Academics praise ‘revelatory’ social work teaching partnerships as DfE issues review

Interim evaluation of programme notes improvements in joint working, practice placements and professional development

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Academics involved in social work teaching partnerships have hailed their impact as a “revelation”, as the Department for Education (DfE) issued the first part of an evaluation into their impact.

Social work lecturers said the partnerships, first piloted in 2015, had succeeded in their aims of bringing councils and universities closer and making education more practice-relevant.

“It’s been the first time, in South Yorkshire, that the relationship local authorities have with higher education institutions (HEIs) was not just about placement provision, but about how they could benefit one another.” said David Bosworth, Sheffield University’s director of social work education.

He added that the local teaching partnership had raised standards across the board, in terms of practice education, continued professional development (CPD) and the preparedness of newly-qualified social workers (NQSWs) for the job.

The interim DfE evaluation, published earlier this week with a second part to follow in 2020, said it was too early to expect the partnerships to demonstrate significant impact on strategic issues such as staff retention and practice quality.

But it added that the arrangements had “stimulated a new level of collaboration” and had driven up the quality of placements and of CPD offered to social workers.

What are social work teaching partnerships?

Social work teaching partnerships came into being in the wake of a 2014 DfE report exploring how formal arrangements between employers and HEIs could be developed.

Bids were invited from early 2015 that would be able to “test and refine new and innovative approaches to deliver high quality training for social work students and qualified practitioners”.

In order to access funding, nascent teaching partnerships had to show how they would fulfil goals around:

  • Raising student entry standards
  • Providing high-quality statutory placements
  • Embedding the social work Knowledge and Skills Statements, which also form the basis of NAAS accreditation, into ongoing education
  • Using frontline practitioners and managers employed in statutory settings to deliver classroom teaching

Four areas – Greater Manchester, South Yorkshire, South East London and the North West Midlands – piloted the programme from 2015, with 11 further areas added in 2016 backed by two-year setup funding.

There are now 23 teaching partnerships in all, incorporating 113 councils and 54 HEIs and well as 32 private, voluntary and independent (PVI) partners.

Their emergence is within a context of other major changes in social work education, particularly the increasing market share of fast-track postgraduate schemes such as Frontline, Think Ahead and Step Up to Social Work. From 2019, the introduction of social work degree apprenticeships, which are already dominating some HEIs’ focus, is also set to have an impact.

What has teaching partnerships’ impact been?

The DfE’s 2019-20 evaluation says it will explore what activity teaching partnerships have delivered, what their impact has been and how sustainable they appear to be.

The process is set to conclude in March 2020, but the June 2019 interim review found a number of achievements had already been made, including:

  • All teaching partnerships had developed effective governance and management structures and credible plans, with leaders across all involved organisations showing commitment to them.
  • All partnerships had focused on placement improvements, with many first- and second-phase participants now offering two statutory placements to both undergraduate and master’s students. “The TP programme has achieved a significant increase in placements taking place in statutory settings,” the review said. “This is considered a key achievement.” Significant work was also underway to quality-assure placements.
  • Capacity to support placements had been improved by investment in practice educators (PEs) and PE co-ordinators.
  • Core teaching staff in partnerships, the vast majority of whom are registered social workers, were being supported by a growing pool of practitioner teachers, although increases in practitioner teaching had been inconsistent.
  • Academics had been able to spend more time in frontline teams – though again this had not been consistent across partnerships – with more ‘real life’ joint working between practitioners and lecturers.
  • People with current or former experience of using social work services were being more involved, including in student admissions.
  • All partnerships had enhanced or adapted their CPD offer, including by offering a greater range of learning opportunities. DfE funding had in many cases been used to facilitate access to ongoing development.

“Across the TP programme, it is evident that the TP has stimulated an increased level of collaboration across employers and HEIs in the planning, development and delivery of social work education,” the review said. “New relationships and collaborative working has led to a deeper understanding of the national social work reform agenda across stakeholders and the challenges, drivers and structures of partner organisations.”

But the evaluation noted that teaching partnerships faced ongoing challenges, both relating to their individual composition and because of national pressures around workforce capacity – which they are intended to mitigate – and the context of budget cuts.

“There is evidence from sustainability plans and two case studies that the collaborative culture and certain strands of work will be sustained regardless of future funding,” the report said. But it warned that continuing to support posts crucial to the functioning of partnerships is likely to prove challenging for many.

‘Massive shift in relationships’

Academics contacted by Community Care were overwhelmingly positive about the impact of teaching partnerships in their areas.

“It has been a revelation, a massive shift in relationships,” said Sheffield University’s David Bosworth. “I work with people from local authorities on a far more familiar basis – we don’t always agree but we find compromises, the relationship is an honest one, and it has really worked out.”

Bosworth said that the South Yorkshire teaching partnership, which includes both Sheffield universities, was leading to councils directly consulting with HEIs when faced with practice problems, for instance around social workers’ ability to write court reports.

“Before local authorities might have gone to a third party without real control over what they were purchasing in,” he said. “[Now], we have aligned things to workforce development activity so councils can focus on their teams and on teams and think, ‘Maybe we need one person to have that level of expertise’.”

‘Unanticipated consequences’

Meanwhile Goldsmiths’ head of social work Mark Taylor said the South East London partnership had been a “fantastic vehicle” for bringing employers and the university together.

“The original aim of this government initiative was to improve the quality of social work graduates leaving universities,” he said. “An unanticipated policy consequence has been the benefits which have accrued to social workers [and] have been brought back to their employers.”

Many social workers who taught social work students in Goldsmiths classrooms were reinvigorated by their encounters, Taylor added.

“They left classrooms more enthused about the possibilities of social work and how much they understood about practice,” he said. “In talking with social workers, many returned to their local authorities to share these positive reflections with colleagues and to organise their practice in different ways.”

But Taylor warned that the future looked difficult without ongoing government funding. “Moving forward, the South-East London teaching partnership (SELTP) will try to sustain its work plan as best it can, but this will be challenging, particularly as local authorities continue to tighten their belts,” he said.

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