Waiting for a paradigm shift: How the AASW and universities could do more for social work students

student largeAs a major employer of social workers, I have spoken to countless new graduates and  students on placement. Sadly, I have heard too many stories of placements gone wrong. Even worse, some students have told me that they set aside serious grievances in order to be able to complete their placements. They could not afford to do otherwise with rent to pay and kids to feed. This speaks to me of a system that tolerates too much variation between our best and our worst.

To its credit, the AASW has made robust representations to government, advocating for increased student allowances to alleviate poverty. But equally, it should be acknowledged that our current government is so cruel and stupid, that any pleading, for any disadvantaged group was bound to fall on deaf ears.

Consequently, this increases the obligation of universities and the AASW to focus on measures actually within their powers that could make life easier for students, whilst not compromising the quality of social work graduates. There appears to be plenty that can be done; and this piece will examine some of the barriers and opportunities.

Students are the least powerful player in a complex set of relationships between the field educator, the host agency, and the university. And increasingly one can throw into that mix an “external” supervisor. Whilst all players share the goal of producing competent professional social workers, there are many confounding variables.

You would not be surprised to learn that producing great professionals is not a goal that universities count amongst their KPI’s. Whilst our older, more established universities make it into various top 100 global lists of university rankings, the favoured parameters of academic peer review and citations per faculty have little relationship to the quality of social worker graduates. No one would make the claim that the Universities of Sydney or Melbourne, ipso facto, produce better social workers than Charles Sturt or Deakin.

Perversely however this aspect of academic culture has had a negative effect on field education. A few years ago, the US Council of Social Work Education designated field instruction as social work’s “signature pedagogy”. This is a relatively new term is considered to be “types of teaching that organise the fundamental ways in which future practitioners are educated for their professions”.  It is a pedagogical approach that acknowledges the deep and implicit assumptions about how best to impart professional knowledge and know-how, and includes a moral dimension that comprises a set of beliefs about professional attitudes, values and dispositions. Logically, if signature pedagogy were to be implemented, the position of field education co-ordinator would become on of the most prestigious in any social work faculty. Clearly this is not the case, in an academic pecking order that valorises how many times a research paper has been cited.

The key professional instrument in mitigating this problem is the Australian Social Work Education and Accreditation Standards (ASWEAS); the standards that the AASW uses to accredit social work courses. On the subject of field education co-ordinators, it states,

  1. There must be a clearly identifiable field education unit including administrative support dedicated to organising field education.
  2. Staffing of field education programs should reflect the social work academic organisational unit’s (SWAOU) commitment to the centrality of field education in the social work curriculum. (my emphasis) For example, there may be clear connections between the academic and research interests of staff and the field education experiences offered by the academic unit.
  3. All members of staff will actively contribute to the field education program. All academic staff will use opportunities to integrate learning from field education into other parts of the curriculum.
  4. The social work program will assign a field education coordinator and field education liaison staff to each placement.
  5. Field education coordinators must be social workers with a minimum of five years’ post-qualifying practice experience….

Interestingly, it goes on to say that, “Field education liaison staff must be either experienced higher education provider -based social work educators or social workers with a minimum of five years’ post-qualifying practice experience.”

I will leave you, the reader, to be the judge of how well universities have performed against these requirements.

Given the centrality of placements in developing competent professionals it is surprising how little effort has been put into improving the quality of host agency supervisors, (referred to in ASWEAS as “field educators”).

Very little experience or extra education is required for this key role; the ASWEAS stating,

  1. Field educators are qualified social workers (eligible for full membership of the AASW) with a minimum of two years’ full-time practice experience, or its part-time equivalent, who demonstrate a commitment to continuing professional education and an interest in developing social work knowledge and skills.
  2. In recognition of the difficulties for some regional higher education providers, in exceptional circumstances relating to distance, a field educator with less experience may be allocated for one placement only. In this circumstance, the field education coordinator must ensure that the field educator has additional support and mentoring.
  3. Field educators must undertake training for the field education role before or during their first experience in the field educator role.

Two years practice and a one day workshop is not (in my view) adequate experience to equip supervisors to host a student placement. There is some excellent training to be had out there- but it is costly in time and money and boutique in scale. The AASW  is not addressing the issue of providing quality on a large scale, although the numbers now are truly industrial.

In 2013, over 2,100 students (bachelors and qualifying masters) completed their degrees. This year it will be over 3,000, and in 2020 it is projected to be 3,700! This is against a background of an inexorable productivity squeeze that leaves potential supervisors exhausted by their daily work, and less and less inclined to take on the responsibility of a student placement. Consequently, In the scramble to find placements universities are turning more to paying external supervisors to provide supervision to students in agencies that do not have qualified social work staff. ASWEAS states that in situations where the host organisation has no suitable social work field educator, the faculty should “negotiate with the host organisation to engage an external social worker to undertake the professional supervision requirements”. It goes on to say “only one placement should have an external field educator, except in the exceptional circumstances”

Clearly implicit here is the assumption that an ‘external’ supervisor’ is second best; and there is feedback from some students to back that assumption.This is a paradigm of scarcity and ‘making do’. But it need not be so. With the right paradigm and the right governance, an external supervisor could be running a virtual student unit far more enriching than any collection of individual placements.

One of the thorniest issues from a student perspective is the requirement to clock up 1000 hours of placement. The ASWEAS states,

“Students must successfully complete a minimum of 1,000 hours in at least two field education subjects. These hours must be completed within the normal working hours / days of the organisation hosting the placement. No leave of any kind may be included in this requirement; that is, the full 1,000 hours must be completed.” and, “Practice–theory integration seminars may be included within the required hours up to a maximum of 14 hours per 500-hour placement.”

It goes on to list what one may or may not do in accumulating these hours in an exacting pedantic style reminiscent of  taxation codes. There is a 19th century atmosphere to this level of prescription; and it is putting the AASW at loggerheads with the very educators that it ought to be collaborating with. Following a review last year, the next version of ASWEAS is about to be unveiled. A selection of quotes from the Australian Council of the Heads of Schools of Social Work (ACHSSW) in its submission to the Review will give a flavour of the gap between the AASW and the Heads of Schools.

The Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work .. is committed to an outcome-focused curriculum that enables and empowers programs to demonstrate how they would meet specified AASW graduate attributes. Our inclination is to follow international trends and pedagogical approaches that move toward guidance rather than prescription in creating a capability-based framework that includes a strong emphasis on desired graduate attributes. Currently AASW graduate attributes reflect an input-focused curriculum presenting a fundamental problem when reviewing them as they are: not amenable to evaluation with respect to program accreditation; they describe knowledge content rather than being framed as attributes (doing and being); they are inconsistent with the AASW Practice Standards…

 Social work field education in Australia is currently at a point where tertiary educators struggle to resource placements for social work students and to manage multiple stakeholders’ growing expectations. There are a number of factors that contribute to an increasingly unsustainable context including expanding student numbers and intensifying expectations linking placements with employability, and the declining capacity of organisations and their staff to provide practice-based learning opportunities or supervision.  Higher education funding, policy and regulation issues also impact on the resources for and provision of field education.  A paradigm shift from ever expanding expectations towards sustainable expectations for Field Education is being advocated internationally, as well as at national and local levels and by industry in Australia (Hunter et al., 2015; Billett, 2012; Lager et al., 2010; Bogo, 2015)…

…There is no hard evidence available that can clearly demonstrate that face-to-face teaching is more effective or better at supporting learning outcomes than an on-line alternative

Simulated activities can be assessed against strict criteria and used as an alternative to face-to-face on-campus contact. They can provide a first step to assessing readiness or suitability for practice before commencing a placement at an agency outside of the university. Simulated learning is widely used in other allied health degrees, and is an accepted and valid medium in contemporary learning and teaching environments…

The Council nevertheless asserts that the current placement learning model of agency-based, single supervisor one to one supervision and three liaison contacts is not necessary to the support of a successful placement for the majority of students, and that it is also unsustainable in a climate of fiscal restraint. Accordingly, there is an urgent need to review the nature and content of the 1000 hour requirement and to provide a rationale for its continuance.

.. the range of learning opportunities and associated activities within Field Education.. could include: simulations; agency visits and associated work; pre-placement readiness and preparation; integrative seminars; and broader appreciation of recognised prior learning (RPL) and recognition of work-based learning…

 The Council .. sees signature pedagogy as offering a more powerful articulation across the curriculum, including both classwork and field education.. This conceptualization could move beyond the binary of classroom and field, and focus more acutely on the integration rather than its individual components – a reflexive pedagogy that is used in both classroom and field.

The Council supports the proposals .. to work towards the development of a national standardised common assessment framework or tool that takes into account RPL, research/project placements and field placement information as a whole…

…The Council wishes to endorse a move beyond agency-based conceptions of a placement to a focus on the way in which a broader package could support learning outcomes. For example, this could be a ‘satellite model’ where an agile worker, regardless of location, could undertake a project on behalf of a number of agencies or stakeholders. A more flexible approach to the great diversity of potential learning opportunities is also required, for example (but not limited to) two placements at the same organisation where diversity of experience is maintained; split placements based on the learning needs of the student; university-hosted placements; rural community student teams; project work and internships; and work-based placements.

Some elements of signature pedagogy could clearly be implemented with or without AASW blessing; and so we are left to wonder how much has been done; and how much the ASWEAS has been used as an excuse for academic inaction?

The ASWEAS review has certainly been an opportunity to make the paradigm leap to signature pedagogy. The new standards are about to be published. We could be pleasantly surprised; but I doubt it. As part of the review the AASW states that the process has involved (amongst other things),

“a review of literature relating to teaching and learning, with a particular focus on the contentious issue of distance education and the emerging significance of information technology as both an aid to learning and a means of service delivery.”

If this literature review was done, it is not available on the website; and yet it is potentially the vehicle, the conduit, and the time machine that will enable the paradigm leap into genuine signature pedagogy. Publishing the literature review before a call for submissions would have set the tone and the frame for the future direction of social work pedagogy. As it is, the submissions to the Review rehearsed the same old loyalties, with precious little evidence on any side (albeit the Heads of Schools quoted some research that, as you would expect, supported their positions). And if any document deserved to have an exposure draft published it was this! We then may have had a genuine conversation.

There are now approximately 10,000 students enrolled in social work across Australia; almost half of them in masters qualifying programs. Despite committing to do so, the AASW has not yet been able to facilitate the creation of a student advisory body. That body, when it forms should play a key part in these conversations.

I prefer a pen and you prefer a word processor; that’s nice; but what are the implications? A car is not just a faster horse, and email is more than very fast snail mail. One does not replace the other, but new processes and technologies fundamentally change our workplaces, our communities and our cultures.

The ASWEAS is not only increasingly contentious; it requires a paradigm shift that is fundamental to the future of social work. Let’s hope that it is more than a collection of increments and add-ons that satisfies no one, and leaves students wondering why the grown ups can’t do better.

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10 Responses to Waiting for a paradigm shift: How the AASW and universities could do more for social work students

  1. Mark Wilder says:

    Great piece!

  2. I agree wholeheartedly that we need a paradigm shift. The world is evolving we are evolving and Social work is evolving.
    We must have dialogue and connect with our creative minds to develop new directions.

  3. This seems to be a very well-written, well-informed article of critical importance. It is a wake-up call and needs to be taken seriously by all involved lest we all suffer the consequences.

  4. Bronwyn Simpson says:

    A very important area to address, the provision of appropriate field work placements and qualified and experienced social worker supervision. So important for the social work student to have a well managed experience which provides adequate stretch and theory provision. As you say, lots of issues can challenge this even where intentions are good and the agency receptive.
    I have supervised a handful of students only over the years and in different agencies. Some good solid learning experiences were provided in most circumstances, and the student’s learning goals more than adequately addressed along with social work department of the tertiary institution goals. However I believe that field work placement officers at the relevant tertiary institution need to check out the placement before it begins – at least one month before. Sometimes other dynamics ( office politics/relationships for example can get in the way of a student having the best learning environment).

  5. Dianne Koennecke says:

    I must state strongly that having an external supervisor was for my experience highly advantageous. As a mature student I found my first placement with an internal supervisor extremely rigid, binding and I was being expected to “shadow” my supervisor without doing any kind of rewarding or rigourous placement opportunities. The difficulty associated with this is that if you have an issue with your supervisor, there is also potential for it to negatively impact on your placement report. This is an extremely vulnerable and powerless position to be in. My second placement was vastly different in which I had an external supervisor with extensive knowledge. My placement was expansive and drew on all of my training so far. When I did have a conflict within the service, the supervisor was able advocate for me, all was resolved and the problem did not negatively affect my results.

    • vittorio1 says:

      I hope I didn’t give the impression that I favour one kind of supervision over another. My point is about building systems that honour supervision quality and provide a uniformly good placement experiences. That means design features that encourage creativity, flexibility, recognition of prior skills and experience as well as a focus on quality results rather than the time spent learning the process.

  6. Baerbel McDougall says:

    Well I have something to look forward to if the difficulties arising are not addressed. I am aware of a friend who is studying social work. As a student in a a regional town, his placement was organised in a big city 5 hours away. His wife had just had their first child yet , the Uni expected him to travel and stay away for 7 days initially for placement training. Why this could not have been done at the regional campus. No one paid for accommodation or travel or meal allowances. It is a tuff call at times. Students are out of pocket having to leave any form of employment. I hope things change before I have to do placement. thanks for your extensive research on this matter.

  7. JJ says:

    Thank you for acknowledging that there is a problem with the placements system in social work degrees in Australia.

    Unfortunately, both my placement involved me having to speak up saying the placements I was given were not good enough. There are simply too many students enrolled! The university lecturers deny their responsibility by blaming the business model of the today’s higher education. Social Work degrees are becoming (or have become) like paper money in the Weimar Republic, Germany in 1923 – absolutely worthless! A Masters of Social Work is probably similar to first or second year Bachelor of Arts of degree. I do have two OK paid jobs in the industry, but I’m working with people with no degrees or who are studying. So really, I don’t see the point in studying a social work degree.

  8. Arnia says:

    Great article.
    I have already done my first placement and due to go on my second placement next semester. This is something i am currently dealing with. Placement is a huge commitment for us all, not only having no income coming in but for many students the fear of it technically being a ‘Waste of time’ is an even greater worry.
    i have seen students put into placements they didn’t want or that are totally inappropriate but they continue with them just so they can get it done.
    I also believe the university placement team needs to visit the agencies they intend to send students to. To make sure the fit between student, agency and supervisor is the best possible match.
    I had an amazing first placement experience and i will be making sure my final placement is just as great.

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