say ‘we need to talk to them about this topic’, and then plan a session on it.”
Hearing directly from social workers how issues affect their day-to-day practice adds a different dimension for students. Dawn Williams is from an adults’ social care team. She recalls an introductory session where students seemed fearful and disillusioned about going into these roles when funding for services is constantly being cut.
“They were asking me ‘how can you do this job, there’s no money?” They kept bringing this back but because I was telling them it’s always been like this and was positive about it – ‘you’ll learn to deal with these feelings, you do the best you can with the resources that you’ve got’ – it turned into a really important discussion and that sense of impotence wasn’t there by the end.”
Russ Bellenie, a child protection team manager who is also a teaching consultant, agrees there’s something validating about teaching what you do. He feels reconnecting with social work education has helped him better support newly qualified staff who’ve joined his service. It’s also helped him think more consciously about the models, methods and research he and his team use day to day.
“This process of linking practice to education just seems really logical to me. When I did my MA, there was very little practical content. But being in touch with lecturers that are interested in making that connection with practice and vice versa – you bring those two schools of thought together and realise they are actually one and the same”.
For Jennings, the improved connections mean she’s enjoying being more in touch with practice. She works with a support group for mums who’ve had children removed, providing supervision for the social workers who facilitate it and she’s starting a project to improve career progression for black staff in Greenwich.
‘I used to be scared of talking to students about personal things’
Another gain of the teaching partnership that the tutors point to is the stronger role of service users in the social work degree programmes, a requirement for teaching partnership funding. An ‘experts by experience’ group representing service users and carers give talks to the trainees and assess how they would respond to the students in role play scenarios.
Liz Sibthorpe from the group has shared her experience of transracial adoption. She contributed to Goldsmiths’ courses prior to the teaching partnership, but says she feels the benefits of the new arrangements.
“It feels like there’s more structure now for me. I used to be quite scared of talking to students about such personal things. I’m much more confident being part of this. Our group now feels like it has boundaries and a purpose and I understand why I’m here more,” she says.
“For example, they involved us in the new way of admissions. That involvement makes it much easier for people like me coming in from the outside.”
Nimal Jude, a social worker and former children’s services manager, is responsible for coordinating the partnership. She’s proud of what’s been achieved so far but acknowledges there have been plenty of challenges along the way.
The “incredibly tight” timescales, both to apply for funding, and to get the partnership up and running, were particular tough, she says. The pace made it daunting for some of the social workers to go from having a discussion with a lecturer to suddenly standing in front of a group of students.
Things have settled down since, says Jude, and social workers’ feedback about the teaching consultant role has been really positive. Her next challenge as programme director is to raise its profile with senior managers across the councils and work out how to recruit more teaching consultants while also supporting those already in the post.
Time and capacity
The growing pressure on staff in social services departments and universities remains a constant challenge though, she admits: “It’s time, time and capacity, for everybody. For the academics, because they need to develop the relationships to co-facilitate, develop that alchemy. For the teaching consultants: they are case holders, doing this – the preparation time plus one day in the classroom, negotiating that with managers.”
Mark Taylor, who oversees Goldsmiths’ MA courses, says students are really benefitting from the new set up. He believes the ripple effect of each individual strand of the partnership’s contribution adds up to something bigger – and it’s time to build on it.
“It is time consuming to ensure this works well, from preparation to evaluation. Others interested in doing something like this should know it is very positive but it takes time and energy and that should not be underestimated. But it is worthwhile.”