Developing Together Social Work  Teaching Partnership

Blog Post: Partnership working in the midst of a pandemic – how we worked together to support virtual student learning


By Sarah Cave, Josie Newton and Anna Holland.

This blog focuses on one aspect of social work education that has been
significantly impacted by the current situation. It looks at how partnership working has helped student social workers continue their learning and complete their placements during this time. 

Intense learning through a pandemic

By Sarah Cave, Practice Consultant for the Teaching Partnership

Coronavirus has turned our world upside down and, with it, created difficult situations, often both personally and professionally. Consequently, this pandemic has challenged us, as social workers, on many levels. This blog focuses on one aspect of social work education that has been significantly impacted by this situation. It looks at how partnership working has helped student social workers continue their learning and complete their placements during this time. And, importantly, how this process has also helped us, as their educators, develop in parallel our own knowledge and skills in this new and virtual world.

A small number of students were unable to complete their placements when lockdown came into force at the end of March 2020. Following discussion with Kingston University and placement providers, the Developing Together Social Work Teaching Partnership created activities to provide the students with opportunities to learn and demonstrate social work skills across all the PCF domains – and hence complete their placements.

The activities developed were in the form of scenarios, which worked through a case and included role plays, case notes, assessments, reflections, referrals and presentations among other things! Tight timeframes for completion of tasks needed to be included, to reflect the competing pressures faced by social workers.

As practice educators delivering these activities, what perhaps we had not considered was the volume of work that we would then receive and need to read! We quickly realised that weekly supervision would not be enough to provide students with the feedback they needed in time to demonstrate their learning for subsequent tasks. Further learning was that trying to assess practice, whilst being involved in a role play is not ideal. Staying “in role” whilst considering how the student’s practice was meeting the various PCF domains was too much! Hence after the first couple of role play scenarios, we found a willing volunteer (and budding actor) to be the ‘service user’ for future role play tasks.

With no social work teams around them, students were only connected with their practice educator and tutor for support and information. Fortunately, thanks to the Teaching Partnership, we were able to reach out to the NSPCC (one of our partners), who kindly agreed to provide specialist training to the students on the main concern in the case study – Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE). 

The real beauty of this collaboration is not only that the students and practice educators learnt from it, but so did our partners.

Everyday’s a School Day

By Anna Holland, Consultant Social Worker for the NSPCC

Everyday’ s a School Day” or so the saying goes…

Certainly, Social Work is a profession where lifelong learning, adapting to change, balancing competing demands and priorities and working under pressure are all core elements …

and yet… 

Could anything have really prepared us for the way in which, the entire world it seemed, had changed overnight…?

But adapt we did…

Along with the new-but-now-familiar aspects of life with concepts like “furlough” and words like “unprecedented”, by the time we started talking within the Teaching Partnership we were becoming much more familiar with the various technologies that have kept us connected (both professionally and personally) during this time.

It was heartening to hear how the University was adapting to the limits around student placements and finding creative ways to manage these through case study and role play exercises.  Social Work, after all, requires us to be creative, consistent and persistent when needed.  Certainly, these are resources to draw on in ourselves and our teams when working with young people and their families impacted by CSE.

Delivering training through a screen, especially when content around sexual abuse can be difficult to hear, without the usual cues and connection, presented a new way of working. I needed to be more mindful of the impact of the subject discussions without the usual body language cues or noticing when someone might have something they are holding onto and want to say.  I was curious to know how students would find it, as well as how it would feel for me “behind the screen”. 

So, with a mirroring of embracing change and new ways of working that has echoed across Social Work (as well as other professions), we set to thinking how we could facilitate learning around CSE for students. Together with a colleague and the Practice Consultants from the partnership, we met (virtually!) to consider the role play, thought about additions and ways in which exercises might facilitate learning for the student, and sent over research links and practice guidance which influences our knowledge and work in this area. 

We covered key elements of work in CSE including building a trusting working relationship with a young person and their network, considering a young person’s context and environment,  knowledge around disruption, the law around CSE and sexual offences, intelligence sharing and multi agency working. Conversations on applying this learning to the case study scenario, drawing on learning from trauma-informed practice, also helped the students with their placement tasks; considering how they might respond to a young person in these situations and framing their thinking about where the conversations and work might need to “start”. 

The experience of teaching and learning in this way was certainly as beneficial for me as it hopefully was for the students. There is a mirroring of learning that seems to happen in teaching and there was lots for me to take away from the experience; not least the running of several further training sessions for the partnership and others.

Reflections on Reflections

By Josie Newton, Practice Consultant for the Teaching Partnership

When we sat down ‘virtually’ to discuss what our specific focus should be and how we go about writing this blog, we reflected together on our ‘learning’ journey as experienced, qualified social work educators, yet ‘students’ in our own rights. 

We tried to create a ‘near normal’ environment for students learning ‘on’ placement, using innovation and strong partnership working. We provided support to students through this emotionally uncertain time, after their placements had unexpectedly ended. We managed to provide this whilst grappling with our own anxieties and challenges ‘in lockdown’, without our own traditional means of support, instead building newfound virtual connections with our partners.

So, where will this experience of ‘alternative’ education and learning within social work take us? How do we now take this developing toolkit of ‘new’ skills and ever-important nature of ‘partnership’ work, into the future? These are huge questions to which the answers are unravelling before our very eyes, as this is all still ‘work in progress’. 

In order to think about our own journey as educators, we need to start by acknowledging that of the student. Students suddenly found themselves finishing their placements halfway through, with overwhelming anxieties about how they were going to achieve their learning needs and qualify. They had to do this in new and unfamiliar environments compared to conventional ‘Social Work’………..their own bedrooms and lounges! And we as educators had to consider how we enable, support and assess in this strange, new world.  

In our role as educators, we encourage students to reflect on their experiences and interactions throughout their placement. Supervision and informal discussions need to be in an environment that is safe and secure, so discussion can unravel and then students leave for home, hopefully reframed and refreshed, with clear boundaries in place.

It has been challenging to support and supervise students, as they manage their learning and new experiences in their own homes. With no clear physical boundaries, they hear and see the trauma associated with social work, which then stays within the walls of where they live, eat and sleep…… we sit and enable their development…….where we live, eat and sleep. We all do this whilst finding appropriate platforms, jostling with poor networks and having challenging conversations in a virtual space. 

The challenges have been numerous, the development of new skills have been surprising, but the creativity, willingness and swift response within this partnership has been inspiring. The NSPCC provided a rich and highly effective 1-1 learning experience for students on CSE, which complemented the PE led placement activities. And despite the challenging subject nature being taught to students in their bedrooms, the strength of support which they experienced (as evidenced from their feedback) illustrates how students can safely learn, reflect and demonstrate social work skills in a virtual environment. 

Although we remain in a climate of uncertainty, this alternative way of partnership learning and support illustrates how social work is flexible, creative and resilient.