How can we better integrate theory and practice in social work training?

An academic and consultant social worker explain how they were able to work together as equal partners on the Frontline programme

Photo: goodluz/Fotolia

by Alison Domakin and Liz Curry

Finding ways to effectively integrate theory and practice in social work education is a continual challenge and one that the profession has grappled with for many years. Wilson and Kelly aptly describe this as social work’s ‘leitmotif’.

There is much good practice in the sector, with vibrant learning opportunities provided by excellent academic staff and practice educators. Both of us had experience of this in previous roles. But when we worked together on the Frontline programme, the difference was that we had the opportunity to work extensively together as equal partners to support student learning and develop a shared vision for practice.

The Frontline training programme has a different structure to other qualifying routes. Students qualify in one year and are based in ‘units’ in groups of four in a local authority, supervised by a consultant social worker (CSW) and are supported by an academic tutor.

CSWs work alongside students to mentor and model good social work practice, in addition to being their practice educator assessing progress against the Professional Capabilities Framework. Academic tutors visit regularly, spending a day with the unit on each occasion.

The unit model used on the Frontline programme was inspired by Reclaiming Social Work. A key feature of this is that all members of the unit attend a three-hour weekly unit meeting. This provides a central forum for discussion, planning and academic input to critically reflect on the work which the unit undertakes.

Practice with families is discussed in depth; case management decisions are made and links with the profession’s research and knowledge base are drawn out from the discussions. Academic tutors have a specific role to contribute to discussion at unit meetings and draw out connections between theory, research and the practice of social work.

The opportunity for practitioners and academics to work so extensively alongside each other was an experience new to both of us. Working together to support student learning was a pleasure and the unit meeting was an enjoyable and dynamic meeting space. Our partnership was a significant and rewarding learning opportunity, which we were keen to investigate further using action research.

We identified three themes to be significant in helping students to learn in this model.

  1. The importance of being able to learn through engaging in joint dialogue about practice in a unit meeting: Meetings were stimulating, containing, detailed and enjoyable. We highlighted that: “A culture of co-production, curiosity and co-creation of knowledge was established. Everyone, including the CSW and academic tutor, could contribute their learning and knowledge, challenge others to consider new perspectives and learn themselves in turn.”
  2. The influence of relationships on learning in social work: We got to know the students well over the course of the year, which meant that we could reflect together on individual student development and learning needs, support students in facing challenges and provide developmental feedback. We could also celebrate successes and highlight areas of learning and progression. In doing so “we were able to use any aspect of practice experience, no matter how frustrating or problematic, for teaching and discussion. In turn this meant we were able to support the development of a learning environment which was safe, boundaried and containing but where professional challenge flourished.”
  3. The importance of a connected model of learning which has practice with children and families at its heart: Connection was significant in a number of ways. We worked closely together and with students. We knew the work with families and were able to draw out links with the academic curriculum from this. Scaffolding learning from practice meant that anything we discussed could be a ‘teachable moment’. We visualised these areas of connections with the following diagram.

Reproduced with permission

Developing opportunities for academics and practice educators to work together as equal partners may be a significant factor in moving towards the vision of learning from practice suggested by Tony Stanley, Birmingham’s chief social worker, and Lee Pardy-McLaughlin, principal social worker for children and families in Coventry, based on the concept of a teaching hospital.

We are aware that there are differing views on Frontline and that ideas about increased partnership working between academic staff and practitioners have previously been explored.

There are also many others in the profession finding innovative ways for academic tutors and practice educators to work together. There are recent examples of this within teaching partnerships. However, there is valuable learning from our experience of co-working, which would be useful to consider further. In particular, we want to highlight the magic that can happen when academic staff and practitioners are freed up to work more closely together to support student learning.

Alison Domakin is a principal practice tutor on the Frontline programme, and Liz Curry was a consultant social worker for Frontline between 2014-16. Their full research paper, “Partners in practice: Developing integrated learning opportunities on the Frontline child and family social work qualifying programme”, has been published by Child & Family Social Work and is available online.


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3 Responses to How can we better integrate theory and practice in social work training?

  1. Matthew Tagg November 8, 2017 at 7:37 am #

    Inspiring work! Supporting new social workers is so important given the demands of the profession. Local authorities need to prioritise this type of model and allocate the necessary resources.

  2. David November 8, 2017 at 8:26 pm #

    Interesting. But i did the standard BA (hons) and the integration of theory and practice was excellent. I feel a greater loss and concern is the way the integration is lost the further into practice you get. As if theory is for students only….. If theory helps one to understand what is happening and what you are doing it is a central factor in our work. But not sure i see it being encouraged much in LAs

  3. Gumi Makoni November 9, 2017 at 8:53 am #

    Really scintillating viewof how to link theory & practice to the benefit of the student as well as an NQSW. Local authorities need to be aware of promoting a culture that enables the two develop well.