This is the third and final blog post in response to the New Zealand Social Workers Registration Board’s (SWRB) current review of their standards for recognising programmes of social work professional education. In the first blog post I discussed the question of whether required curriculum inputs should be specified in the standards and argued that an emphasis on inputs and content specification in other jurisdictions stifled innovation, overloaded the curriculum and led to students feeling pressured by the sheer amount of content to be covered. I went on to argue that, if we want to improve social work education programmes in Aotearoa New Zealand, then we must focus on the outcomes of qualifying programmes, not curriculum inputs. The second blog post responded to the question of the adequacy of the graduate attributes specified in the standards and argued that, instead of having a set of 14 graduate outcomes, in addition to a set of 10 core competence standards, we ought to articulate a single set of clear, unambiguous and realistic statements of intended graduate outcomes, competencies or capabilities. Furthermore, I argued that we could obtain clarity about the correct level of achievement for new graduates if we adopted a whole of career approach and specify the outcomes we expect at different points in the career journey of a social worker. I also pointed out that the enhance R2P project is national research project funded by Ako Aotearoa to address precisely this issue.
In this final blog post I want to consider the question of field work practice and turn to the questions asked in the consultant’s survey about fieldwork placements. By way of background information, current placement requirements are regulated by the SWRB and described within the document Practicum within a Recognised Social Work Qualification (SWRB, 2015). Students must undertake a minimum of 120 days of fieldwork over at least two placements, with one placement being a minimum of 50 days. The placements should occur in different settings, and, preferably, in different organisations. However, in New Zealand, there is no requirement about the type of placement to be included, for example, that any of the placements should be within a statutory context. Students must be supervised by a registered social worker (RSW) although in one of the placements this may be provided by an external, off-site supervisor. Other than being an RSW there are no additional requirements that the placement supervisor should be experienced, trained or qualified in adult learning. Nor are placement agencies offered any financial support in recognition of the burden of hosting a student within their agency, as Hay et al. (2016) put it social work placements in New Zealand are “fiscally neutral” (p.40).
The consultant’s survey asks the following questions in relation to fieldwork:
3. Requirements for fieldwork placements
The Policy Statement sets out the SWRB’s minimum requirements for fieldwork experience.
3.1 Do the requirements for fieldwork placements need to be more specific?
3.2 If so, what specifics would you like included?
3.3 Do you think the currently specified minimum fieldwork experience (120 days) enough to ensure that the graduate’s skills and experience are fit for purpose?
3.4 If not, how much should there be?
The standards state that there must be at least 2 placements with at least one placement being of 50 days duration. They also specify that they should occur in differently structured settings, preferably in different organisations to ensure that students are exposed to at least two potential fields of practice.
3.5 Should there be any change to these requirements? (for example, should there be only 2 placements? Should there be a minimum number of days for a placement?)
3.6 If so, what changes do you recommend and why?
3.7 Should the standards be more specific around the content of the fieldwork experience?
3.8 If so, please provide details of what you think the requirements should be. (For example, around the range of placements such as community or casework/statutory or NGO etc, or mix of observation, supported practice and independent practice)
3.9 Should there be specific requirements that the student needs to meet prior to undertaking fieldwork experience in order to ensure safety for clients or maximum learning benefit for the student?
3.10 If so, please provide details. (for example, specific skills or competencies; or level in course)
Agency providing fieldwork
3.11 What criteria should the agencies providing fieldwork placements be required to meet to ensure a quality placement? (Please provide feedback on the attributes of agencies providing good fieldwork experience, for example – size, client profile, type of service, staffing etc)
3.12 What should be the requirements for supervision? (For example, how much supervision?, by whom? etc). Please provide comment.
The assessment of the student against the SWRB Core Competencies is a key component of the fieldwork placement.
3.13 Who should do the competence assessment? (for example, how the assessor should be selected and the qualifications the assessor should have etc)
The fact that the survey asks 13 questions in relation to the field work placement indicates the importance of a learning experience that has been described as the signature pedagogy of social work education (Wayne, Bogo & Raskin, 2010). I do not intend to respond to all of the above questions but their number suggests the significance of fieldwork as a site for the development of practice learning, and conveys a sense of urgency about need to ensure placements are fit for purpose. All of these questions deserve careful, considered responses. In fact I will argue they deserve serious attention in the form of a government funded fieldwork development project that would collate the evidence of best practice, trial field work demonstration projects, and take time to consult stakeholders on a national strategy for the improvement of field work education in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Why do we need a national strategy? Because the relationship between the field and the academy, between fieldwork educators and academic tutors is the critical interface for enhancing the outcomes of social work education, improving the readiness to practise of social work graduates, and creating the conditions for the development of competent, capable, and critical practitioners. As Clapton et al. (2006) put it:
Of all the sites of learning (classroom, placement, tutorials and self-directed), it is evident from the literature that it is the placement which currently holds most responsibility for learning being variously enhanced, concretised, transferred, assimilated and integrated. (p.650)
The fieldwork placement is a powerful context for the integration of theory and practice and the development of procedural knowledge or know how. It is where the rubber hits the road and, long after the memories of a dozen courses have faded, students will recollect vividly their fieldwork placement experience (Belinger, 2010a; Tham & Lynch, 2014).
Given the value of the fieldwork placement, and the opportunity to tweak the regulatory controls, it is tempting to leap in and make some firm proposals. For example, I am tempted to propose that we immediately increase the number of placement days. When the SWRB changed the minimum qualification from a three to a four year degree this had no impact on placement days. So why not increase placement days to 160 in recognition of the extra year? When it comes to placement type, given the criticisms levelled at social workers’ preparedness to practise in statutory contexts such as Child Youth and Family, should we not insist on two placements and that one must be in a statutory context? I could go on, and no doubt colleagues will express many opinions in the survey and in the one day workshop dedicated to the discussion of fieldwork. But, let us pause for reflection.
Fieldwork placement days
How many days are enough to ensure that a graduate’s skills and experience are fit for purpose? Currently the SWRB require 120 days. By way of comparison the Nursing Council of New Zealand requires registered nurses to complete 1,100 hours of clinical experience (or 137.5 days) on the other hand the New Zealand Education Council requires only 100 practicum days of student teachers. In England, Scotland and Wales regulatory bodies all require social work students to complete 200 days, and in Northern Ireland the Social Care Council stipulates that social work students must spend 225 days in practice learning with 25 days spent in preparation for direct work with service users, 185 in direct supervised practice, and 15 days to be used for individual practice development. These differences are interesting and the option of adding more placement days to the signature pedagogy seems intuitively appealing. However, there are some problem with this course of action.
Firstly, we have absolutely no evidence that increasing the number of placement days, of itself, will lead to better graduate outcomes. We know that, in any educational context, students spending time on task is an important principle of effective learning (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). However, time is necessary, but not sufficient. More time in an agency could make an important contribution to professional socialisation and induction into the rhythms, disciplines and priorities of organisational life, but learning to be a reflective critical practitioner requires more, much more, than that (Bellinger, 2010a).
Secondly, the reality is that practice learning occurs in a complex ecosystem making its quality sensitive to many issues other than time on task, including: the relationship between the tertiary education institutions and the fieldwork agencies; the learning culture, resources and priorities of the fieldwork agency; the experience, expertise and availability of the fieldwork educator; and the prior experience, learning objectives, and preparedness of the student. To take just one example, fieldwork educators have to balance the tension between meeting the demands of enabling a high quality fieldwork education experience whilst carrying a demanding operational workload. In the context of a fieldwork education role that attracts no additional funds, and growing agency pressures to meet increasing operational demands within the same or reduced resources, a proposal to increase the number of placement days (without addressing the issues of resources) may well have a negative impact on graduate outcomes.
Thirdly, and related to the last point, is the issue of the adequacy of the current level of funding provided to tertiary institutions to deliver the existing 120 days of fieldwork education, never mind adding more. The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) provide tertiary institutions with a Student Achievement Component (SAC) which is the Government’s contribution to the cost of teaching and learning. The SAC component is tiered into different funding categories to recognise the different costs associated with learning in different subject domains. One factor influencing the estimated costs of learning is the cost of providing structured fieldwork experiences and practical skills training to prepare student for such experiences. As stated above registered nurse students are required to undertake 137.5 days of clinical experience and, in 2016, the TEC provide their teaching institutions with $10, 338 per nursing student. Student teachers are required to undertake 100 days of practice experience and the TEC provides teacher education institutions with $8,569 per student. The TEC provides social work education programmes with $6, 014 per student, the same level of funding as basic social science degrees with no fieldwork requirement. So, social work programmes deliver 120 days of fieldwork for 42% less than nursing programmes and 30% less than teacher education programmes. As Beddoe (2014) argued:
Social work education is thus funded at the humanities rate, which is inadequate to cover the real costs of intensive skills teaching and field education. (p. 24)
Perhaps the survey might have asked for the opinions of stakeholders on this rather obvious and concerning anomaly.
For the avoidance of doubt, I am not arguing against increasing the number of placement days. In fact I am attracted by the Northern Irish model that specifies a number of days to be spent in preparation for direct work with service users, in direct supervised practice and for individual practice development. However, we need to address the ecology of practice learning, and if we increase days without dealing with the massive resource shortfall we will cause harm to this ecology. In fact, given the growing pressure on social work agencies, keeping placement days as they are at the moment may become unsustainable.
Fieldwork agency type
The other tempting choice from the survey is to respond positively to the question on the range of placements by arguing that at least one placement should indeed be within a statutory setting. Surely, this is only common sense? If a social work qualification enables a graduate to take up employment in a setting where they are expected to work under statute and manage cases with involuntary clients then surely they must have some experience of working in that setting. It’s a no brainer, right? Wrong.
This is a sheep dip approach to practice learning that assumes the agency is a “training ground for efficient employees” (Bellinger, 2010a, p. 601) and that there is something about immersion in an operationally demanding and statutory role that conveys the essence of what it is to do social work. The development of confident and capable practitioners requires that student learning occurs in the context of an educational framework that encourages the adoption of a critical stance towards agency practices (Evans, 1999). As Bellinger (2010a) puts it “Without that educational framework, students are under pressure to adopt uncritically the culture of the organisation in which they are placed” (p. 602). That’s not to say that a statutory agency context cannot be a site for effective practice learning. There are many sites where skilled and experienced fieldwork educators within statutory agencies support and engage students in practice learning that is both reflective and critical. However, it is the process adopted to facilitate the learning that makes the difference, not the type of agency setting within which it occurs. Bellinger (2010b) offers a much more sophisticated typology of placements based not on agency type but on whether the agency (statutory or NGO) provides an on-site social work role model, and the degree to which it enables integrated learning actively connecting classroom based and practical learning.
A strategic agenda?
I’ve touched on just a couple of issues in order to demonstrate the complexity of the agenda for effective practice learning and I’ve counselled against the folly of thinking we can make genuine improvements by fiddling with the regulatory controls alone.
As many colleagues know I spent most of my social work academic career working at the University of Strathclyde where I was closely involved in the establishment of the Scottish Institute for Excellence in Social Work Education and its successor organisation the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services. The initial motivation for these government funded institutes was the reform and improvement of social work education in Scotland and they funded a series of initiatives – research projects, literature reviews and demonstration projects – led by social work academics to test out innovative educational ideas. One strand of this activity focused on integrated learning (see Clapton et al., 2006, 2008) and another on qualifications for fieldwork educators.
The Scottish Social Services Council (the regulatory body for Scottish social work) is currently undertaking a review of the social work degree in Scotland and, even in these austere times, using a process that includes extensive stakeholder consultation, funded research and evidence gathering. The point, dear colleagues, is that reform processes don’t have to be hastily drawn up to conform to the urgent agenda of a government hell bent on driving through change. Social work educators in New Zealand ought to embrace any opportunity to improve the outcomes of social work education, but only if government is willing to fund a proper, evidence-informed review process that leads to a properly funded practice learning infrastructure. We have the capability. In fact, as an outsider, I am acutely aware that our academic community includes several social work education researchers with a long standing, international reputation for their research and scholarship. Not to harness the talents of these colleagues to contribute to educational improvement processes in Aotearoa New Zealand is inexplicable.
And there is so much to do. Here is one view of some of the possible elements of a strategic approach to improving social work practice learning (feel free to add your own):
- ensure the Tertiary Education Commission improves the SAC funding for social work students to reflect the need for supervised practice placements and classroom based skills workshop to support preparation for practice (Beddoe, 2014)
- conduct an analysis of fieldwork placement supply and demand and consider the costs and benefits of different options for promoting high quality placements (including giving agencies a placement fee and using local or regional consortia to coordinate placement supply) (Hay, Ballantyne & Brown, 2014)
- define what we mean by high quality practice learning recognising that this might look different in different cultural contexts
- develop a framework for fieldwork educator capabilities (building on ANZASWs recent work on field education standards) and fund the training of fieldwork educators (including their capability to make use of direct observations of practice (Beddoe et al., 2011; Hay et al., 2016))
- fund pilot projects that trial fieldwork innovation attuned to kaupapa Māori, Pacific and mainstream models of practice learning
- promote new models of integrated learning and partnership working between the academy and the field (Clapton et al., 2008)
- encourage closer collaboration between schools of social work to enhance fieldwork, classroom and online learning.
None of the above can happen without collaboration and funding to support the developments. Government funding is required to support “Collaboration, mutual support, and the development of new partnerships that transcend the competitive model” (Beddoe, 2007, p. 54). In short, we need to reimagine and reinvent fieldwork education in Aotearoa.
In the meantime, social work educators must resist strongly all attempts to make changes to existing practice based on nothing other than hastily collected ideas and political pressure. If government is serious about improving social work graduate outcomes in Aotearoa New Zealand then they must deliver the resources to enable fieldwork agencies and the academic community to do so, and hold us to account. Fiddling with the regulatory control panel, without any sense of the impact this might have on graduate outcomes, is more likely to cause chaos than improvement.
Kua takoto te manuka
(The leaves of the manuka tree have been laid down)
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