Developing Rich Pedagogies for Fast-Track Social Work Education

Developing Rich Pedagogies for Fast-Track Social Work Education Abstract This paper primarily explores current contradictions within social work practice and education in the context of contemporary English-based developments. How we define the boundaries around our profession—whether broad or narrow, theoretically limited or rich—fundamentally impacts on the role we perform in society and how we educate new social workers. The recent emergence of fast-track pre-qualifying social work programmes in England has raised concern that we may be moving to an overly narrow conception of praxis which may militate against a theoretically integrated generic approach. The top-down government reforms we are currently experiencing has a particular narrative around how social workers should be educated. The educational ‘fresh thinking’ currently required is to develop pedagogic frameworks with the potential to produce holistic, theoretically informed and process-sensitive curricula where interconnections across disciplines are foregrounded and reflexive practice is promoted within a condensed time frame. As a contribution to this debate, a case-study example drawing upon structured family observations is offered as a vehicle to illustrate how alternative pedagogic approaches can potentially contribute to a broader and more nuanced understanding of contemporary family life with particular resonance for fast-track education programmes. Social work education, integrated curricula, fast-track pedagogies, family observations Background narrative of practice Social work sits in an uncomfortable socio-political space. The range of bifurcation inherent in the contradictory dual functions of the role results in social work struggling to find its own place and identity (Jones, 2014). Dickens (2011) argues that there will always be challenges for a profession that engages in balancing care and control, empowerment and protection, support and surveillance, and faces the tensions of working for change both in individuals and simultaneously in society. As a profession, social work has to negotiate a broad range of contradictory roles and tasks in its daily practice. McGregor acknowledges that such a dichotomy is not fixed, but ‘plays out in different directions and to greater or lesser degrees depending on context, space and place’ (2015, p. 1637). The fluidity of these contradictions is an important aspect in relation to analysing some of the complexity and context-specific aspects of practice. At different moments, the preventative role for social work may be stressed, such as following the publication of Every Child Matters (Department for Education, 2003). This was a government report focused on local multi-agency partnerships having a duty to promote key universal outcomes for all children in their geographic area. In the current political climate, casualty/crisis management aspects of social work present more highly in terms of government priorities and ‘safeguarding’ assumes a higher profile than preventative family service (Featherstone et al., 2014b). There is a permanent intertwining between the inherent contradictory pulls embedded in the duality of social work practice and the pushes from the external social context. This external context also has its own set of dynamic contradictions, focusing on what society wants or—or fears—from social workers. Social workers often deal with those who are troubled and those who are troubling in a society which does not always wish to recognise the existence of either group. Alongside this, our enduring professional commitment to pursuing social justice has at times led to our profession standing in stark contradiction to dominant political discourses, particularly in neo-liberal times. As a profession, we sometimes seek to ‘tell different stories’ (Featherstone et al., 2014a) and challenge mainstream discourse which ignores the patterning of social problems and the impact of structural inequalities. Dickens notes that ‘social work has always faced political ambivalence and always found it hard to maintain a place at the heart of government policy’ (2011, p. 32). These contradictions and ambivalences form a key aspect of the landscape of our professional history (Jones, 2014). An understanding of the nature of such complexity is an essential backdrop to thinking about child and family practice in the twenty-first century, as this is the milieu in which any fresh thinking takes place. In many ways, child and family social work has itself been a site of some of the key political tensions and government inquiry reports following child death tragedies have frequently led to major restructuring of both practice organisations and the delivery of social work education. Parton’s (1985) work in 1985 traced the impact of concerns about social work interventions in child abuse since the death of Maria Colwell in 1973, arguing this was a dominant theme shaping the development of social work policy and practice in relation to children and families. Ferguson (2011) argues that, although the 1989 Children Act enshrined the practice of working in partnership with families and envisaged care proceedings as being kept to a minimum, the impact of child deaths led to practice becoming dominated by child protection concerns. Many commentators have drawn attention to the changes in policy and practice resulting from the tragic death of baby Peter Connolly in England in 2008. Continuing the theme of contradictory influences on practice, Parton (2014) notes how, although child protection has been the area of practice that has produced the most high-profile and wide-ranging critiques of social work, this is the area that is continually reconfirmed as social work’s central responsibility in relation to children and families. Parton sees the pendulum of prevention/support versus child protection orientation as most decidedly swinging in the latter direction in recent times. It is against this overarching contradictory and contested backdrop that current child and family practice in the twenty-first century must be contextualised and fresh thinking developed and evaluated. Impact on conceptualisations of practice Having presented the background narrative of practice as a series of dynamic contradictions, it is pertinent to explore how this discourse is currently impacting on conceptualisations of social work—within both the practicum and the academy. In order to embrace fresh thinking about the future with confidence, the topography of the present needs to be interrogated to guide our thinking in terms of which future paths offer most—and least—potential. It has understandably been argued that ‘social work is always in uncertain times and the core debates and dilemmas come round again and again’ (Dickens, 2011, p. 23, emphasis in the original article). If the death of baby Peter Connolly in 2008, however, resulted in a dramatic increase in the politicisation of social work as Parton (2014) suggests, we may expect to have witnessed an increased period of intervention in the workings—and stated purpose—of social work within England. In terms of appreciating other major influences operating simultaneously, it is important to note that the crisis of confidence in child protection practice was also accompanied by the global economic crash of 2007–08 heralding a climate of financial retrenchment with the subsequent introduction of severe ‘austerity’ measures within the public services. As in previous economic recessions, social work practice was adversely affected by such financial retrenchment as resources tightened (Spolander et al., 2016). In this adverse political and economic context, recent commentators draw increasing attention to heightened politicisation processes, particularly in relation to the increasingly narrow conceptions of social work being promoted from a range of directions, including central government. Singh and Cowden argue that a ‘battle for the soul of social work’ (2009, p. 485) is being waged in relation to the role of theory and intellectualism within social work where social workers are being encouraged to become more ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical’. Singh and Cowden challenge this premise, seeing social work as connected to the struggle for human liberation—where thinking and doing are intrinsically connected—rather than practice existing as a series of un-theorised technical tasks. Higgins agrees that we are currently engaged in ‘a struggle for the soul of social work in England’ (2014, p. 4) where there is a tension between a narrow understanding of the nature of practice and a broader emancipatory conception. He argues that the limited model is currently providing a dominant paradigm which he fears may lead to the loss of more visionary and humane practice. In the field of child and family social work, Featherstone, Morris and White (2014a) argue passionately that government policy has led to restrictive, narrowly focused individualistic social work where the government is promoting the lessening of ‘risk’ as opposed to the meeting of need. Adopting a broader vantage point, Higgins, Popple and Crichton argue that the current contradictions being highlighted in social work suggest that there is a ‘struggle for the profession’s identity, which encompasses qualifying education, social work practice and the very role of the profession in contemporary society’ (2016, p. 620). The authors explore proposed models of direct practice alongside changes in the delivery of social work education. The latter is often not explored fully in these debates, although its influence on future practice is considerable. Whether we adopt a narrow or broad version of social work is in many ways intertwined with what, where, when and how social workers are taught—as well as by whom. A tale of two reports Higgins, Popple and Crichton (2016) suggest that the publication of two reports on social work education—Narey (2014) and Croisdale-Appleby (2014)—represent different competing paradigms in relation to social work in England. Narey’s interpretation of social work is that child protection and safeguarding are the major priorities of work in mainstream children and families agencies. Narey’s support for increased specialism underlies his assumption that there is no longer a single social work profession in England—child and family and adult social work is intellectually and practically separated. It is argued that Narey’s overall assumptions lead to a narrow interpretation of the role of a social worker which could impact restrictively on the curricula and purpose of social work education. Following the publication of Narey’s report, central government in England supported the introduction of the Frontline model which introduced a shortened—fast-track—programme with a duration of thirteen months rather than the traditional two-year MA qualifying programmes. The programme focuses on recruiting high-achieving graduates and is focused predominantly on developing statutory children and family social work rather than offering a more overtly generic curriculum. The programme is predominantly workplace-based. Higgins, Popple and Crichton present Frontline as a ‘material product of Narey’s paradigm of social work’ (2016, p. 623). They note that, in practice, a key focus of the programme is agency-based child protection work with a restricted theoretical framework and limited educational input. In this context, it is pertinent to note that the decision of Frontline to withdraw from collaborating with universities is noted as ‘concerning’ by the House of Commons Education Committee (2016). Higgins, Popple and Crichton (2016) suggest that the emergence of Think Ahead, a new fast-track programme in mental health, may indicate that the Frontline model is set to become the new template for social work education and what they regard as Narey’s narrower focus may be set to become more dominant. Internationally, moves towards fast-track degrees have gained traction in recent years but, apart from Canada, a similar interest in fast tracking social work education does not appear to be widely replicated to date. The European Association of Schools of Social Work, for example, issued a statement expressing concern that Frontline in England could potentially undermine the complex character of social work and reduce education to a narrow, technical activity. They warned that this could lead to the isolation of English and Welsh social work, as ‘the structure and content proposed by “Frontline” is in direct opposition to the Bologna Agreement which ensures comparability in the students and quality of higher education in Europe’ (European Association of Schools of Social Work, 2014). Within the UK, the social work regulators in Scotland and Northern Ireland now do not recognise Frontline as a fully generic qualification for social work due to its restricted focus on child and family work. This is in direct opposition to the HCPC—the regulator in England—who have recognised this qualification. In this context, Narey’s vision of social work is associated with the emergence of specialised, fast-track social work education programmes. In contrast to Narey’s legacy, Higgins, Popple and Cricton present Croisdale, Appleby’s alternative 2014 report, as possessing a broader vision which presents social workers as ‘social scientists’—giving intellectual rigour to the breath of the social work task. They see this report as having contrasting principles to Narey’s. Social work is acknowledged as a unified, generic, international profession operating in a global context with a commitment to promoting human rights and social justice. The social work role is depicted as being broader than protection, whose remit encompasses the empowerment of service users, reflective practice and theoretical social science knowledge being utilised to promote change. This interpretation of what social work is and what its reach should be has very different implications for the education of social work students. If we fully adopt this reading of current influences on social work education, however, we may be in danger of accepting another binary position where Narey’s report is regarded in a totally negative positioning and Croisdale-Appleby’s report is presented as a polar positive opposite. Reframing this premise, it could be argued that Narey was tasked to explore how to respond to increasing demand on practice in a time of shrinking resources and his focus was rather more expedient in intent. Although he concluded with a narrow interpretation of social work, he initially came from a different starting point which may have led to contextually reactive proposals. Presenting direct connections between the narrowness of Narey’s resulting vision to the lack of theorising and excessive skills-based preoccupations cited in relation to some of the new fast-track social work education assumes axiomatic connections across these processes that may not be correct. Narrow interpretations of social work are not automatically embraced by programmes with short delivery time spans, nor is it axiomatic that fast-track programmes develop predominantly skills-focused curricula. Co-existing with competing narratives There are currently competing conceptions of social work practice co-existing in the political arena but the trajectory about how these different visions impact on the education of social workers still retains fluidity. We hear competing narratives laying claim to different practices and conflicting purposes for social work education. Within higher education, however, narratives are rarely linear in their causation or trajectory and current portrayals may be overstating the binary nature of the situation. It may be more fruitful to look beyond a stark divide and seek to understand the current debate about the role of social work—and social work education—within the broader framework where contradictions and complexities co-exist in a dynamic interplay of fluctuating competing truths. Social work may be ‘limited’ or ‘broad’ in different contexts and subject to different influences. If we follow this line of argument, we can explore what factors may influence how practice is taught and where fluidity presents opportunities for reframing and fresh thinking. I have argued elsewhere that the potential for critical pedagogic inquiry is opened up in contested spaces where competing agenda meet in the same arena (Cartney, 2013). Social work is currently positioned in such a contested space and we can explore whether fresh pedagogic frameworks have the potential to generate alternative discourses and ways of seeing. Providing alternative theoretical—and experiential lenses—through which practice understandings and intervention processes can be reassessed may open up opportunities for different ways of perceiving the future. Praxis in the fast lane This paper has acknowledged the considerable disquiet in many sectors of the social work profession about whether recent government reforms of social work education are leading to an overly narrow praxis and that key components of professional knowledge are at risk of disappearing from the curricula. In relation to child and family social work in particular, a concern is that narrow interpretations of role may militate against an integrated understanding of a family approach to social work—with an appreciation of issues affecting both children and adults. The need for social workers to have a wider contextual understanding and to demonstrate ‘mastery of advanced sociological constructs’ (Croisdale-Appleby, 2014) is a simultaneous contributor to current debates about the breath—and narrowness—of social work curricula in relation to child and family social work. A pertinent issue is whether social work is simply about ‘know how’ (skills) or also about ‘know why’ (knowledge), and whether we are moving away from promoting in-depth understanding and towards employment-based skills teaching as the primary underpinning for qualifying education. Furthermore, the integration of our values base as a profession needs to be demonstrated in our skills—what we do—but emanate from our knowledge base—why we do what we do. As a profession, we are currently on uncertain ground where concerns are expressed about new fast-track programmes, as evidence about their impact is limited (House of Commons Select Committee, 2016). The initial evaluation of Step Up To Social Work (Smith et al., 2013)—the first local authority-based fourteen-month fast-track social work programme in England—expressed some reservations about the lack of breadth of knowledge taught and an authentic commitment to providing a generic curriculum given the time and explicit focus on children and families. This initial concern appears to be under-investigated at present, as the recent evaluation (Hackett et al., 2015) focused more on retention issues than broader considerations. The evaluation of the fast-track Frontline social work programme (Maxwell et al., 2016) noted criticisms that the teaching focused ‘on child protection to the detriment of gaining comprehensive knowledge of social work and issues faced by families’ (p. 18) but sadly did not explore this in relation to its findings. There were positive aspects of the evaluation; for example, Frontline trainees were rated more highly than the comparison group for the quality of their interviewing skills and written reflection. Other elements were more mixed; for example, whilst theory was noted as being ‘to the fore’, trainees sometimes struggled to apply theoretical ideas and ‘research evidence had a very low profile in the teaching’ (Maxwell et al., 2016, p. 55). A key opportunity missed here was the lack of evaluation about whether Frontline is preparing practitioners with a depth of broader social science-based knowledge and—if not—what the impact is on their understanding about their role and how they practise. This did not form part of the evaluation, although it was a key concern raised in relation to Frontline curricula. The announcement from the Secretary of State for Education that a further £100 million investment was to be channelled into the funding of fast-track programmes, including Frontline, prior to the publication of its evaluation suggests that fast-track programmes, however, are a current government priority that looks unlikely to pause for reflection. Analysing the arguments at play, however, although fast-track programmes are more likely to adopt a narrower view of practice because of their reduced time scales and their specialist—as opposed to generic—overarching focus, we earlier questioned whether this is always an inevitable consequence of this mode of delivery. Higgins argues that the problem with Frontline is ‘not necessarily its shortened structure or siting within an agency’, but rather its ‘limited or narrow conception of the role of contemporary social work in society’ (2014, p. 15). If we decouple the assumed link between fast-track and narrow/limited, then we begin to open up a broader range of opportunities for our future direction of travel. A key argument being presented in this paper is that, to professionally educate social workers to undertake the complex roles of a child and family social worker, there is a need to adopt pedagogies with a broad, contextually informed approach to child and family social work to grasp the interconnections existing at micro and macro levels. A social worker needs to understand the individuality of the child and the adults, but also their interconnections at a personal and structural level within society. In essence, this knowledge can be incorporated within fast-track and/or more traditional routes to social work education if students have an appreciation of the importance of social science contributions and their relationship to praxis. Although influential, the mode of delivery does not itself automatically dictate the breadth of the curriculum. Time per se does not necessarily direct the orientation of teaching. It is possible to develop an academically embedded programme within a shortened time span. Furthermore, time does not direct focus and restructuring to a more condensed teaching time does not axiomatically assume an overreliance on skills teaching. If social workers are seeking to enhance our own professional contributions to understanding the complex needs of children and families, we would benefit from drawing upon the breadth of our integrated knowledge base as a strength—both adding depth and rigour to our practice approach and extending the reach of our theoretical lens. The breadth of service we deliver to children and families and our international position as a profession would benefit from this overt positioning. Embracing pedagogic breath An enduring challenge is how to provide a broad and theoretically sophisticated pedagogy that enables social workers to engage in a reflective, analytical and theoretically informed praxis. The move towards the teaching of intervention skills—favoured by many of the fast-track programmes—is to be welcomed in terms of enhancing readiness for direct practice. To produce educated professionals as opposed to skilled technicians, however, such teaching needs to be anchored within a knowledge-rich curriculum. A contemporary challenge here is that such integration may need to happen in a condensed space of time, as the move towards fast-track education is set to gain traction. As a profession, we need to develop fresh thinking about how we seek to educate child and family social workers in a way which contributes to developing a broader and simultaneously more nuanced understanding of family life—whilst travelling in the fast lane. There is a pressing need to think carefully about the content and process of our teaching and how we can best help students to tessellate their understandings and make essential connections across disciplinary knowledge in an informed, timely and critical manner. The rise of the fast track presents us with challenges, but it also enables us to look afresh at the pedagogy of social work education and to seek wider bridges to make interconnections across our knowledge bases. In social work education, we seek to promote reflexivity and critical awareness alongside the ability to intellectually interrogate self, society and others as a key underpinning to professional social work practice (Fook, 2002; Healy, 2005). Such critical outward-looking process and inwardly oriented learning appear more necessary than ever at this point in our history. Higgins (2014) argues that this may be the key to challenging narrow conceptions of practice and ultimately regaining the soul of social work. A case study from social work education If we move further down the fast-track route to qualification, simply doing what we did before—but quicker—is not a feasible option for social work education. A key contemporary challenge is how to develop deep and rich learning experiences which enable students to draw upon a broad academic and practice base, and simultaneously connect and interrogate knowledge from different disciplines. In our fast-track world, knowledge may be difficult to artificially separate into discrete modular-sized learning packages and we may need to reconsider pedagogically how to facilitate students making interconnections across disciplines and develop a holistic appreciation of knowledge for practice. Developing holistically focused curricula alongside a more integrated programme assessment scheme may work to promote this. We might contemplate whether we should focus more on assessing programme rather than modular-based learning outcomes (Price et al., 2012) and consider how our pedagogic frameworks can encourage a fresh integrated approach to what we teach and how we assess learning. As a contribution to this debate, this paper presents a case-study example of how structured family observations can be utilised in teaching and assessment to consider some of the multi-layered processes and integrate differing disciplinary contributions underpinning contemporary child and family social work. The argument here is that seeking out disciplinary integrated pedagogic approaches may provide opportunities for student learning which retain a focus on the complexity of practice and integrate theoretical knowledge as well as skills—within a shorter time span. For many years, the author facilitated an integrated life course development module for postgraduate social work students where students undertook three hour-long family observations. The module explicitly integrated sociological and psychological teaching within a process-rich reflective assessment. Family observations can be used to encourage the development of an observational stance and emotional self-awareness—paying attention to reactions and feelings in the observer role. Observations can also be used as a vehicle for learning about psychological and sociological theories and applying these understandings to families. Assessments can be devised which focus on reflections and learning about the process of observing alongside demonstrating knowledge of key psychological theories and key sociological concepts and reflecting on how such ideas can illuminate observational experiences and develop practice. Furthermore, observing families rather than focusing on individual child observations can promote an understanding of the essential interactive and dynamic nature of family systems. Great attention can be given to the need to ‘hold the child in mind’, but children can be seen in a broader context where an understanding of relational identities (Featherstone et al., 2014b) is promoted. Whilst one example is clearly not the answer to all contemporary pedagogic challenges, we currently feel it offers a suggestion about how theoretical integration might be taught—and learnt—and how assessment of theoretical knowledge can be integrated with reflexive processes and professional self-development. The underpinning pedagogic rationale for this integrative approach is outlined below, as the argument being developed is that such an approach to teaching can be a way of integrating theoretical and process knowledge in a fast-track context. The intertwining of disciplinary and process teaching can be achieved in a timely manner without compromising on the breadth and depth of learning. Observation as a learning tool The role of observation in developing professional practice is often anchored in psychological—frequently psychoanalytic—frameworks, given the rich heritage of work in this area. Child observations acts as a vehicle for assessing understanding of child development and utilising theorists such as Piaget (1957), Vygotsky (1978) and Erikson (1950) to assess the differing stages and developmental crises being navigated. Theories related to the emotional context of child development are often drawn upon too—most notably Bowlby’s (1969) work on attachment and Bion’s (1962) work on containment. Such observational experiences provide opportunities to apply knowledge about human development and appreciate life course stages and normative—and non-normative—developmental milestones and expectations. Psychological theories around emotional and cognitive development can be applied and their contributions critiqued and reflected upon in this process. The in situ application of psychological knowledge has an authentic relationship to practice, as knowledge utilised directly in family assessments can be applied and critiqued. The universality of the theories utilised can be explored and their applicability across cultures, social classes and to different types of family structure can be debated. Undertaking observations facilitates opportunities for a further layer of process-focused learning. Observations can have multi-layered learning purposes where observers learn about the observed—and apply and critique theoretical knowledge—and learn simultaneously about themselves as observers, alongside having the opportunity to interrogate the observation process itself. Ruch argues that the observer’s capacity to be reflective is integral to the observation process and the ability to hold onto ‘not knowing’ and to tolerate uncertainty are key to developing sensitive and complex practice and developing the capacity to ‘hold the child in mind’ (2007, p. 181). The ability to retain an open mind and avoid confirmation bias in assessments chimes with the messages from Laming (2003) and Munro (2008) in relation to practising from a position of ‘respectful uncertainty’. There is a breadth of work in this area which pays testimony to the richness of learning which is opened up by the observation process, as exemplified in the work of Le Riche and Tanner (1998) and Briggs (1992). Contemporary explorations of observational learning also argue strongly for the depth of emotional and theoretical learning that can be facilitated via a process-sensitive and academically rich approach to observational learning (Hingley-Jones et al., 2017). Although, traditionally, social work practice has drawn upon psychological theories to help illuminate learning from observations, it is possible to broaden our theoretical lens and incorporate concepts emanating from sociological understandings. Drawing upon sociological ideas to complement the more traditional psychological theories associated with observational learning has the potential to contribute a ‘both/and’—rather than an ‘either/or’—to our practice understandings. This also provides an opportunity to integrate academic and practice knowledge in a shortened curriculum. Seeing sociologically Combining sociological thinking in the observational process allows us to widen our lens to a panoramic setting and reflect on the foreground and background context of practice (Cartney, 2017). Students can be introduced to some of the ‘background scenery’ underpinning the observation process. For example, Foucault’s work on ‘the gaze’ and his analysis of how the panopticon is used to order and control behaviour in prisons via constant observation sensitises us to the power of professional observation and the links between knowledge, control and power (Foucault, 1977). Explorations of the professional authority conveyed by ‘the gaze’ can be used to reflect more deeply on the taken-for-granted aspects of home visits and the power invested in one who observes in this context. Using a sociological lens focuses attention upon who is included and excluded in definitions of ‘household’ and ‘family’, and considers the physical and emotional boundaries surrounding families, challenging some of our definitions of ‘family relationships’. The importance of community networks offering opportunities for safe haven and operating as sites of socialisation—roles normally assigned to family spaces—within the LGBT community are acknowledged (Harper and Schneider, 2003). Deconstructing what ‘family’ is—and might be—opens up opportunities for reflexive debate. Social work interventions lay claim to the boundaries—and therefore in part the defining—of family structures. Exploring the primacy of biological kinship in defining families is of particular importance in social work because social work practice often involves ‘grappling with the prioritisation of blood and kin over non-standard bonds’ (Hicks, 2014, p. 199). Exploring differences in family-based lifestyles and boundaries around inclusion and exclusion adds richness and depth to observational learning and encourages thoughtful processed practice. At its core, sociological thinking facilitates reflection on the role of agency and structure and their interconnections. Exploring the interaction between social structure and self/family moves us into the territory of micro-sociology where the observation of everyday interactions is often used as a tool to understand social processes. Observations can be used to encourage the deconstruction of relationships and the reframing of family as an adjective rather than a verb—something members of a family do rather than something they are (Morgan, 1996). Macro-sociological concepts such as gender, social class, culture and ethnicity can be interrogated in this manner when observers explore how they are enacted in behaviour—how is gender performed in the family setting, for example? Exploring family behaviours from such perspectives enables reflection on how external forces impact on performativity in private spaces. Engaging with a more fluid understanding about the role of internal and external factors influencing behaviour has the potential to lead to more sensitive, informed practice where monolithic accounts of ‘types’ of family are challenged and an understanding of how different family relationships and forms are navigated individually and collectively is promoted. Contributions from pedagogic research To explore the impact of this pedagogic process, the author researched students’ experiences of studying on the integrated life course module over a three-year period utilising a mixed-methodology approach drawing upon three different methods of data collection. Data were drawn from two student focus groups: assessed module assignments and student module evaluations. Ethical approval was obtained for this study and all participants signed consent forms. The findings were categorised into key themes using thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006). Whilst detailed findings from this research cannot be presented here, it is helpful to note three key themes emanating from this research in order to highlight the potential of this integrative pedagogic strategy. Theme one: observational space One theme emerging across the data-sets was the value students experienced from having reflective observational space. Many student comments related to the importance of being able to stand back and fully consider both the context and the detail of the scene. Students spoke about observation being ‘an art’ which provided the opportunity to mine many layers of interaction which they often found difficult in the ‘constant bombardment of practice’. Students spoke about the freedom to become absorbed in the moment and ‘really look’. Most appreciated engaging with a holistic experience and the way they were able to become immersed and ‘really get that sense of the whole’. Theme two: enhanced emotional engagement A second key theme emerging from the research related to the emotional understandings that students engaged with. Not taking notes and being preoccupied with questioning enabled students to develop a closer emotional engagement with their experience. Detail from the student portfolio assessments revealed sensitivity to process and complexity. In line with other research findings (e.g. Youell, 1999), students were sensitised to their feelings of discomfort arising from not being in their professional role and how difficult it was for many to tolerate not moving to intervention. Students deconstructed their practice in a deeper way; for example, many displayed increased sensitivity to the anxiety experienced by people who are being observed and acknowledged a heightened appreciation of the privacy of home space and family life. The observational space also enabled students to reflect on their own emotions and how interpretations of what they saw were impacted upon by their own biographies. Theme three: disciplinary richness A third key theme that emerged from the research was that students appreciated the richness presented by the integration of different disciplinary perspectives in their learning. Psychological theories were used to critique sociological understandings and vice versa. Many students commented on the links between understanding subjectivity and how we observe with our own internal lens and positioned this with an understanding of sociological thinking relating to individual social structural positions and experience of social groupings. Individual subjectivity in this context included appreciating the lenses we wear have both personal and social dimensions. How—and why—we are as we are is the result of many layered experiences at a personal and structural level. Students commented on the interconnections between these processes and how this reflexive position had enabled them to consider more fully the context of the families they worked with in practice. Students often critiqued the lack of appreciation of family diversity and drew upon an intertwining of psychological and sociological knowledge as a way of seeking to more fully engage with the lived complexity of family life that moved beyond monolithic categorisations. Limitations The research presented here is a small-scale study with limited claims to generalisability. Further limitations of this research are, first, the results of the completed questionnaires were brief in many instances and, second, the views of the self-selected focus groups may not have been representative of the student cohorts overall. Students who had a particular interest in the module, for example, may have chosen to participate. Third, whilst the module assignments presented rich data, they were written for a different purpose and no further interrogation of meaning was possible. Contribution to new thinking The case study is presented as a contribution to the current debate regarding conceptualisations of practice and the content of social work education in England, particularly in a fast-track context in child and family social work. The ‘fresh thinking’ suggested is to encourage movement from adopting a binary position in relation to fast-track (narrow, lacks theory) versus traditional teaching (broader, theoretically rich). This is more likely to be achieved in pre-qualifying social work education if we consider developing a range of alternative integrative pedagogic approaches which are academically rigorous and lend themselves to condensed delivery times as disciplinary knowledge is co-taught and assessment integrated. The case study presented appears to have perceived value in this context and is offered as one example that can be explored and built upon further in other contexts. Conclusion This paper began by exploring the dynamics and implications arising from the bifurcation and contradictory dual functions inherent in the social work role. The topography of the current landscape was then examined to highlight how this discourse is currently impacting on contemporary conceptualisations of practice and how this intersects with the ‘narrow’ and ‘broad’ versions of praxis currently co-existing. As a response to the current reductive versions of practice being promoted in government policies, it is suggested that, as a profession, we need to respond pro-actively to current changes in social work education. Fast-track programmes for child and family social work are clearly the government’s preferred direction of travel. It is argued that social work education needs to deconstruct axiomatic arguments connecting fast-track programmes to narrow, atheoretical, overly skills-based approaches to practice. A key contemporary challenge is how to move away from fixed either/or conceptions of practice and education and to seek a fluidity in our pedagogic responses. As a profession, the challenge ahead is to engage with holistic, theoretically informed and process-sensitive curricula where disciplinary interconnections are facilitated. It is possible to have academic embedded, reflexive learning in a condensed curriculum but the integrated nature of learning and assessment needs to be foregrounded and promoted. The option to remain still is not open to us—this is a challenge we need to meet if we are to educate social workers appropriately in the twenty-first century. References Bion W. ( 1962) Learning from Experience , London, Heinemann. Bowlby J. ( 1969) Attachment, Attachment and Loss , Vol. 1, New York, Basic Books. Braun V., Clarke V. ( 2006) ‘ Using thematic analysis in psychology’, Qualitative Research in Psychology , 3( 2), pp. 77– 101. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Briggs S. ( 1992) ‘ Child observation and social work training’, Journal of Social Work Practice , 6( 1), pp. 49– 61. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Cartney P. ( 2013) ‘Researching pedagogy in a contested space’, British Journal of Social Work , 43( 3), pp. 446– 66. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Cartney P. ( 2017) ‘The sociological turn: Observations on a broader canvas’, in Hingley-Jones H., Parkinson C., Allain L. (eds), Observations in Health and Social Care: Applications for Learning, Research and Practice with Children and Adults , London, Jessica Kingsley. Croisdale-Appleby D. ( 2014) Re-Visioning Social Work Education: An Independent Review , London, Department of Health. Department for Education ( 2003) Every Child Matters, available online at https://www.education.gov.uk/consultations/downloadableDocs/EveryChildMatters.pdf (accessed 15 September 2017). Dickens J. ( 2011) ‘ Social work in England at a watershed—as always: From the Seebohm Report to the Social Work Task Force’, British Journal of Social Work , 41( 1), pp. 22– 39. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   European Association of Schools of Social Work ( 2014) ‘Statement regarding the development of “Frontline” graduate social work in the UK’, available online at http://www.eassw.org/news/article-104/en/statement-regarding-the-development-of-%C3%A2%EF%BF%BD%EF%BF%BDfrontline-graduate-social-work-course-in-the-uk.html (accessed 13 November 2016). Erikson E. ( 1950) Childhood and society , New York, Norton. Featherstone B., Morris K., White S. ( 2014a) ‘A marriage made in hell: Early intervention meets child protection’, British Journal of Social Work , 44( 7), pp. 1735– 49. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Featherstone B., White S., Morris K. ( 2014b) Re-Imagining Child Protection: Towards Humane Social Work with Families , Bristol, Policy Press. Ferguson H. ( 2011) Child Protection Practice , Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Fook J. ( 2002) Social Work: Critical Theory and Practice , London, Sage. Foucault M. ( 1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison , New York, Pantheon. Hackett S., Smith R., Stepanova E., Venn L., Carpenter J., Patsios D. ( 2015) ‘Step up to social work longitudinal evaluation: Initial findings’, available online at https://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/sass/research/SUSWInitialfindings21Mar2016.pdf (accessed 15 September 2017). Harper G. W., Schneider M. ( 2003) ‘ Oppression and discrimination among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and communities: A challenge for community psychology’, American Journal of Community Psychology , 31( 3/4), pp. 243– 52. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS PubMed  Healy K. ( 2005) Social Work Theories in Context: Creating Frameworks for Practice , Basingstoke, Palgrave. Hicks S. ( 2014) ‘Deconstructing the family’, in Cocker C., Hafford-Letchfield T. (eds), Rethinking Anti-Discriminatory and Anti-Oppressive Theories for Social Work Practice , Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan. Higgins M. ( 2014) ‘ The struggle for the soul of social work in England’, Social Work Education , 34( 1), pp. 4– 16. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Higgins M., Popple K., Crichton N. ( 2016) ‘ The dilemmas of contemporary social work: A case study of the Social Work Degree in England’, British Journal of Social Work , 46, pp. 619– 34. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Hingley-Jones H., Parkinson P., Allain L. ( 2017) Observation in Health and Social Care: Applications for Learning, Research and Practice with Children and Adults , London, Jessica Kingsley. House of Commons Education Committee ( 2016) Social Work Reform, Third Report of Session 2016–12, published on 13 July by authority of the House of Commons. Jones R. ( 2014) ‘ The best of times, the worst of times: Social work and its moment’, British Journal of Social Work , 44( 3), pp. 485– 502. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Laming L. ( 2003) The Victoria Climbié Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry by Lord Laming , Cm 5730, London, TSO. Le Riche P., Tanner K. ( 1998) Observation and Its Application to Social Work: Rather Like Breathing , London, Jessica Kingsley. Maxwell N., Scourfiled J., Le Zhang M., de Villiers T., Hadfiled M., Kinnersley P., Metcalf L., Pithouse A., Tayyaba S. ( 2016) Independent Evaluation of the Frontline Pilot: A Research Report, Cardiff, Cardiff University. McGregor C. ( 2015) ‘ History as a resource for the future: A response to ‘Best of times, worst of times’’, British Journal of Social Work , 45( 5), 1630– 44. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Morgan D. H. J. ( 1996) Family Connections: An Introduction to Family Studies , Cambridge, Polity Press. Munro E. ( 2008) ‘Improving reasoning in supervision’, Social Work Now , 40(August), p. 6. Narey M. ( 2014) Making the Education of Social Workers Consistently Effective, available online at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/287756/Making_the_education_of_social_workers_consistently_effective.pdf (accessed 15 September 2017). Parton N. ( 1985) The Politics of Child Abuse , Basingstoke, Macmillan. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Parton N. ( 2014) The Politics of Child Protection , Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Piaget J. ( 1957) Construction of reality in the child , London, Routledge & Kegan Paul. Price M., Rust C., O’Donovan B., Handley K., Bryant R. ( 2012) Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning , Oxford, Oxford Brookes University. Ruch G. ( 2007) ‘“ Knowing”, mirroring and containing: Experiences of facilitating child observation seminars on a Post-Qualification Child Care programme’, Social Work Education , 26( 2), pp. 169– 84. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Singh G., Cowden S. ( 2009) ‘ The social worker as intellectual’, European Journal of Social Work , 12( 4), pp. 479– 93. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Smith R., McLenachan J., Venn L., Weich H., Denis A. ( 2013) Step Up to Social Work Programme Evaluation 2012: The Regional Partnerships and Employers Perspectives, Department for Education, available online at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/563268/Step_up_to_Social_Work_Programme_Evaluation_2012.pdf (accessed 15 September 2017). Spolander G., Engelbrecht L., Pullen Sansfacon A. ( 2016) ‘ Social work and macro-economic neoliberalism: Beyond the social justice rhetoric’, European Journal of Social Work , 19( 5), pp. 634– 49. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   Vygotsky L. ( 1978) Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes , Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press. Youell B. ( 1999) ‘ From observation to working with a child’, International Journal of Infant Observations and Its Application , 2( 2), pp. 78– 90. Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS   © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The British Journal of Social Work Oxford University Press

Developing Rich Pedagogies for Fast-Track Social Work Education

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Oxford University Press
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© The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.
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0045-3102
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1468-263X
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10.1093/bjsw/bcx110
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Abstract

Abstract This paper primarily explores current contradictions within social work practice and education in the context of contemporary English-based developments. How we define the boundaries around our profession—whether broad or narrow, theoretically limited or rich—fundamentally impacts on the role we perform in society and how we educate new social workers. The recent emergence of fast-track pre-qualifying social work programmes in England has raised concern that we may be moving to an overly narrow conception of praxis which may militate against a theoretically integrated generic approach. The top-down government reforms we are currently experiencing has a particular narrative around how social workers should be educated. The educational ‘fresh thinking’ currently required is to develop pedagogic frameworks with the potential to produce holistic, theoretically informed and process-sensitive curricula where interconnections across disciplines are foregrounded and reflexive practice is promoted within a condensed time frame. As a contribution to this debate, a case-study example drawing upon structured family observations is offered as a vehicle to illustrate how alternative pedagogic approaches can potentially contribute to a broader and more nuanced understanding of contemporary family life with particular resonance for fast-track education programmes. Social work education, integrated curricula, fast-track pedagogies, family observations Background narrative of practice Social work sits in an uncomfortable socio-political space. The range of bifurcation inherent in the contradictory dual functions of the role results in social work struggling to find its own place and identity (Jones, 2014). Dickens (2011) argues that there will always be challenges for a profession that engages in balancing care and control, empowerment and protection, support and surveillance, and faces the tensions of working for change both in individuals and simultaneously in society. As a profession, social work has to negotiate a broad range of contradictory roles and tasks in its daily practice. McGregor acknowledges that such a dichotomy is not fixed, but ‘plays out in different directions and to greater or lesser degrees depending on context, space and place’ (2015, p. 1637). The fluidity of these contradictions is an important aspect in relation to analysing some of the complexity and context-specific aspects of practice. At different moments, the preventative role for social work may be stressed, such as following the publication of Every Child Matters (Department for Education, 2003). This was a government report focused on local multi-agency partnerships having a duty to promote key universal outcomes for all children in their geographic area. In the current political climate, casualty/crisis management aspects of social work present more highly in terms of government priorities and ‘safeguarding’ assumes a higher profile than preventative family service (Featherstone et al., 2014b). There is a permanent intertwining between the inherent contradictory pulls embedded in the duality of social work practice and the pushes from the external social context. This external context also has its own set of dynamic contradictions, focusing on what society wants or—or fears—from social workers. Social workers often deal with those who are troubled and those who are troubling in a society which does not always wish to recognise the existence of either group. Alongside this, our enduring professional commitment to pursuing social justice has at times led to our profession standing in stark contradiction to dominant political discourses, particularly in neo-liberal times. As a profession, we sometimes seek to ‘tell different stories’ (Featherstone et al., 2014a) and challenge mainstream discourse which ignores the patterning of social problems and the impact of structural inequalities. Dickens notes that ‘social work has always faced political ambivalence and always found it hard to maintain a place at the heart of government policy’ (2011, p. 32). These contradictions and ambivalences form a key aspect of the landscape of our professional history (Jones, 2014). An understanding of the nature of such complexity is an essential backdrop to thinking about child and family practice in the twenty-first century, as this is the milieu in which any fresh thinking takes place. In many ways, child and family social work has itself been a site of some of the key political tensions and government inquiry reports following child death tragedies have frequently led to major restructuring of both practice organisations and the delivery of social work education. Parton’s (1985) work in 1985 traced the impact of concerns about social work interventions in child abuse since the death of Maria Colwell in 1973, arguing this was a dominant theme shaping the development of social work policy and practice in relation to children and families. Ferguson (2011) argues that, although the 1989 Children Act enshrined the practice of working in partnership with families and envisaged care proceedings as being kept to a minimum, the impact of child deaths led to practice becoming dominated by child protection concerns. Many commentators have drawn attention to the changes in policy and practice resulting from the tragic death of baby Peter Connolly in England in 2008. Continuing the theme of contradictory influences on practice, Parton (2014) notes how, although child protection has been the area of practice that has produced the most high-profile and wide-ranging critiques of social work, this is the area that is continually reconfirmed as social work’s central responsibility in relation to children and families. Parton sees the pendulum of prevention/support versus child protection orientation as most decidedly swinging in the latter direction in recent times. It is against this overarching contradictory and contested backdrop that current child and family practice in the twenty-first century must be contextualised and fresh thinking developed and evaluated. Impact on conceptualisations of practice Having presented the background narrative of practice as a series of dynamic contradictions, it is pertinent to explore how this discourse is currently impacting on conceptualisations of social work—within both the practicum and the academy. In order to embrace fresh thinking about the future with confidence, the topography of the present needs to be interrogated to guide our thinking in terms of which future paths offer most—and least—potential. It has understandably been argued that ‘social work is always in uncertain times and the core debates and dilemmas come round again and again’ (Dickens, 2011, p. 23, emphasis in the original article). If the death of baby Peter Connolly in 2008, however, resulted in a dramatic increase in the politicisation of social work as Parton (2014) suggests, we may expect to have witnessed an increased period of intervention in the workings—and stated purpose—of social work within England. In terms of appreciating other major influences operating simultaneously, it is important to note that the crisis of confidence in child protection practice was also accompanied by the global economic crash of 2007–08 heralding a climate of financial retrenchment with the subsequent introduction of severe ‘austerity’ measures within the public services. As in previous economic recessions, social work practice was adversely affected by such financial retrenchment as resources tightened (Spolander et al., 2016). In this adverse political and economic context, recent commentators draw increasing attention to heightened politicisation processes, particularly in relation to the increasingly narrow conceptions of social work being promoted from a range of directions, including central government. Singh and Cowden argue that a ‘battle for the soul of social work’ (2009, p. 485) is being waged in relation to the role of theory and intellectualism within social work where social workers are being encouraged to become more ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical’. Singh and Cowden challenge this premise, seeing social work as connected to the struggle for human liberation—where thinking and doing are intrinsically connected—rather than practice existing as a series of un-theorised technical tasks. Higgins agrees that we are currently engaged in ‘a struggle for the soul of social work in England’ (2014, p. 4) where there is a tension between a narrow understanding of the nature of practice and a broader emancipatory conception. He argues that the limited model is currently providing a dominant paradigm which he fears may lead to the loss of more visionary and humane practice. In the field of child and family social work, Featherstone, Morris and White (2014a) argue passionately that government policy has led to restrictive, narrowly focused individualistic social work where the government is promoting the lessening of ‘risk’ as opposed to the meeting of need. Adopting a broader vantage point, Higgins, Popple and Crichton argue that the current contradictions being highlighted in social work suggest that there is a ‘struggle for the profession’s identity, which encompasses qualifying education, social work practice and the very role of the profession in contemporary society’ (2016, p. 620). The authors explore proposed models of direct practice alongside changes in the delivery of social work education. The latter is often not explored fully in these debates, although its influence on future practice is considerable. Whether we adopt a narrow or broad version of social work is in many ways intertwined with what, where, when and how social workers are taught—as well as by whom. A tale of two reports Higgins, Popple and Crichton (2016) suggest that the publication of two reports on social work education—Narey (2014) and Croisdale-Appleby (2014)—represent different competing paradigms in relation to social work in England. Narey’s interpretation of social work is that child protection and safeguarding are the major priorities of work in mainstream children and families agencies. Narey’s support for increased specialism underlies his assumption that there is no longer a single social work profession in England—child and family and adult social work is intellectually and practically separated. It is argued that Narey’s overall assumptions lead to a narrow interpretation of the role of a social worker which could impact restrictively on the curricula and purpose of social work education. Following the publication of Narey’s report, central government in England supported the introduction of the Frontline model which introduced a shortened—fast-track—programme with a duration of thirteen months rather than the traditional two-year MA qualifying programmes. The programme focuses on recruiting high-achieving graduates and is focused predominantly on developing statutory children and family social work rather than offering a more overtly generic curriculum. The programme is predominantly workplace-based. Higgins, Popple and Crichton present Frontline as a ‘material product of Narey’s paradigm of social work’ (2016, p. 623). They note that, in practice, a key focus of the programme is agency-based child protection work with a restricted theoretical framework and limited educational input. In this context, it is pertinent to note that the decision of Frontline to withdraw from collaborating with universities is noted as ‘concerning’ by the House of Commons Education Committee (2016). Higgins, Popple and Crichton (2016) suggest that the emergence of Think Ahead, a new fast-track programme in mental health, may indicate that the Frontline model is set to become the new template for social work education and what they regard as Narey’s narrower focus may be set to become more dominant. Internationally, moves towards fast-track degrees have gained traction in recent years but, apart from Canada, a similar interest in fast tracking social work education does not appear to be widely replicated to date. The European Association of Schools of Social Work, for example, issued a statement expressing concern that Frontline in England could potentially undermine the complex character of social work and reduce education to a narrow, technical activity. They warned that this could lead to the isolation of English and Welsh social work, as ‘the structure and content proposed by “Frontline” is in direct opposition to the Bologna Agreement which ensures comparability in the students and quality of higher education in Europe’ (European Association of Schools of Social Work, 2014). Within the UK, the social work regulators in Scotland and Northern Ireland now do not recognise Frontline as a fully generic qualification for social work due to its restricted focus on child and family work. This is in direct opposition to the HCPC—the regulator in England—who have recognised this qualification. In this context, Narey’s vision of social work is associated with the emergence of specialised, fast-track social work education programmes. In contrast to Narey’s legacy, Higgins, Popple and Cricton present Croisdale, Appleby’s alternative 2014 report, as possessing a broader vision which presents social workers as ‘social scientists’—giving intellectual rigour to the breath of the social work task. They see this report as having contrasting principles to Narey’s. Social work is acknowledged as a unified, generic, international profession operating in a global context with a commitment to promoting human rights and social justice. The social work role is depicted as being broader than protection, whose remit encompasses the empowerment of service users, reflective practice and theoretical social science knowledge being utilised to promote change. This interpretation of what social work is and what its reach should be has very different implications for the education of social work students. If we fully adopt this reading of current influences on social work education, however, we may be in danger of accepting another binary position where Narey’s report is regarded in a totally negative positioning and Croisdale-Appleby’s report is presented as a polar positive opposite. Reframing this premise, it could be argued that Narey was tasked to explore how to respond to increasing demand on practice in a time of shrinking resources and his focus was rather more expedient in intent. Although he concluded with a narrow interpretation of social work, he initially came from a different starting point which may have led to contextually reactive proposals. Presenting direct connections between the narrowness of Narey’s resulting vision to the lack of theorising and excessive skills-based preoccupations cited in relation to some of the new fast-track social work education assumes axiomatic connections across these processes that may not be correct. Narrow interpretations of social work are not automatically embraced by programmes with short delivery time spans, nor is it axiomatic that fast-track programmes develop predominantly skills-focused curricula. Co-existing with competing narratives There are currently competing conceptions of social work practice co-existing in the political arena but the trajectory about how these different visions impact on the education of social workers still retains fluidity. We hear competing narratives laying claim to different practices and conflicting purposes for social work education. Within higher education, however, narratives are rarely linear in their causation or trajectory and current portrayals may be overstating the binary nature of the situation. It may be more fruitful to look beyond a stark divide and seek to understand the current debate about the role of social work—and social work education—within the broader framework where contradictions and complexities co-exist in a dynamic interplay of fluctuating competing truths. Social work may be ‘limited’ or ‘broad’ in different contexts and subject to different influences. If we follow this line of argument, we can explore what factors may influence how practice is taught and where fluidity presents opportunities for reframing and fresh thinking. I have argued elsewhere that the potential for critical pedagogic inquiry is opened up in contested spaces where competing agenda meet in the same arena (Cartney, 2013). Social work is currently positioned in such a contested space and we can explore whether fresh pedagogic frameworks have the potential to generate alternative discourses and ways of seeing. Providing alternative theoretical—and experiential lenses—through which practice understandings and intervention processes can be reassessed may open up opportunities for different ways of perceiving the future. Praxis in the fast lane This paper has acknowledged the considerable disquiet in many sectors of the social work profession about whether recent government reforms of social work education are leading to an overly narrow praxis and that key components of professional knowledge are at risk of disappearing from the curricula. In relation to child and family social work in particular, a concern is that narrow interpretations of role may militate against an integrated understanding of a family approach to social work—with an appreciation of issues affecting both children and adults. The need for social workers to have a wider contextual understanding and to demonstrate ‘mastery of advanced sociological constructs’ (Croisdale-Appleby, 2014) is a simultaneous contributor to current debates about the breath—and narrowness—of social work curricula in relation to child and family social work. A pertinent issue is whether social work is simply about ‘know how’ (skills) or also about ‘know why’ (knowledge), and whether we are moving away from promoting in-depth understanding and towards employment-based skills teaching as the primary underpinning for qualifying education. Furthermore, the integration of our values base as a profession needs to be demonstrated in our skills—what we do—but emanate from our knowledge base—why we do what we do. As a profession, we are currently on uncertain ground where concerns are expressed about new fast-track programmes, as evidence about their impact is limited (House of Commons Select Committee, 2016). The initial evaluation of Step Up To Social Work (Smith et al., 2013)—the first local authority-based fourteen-month fast-track social work programme in England—expressed some reservations about the lack of breadth of knowledge taught and an authentic commitment to providing a generic curriculum given the time and explicit focus on children and families. This initial concern appears to be under-investigated at present, as the recent evaluation (Hackett et al., 2015) focused more on retention issues than broader considerations. The evaluation of the fast-track Frontline social work programme (Maxwell et al., 2016) noted criticisms that the teaching focused ‘on child protection to the detriment of gaining comprehensive knowledge of social work and issues faced by families’ (p. 18) but sadly did not explore this in relation to its findings. There were positive aspects of the evaluation; for example, Frontline trainees were rated more highly than the comparison group for the quality of their interviewing skills and written reflection. Other elements were more mixed; for example, whilst theory was noted as being ‘to the fore’, trainees sometimes struggled to apply theoretical ideas and ‘research evidence had a very low profile in the teaching’ (Maxwell et al., 2016, p. 55). A key opportunity missed here was the lack of evaluation about whether Frontline is preparing practitioners with a depth of broader social science-based knowledge and—if not—what the impact is on their understanding about their role and how they practise. This did not form part of the evaluation, although it was a key concern raised in relation to Frontline curricula. The announcement from the Secretary of State for Education that a further £100 million investment was to be channelled into the funding of fast-track programmes, including Frontline, prior to the publication of its evaluation suggests that fast-track programmes, however, are a current government priority that looks unlikely to pause for reflection. Analysing the arguments at play, however, although fast-track programmes are more likely to adopt a narrower view of practice because of their reduced time scales and their specialist—as opposed to generic—overarching focus, we earlier questioned whether this is always an inevitable consequence of this mode of delivery. Higgins argues that the problem with Frontline is ‘not necessarily its shortened structure or siting within an agency’, but rather its ‘limited or narrow conception of the role of contemporary social work in society’ (2014, p. 15). If we decouple the assumed link between fast-track and narrow/limited, then we begin to open up a broader range of opportunities for our future direction of travel. A key argument being presented in this paper is that, to professionally educate social workers to undertake the complex roles of a child and family social worker, there is a need to adopt pedagogies with a broad, contextually informed approach to child and family social work to grasp the interconnections existing at micro and macro levels. A social worker needs to understand the individuality of the child and the adults, but also their interconnections at a personal and structural level within society. In essence, this knowledge can be incorporated within fast-track and/or more traditional routes to social work education if students have an appreciation of the importance of social science contributions and their relationship to praxis. Although influential, the mode of delivery does not itself automatically dictate the breadth of the curriculum. Time per se does not necessarily direct the orientation of teaching. It is possible to develop an academically embedded programme within a shortened time span. Furthermore, time does not direct focus and restructuring to a more condensed teaching time does not axiomatically assume an overreliance on skills teaching. If social workers are seeking to enhance our own professional contributions to understanding the complex needs of children and families, we would benefit from drawing upon the breadth of our integrated knowledge base as a strength—both adding depth and rigour to our practice approach and extending the reach of our theoretical lens. The breadth of service we deliver to children and families and our international position as a profession would benefit from this overt positioning. Embracing pedagogic breath An enduring challenge is how to provide a broad and theoretically sophisticated pedagogy that enables social workers to engage in a reflective, analytical and theoretically informed praxis. The move towards the teaching of intervention skills—favoured by many of the fast-track programmes—is to be welcomed in terms of enhancing readiness for direct practice. To produce educated professionals as opposed to skilled technicians, however, such teaching needs to be anchored within a knowledge-rich curriculum. A contemporary challenge here is that such integration may need to happen in a condensed space of time, as the move towards fast-track education is set to gain traction. As a profession, we need to develop fresh thinking about how we seek to educate child and family social workers in a way which contributes to developing a broader and simultaneously more nuanced understanding of family life—whilst travelling in the fast lane. There is a pressing need to think carefully about the content and process of our teaching and how we can best help students to tessellate their understandings and make essential connections across disciplinary knowledge in an informed, timely and critical manner. The rise of the fast track presents us with challenges, but it also enables us to look afresh at the pedagogy of social work education and to seek wider bridges to make interconnections across our knowledge bases. In social work education, we seek to promote reflexivity and critical awareness alongside the ability to intellectually interrogate self, society and others as a key underpinning to professional social work practice (Fook, 2002; Healy, 2005). Such critical outward-looking process and inwardly oriented learning appear more necessary than ever at this point in our history. Higgins (2014) argues that this may be the key to challenging narrow conceptions of practice and ultimately regaining the soul of social work. A case study from social work education If we move further down the fast-track route to qualification, simply doing what we did before—but quicker—is not a feasible option for social work education. A key contemporary challenge is how to develop deep and rich learning experiences which enable students to draw upon a broad academic and practice base, and simultaneously connect and interrogate knowledge from different disciplines. In our fast-track world, knowledge may be difficult to artificially separate into discrete modular-sized learning packages and we may need to reconsider pedagogically how to facilitate students making interconnections across disciplines and develop a holistic appreciation of knowledge for practice. Developing holistically focused curricula alongside a more integrated programme assessment scheme may work to promote this. We might contemplate whether we should focus more on assessing programme rather than modular-based learning outcomes (Price et al., 2012) and consider how our pedagogic frameworks can encourage a fresh integrated approach to what we teach and how we assess learning. As a contribution to this debate, this paper presents a case-study example of how structured family observations can be utilised in teaching and assessment to consider some of the multi-layered processes and integrate differing disciplinary contributions underpinning contemporary child and family social work. The argument here is that seeking out disciplinary integrated pedagogic approaches may provide opportunities for student learning which retain a focus on the complexity of practice and integrate theoretical knowledge as well as skills—within a shorter time span. For many years, the author facilitated an integrated life course development module for postgraduate social work students where students undertook three hour-long family observations. The module explicitly integrated sociological and psychological teaching within a process-rich reflective assessment. Family observations can be used to encourage the development of an observational stance and emotional self-awareness—paying attention to reactions and feelings in the observer role. Observations can also be used as a vehicle for learning about psychological and sociological theories and applying these understandings to families. Assessments can be devised which focus on reflections and learning about the process of observing alongside demonstrating knowledge of key psychological theories and key sociological concepts and reflecting on how such ideas can illuminate observational experiences and develop practice. Furthermore, observing families rather than focusing on individual child observations can promote an understanding of the essential interactive and dynamic nature of family systems. Great attention can be given to the need to ‘hold the child in mind’, but children can be seen in a broader context where an understanding of relational identities (Featherstone et al., 2014b) is promoted. Whilst one example is clearly not the answer to all contemporary pedagogic challenges, we currently feel it offers a suggestion about how theoretical integration might be taught—and learnt—and how assessment of theoretical knowledge can be integrated with reflexive processes and professional self-development. The underpinning pedagogic rationale for this integrative approach is outlined below, as the argument being developed is that such an approach to teaching can be a way of integrating theoretical and process knowledge in a fast-track context. The intertwining of disciplinary and process teaching can be achieved in a timely manner without compromising on the breadth and depth of learning. Observation as a learning tool The role of observation in developing professional practice is often anchored in psychological—frequently psychoanalytic—frameworks, given the rich heritage of work in this area. Child observations acts as a vehicle for assessing understanding of child development and utilising theorists such as Piaget (1957), Vygotsky (1978) and Erikson (1950) to assess the differing stages and developmental crises being navigated. Theories related to the emotional context of child development are often drawn upon too—most notably Bowlby’s (1969) work on attachment and Bion’s (1962) work on containment. Such observational experiences provide opportunities to apply knowledge about human development and appreciate life course stages and normative—and non-normative—developmental milestones and expectations. Psychological theories around emotional and cognitive development can be applied and their contributions critiqued and reflected upon in this process. The in situ application of psychological knowledge has an authentic relationship to practice, as knowledge utilised directly in family assessments can be applied and critiqued. The universality of the theories utilised can be explored and their applicability across cultures, social classes and to different types of family structure can be debated. Undertaking observations facilitates opportunities for a further layer of process-focused learning. Observations can have multi-layered learning purposes where observers learn about the observed—and apply and critique theoretical knowledge—and learn simultaneously about themselves as observers, alongside having the opportunity to interrogate the observation process itself. Ruch argues that the observer’s capacity to be reflective is integral to the observation process and the ability to hold onto ‘not knowing’ and to tolerate uncertainty are key to developing sensitive and complex practice and developing the capacity to ‘hold the child in mind’ (2007, p. 181). The ability to retain an open mind and avoid confirmation bias in assessments chimes with the messages from Laming (2003) and Munro (2008) in relation to practising from a position of ‘respectful uncertainty’. There is a breadth of work in this area which pays testimony to the richness of learning which is opened up by the observation process, as exemplified in the work of Le Riche and Tanner (1998) and Briggs (1992). Contemporary explorations of observational learning also argue strongly for the depth of emotional and theoretical learning that can be facilitated via a process-sensitive and academically rich approach to observational learning (Hingley-Jones et al., 2017). Although, traditionally, social work practice has drawn upon psychological theories to help illuminate learning from observations, it is possible to broaden our theoretical lens and incorporate concepts emanating from sociological understandings. Drawing upon sociological ideas to complement the more traditional psychological theories associated with observational learning has the potential to contribute a ‘both/and’—rather than an ‘either/or’—to our practice understandings. This also provides an opportunity to integrate academic and practice knowledge in a shortened curriculum. Seeing sociologically Combining sociological thinking in the observational process allows us to widen our lens to a panoramic setting and reflect on the foreground and background context of practice (Cartney, 2017). Students can be introduced to some of the ‘background scenery’ underpinning the observation process. For example, Foucault’s work on ‘the gaze’ and his analysis of how the panopticon is used to order and control behaviour in prisons via constant observation sensitises us to the power of professional observation and the links between knowledge, control and power (Foucault, 1977). Explorations of the professional authority conveyed by ‘the gaze’ can be used to reflect more deeply on the taken-for-granted aspects of home visits and the power invested in one who observes in this context. Using a sociological lens focuses attention upon who is included and excluded in definitions of ‘household’ and ‘family’, and considers the physical and emotional boundaries surrounding families, challenging some of our definitions of ‘family relationships’. The importance of community networks offering opportunities for safe haven and operating as sites of socialisation—roles normally assigned to family spaces—within the LGBT community are acknowledged (Harper and Schneider, 2003). Deconstructing what ‘family’ is—and might be—opens up opportunities for reflexive debate. Social work interventions lay claim to the boundaries—and therefore in part the defining—of family structures. Exploring the primacy of biological kinship in defining families is of particular importance in social work because social work practice often involves ‘grappling with the prioritisation of blood and kin over non-standard bonds’ (Hicks, 2014, p. 199). Exploring differences in family-based lifestyles and boundaries around inclusion and exclusion adds richness and depth to observational learning and encourages thoughtful processed practice. At its core, sociological thinking facilitates reflection on the role of agency and structure and their interconnections. Exploring the interaction between social structure and self/family moves us into the territory of micro-sociology where the observation of everyday interactions is often used as a tool to understand social processes. Observations can be used to encourage the deconstruction of relationships and the reframing of family as an adjective rather than a verb—something members of a family do rather than something they are (Morgan, 1996). Macro-sociological concepts such as gender, social class, culture and ethnicity can be interrogated in this manner when observers explore how they are enacted in behaviour—how is gender performed in the family setting, for example? Exploring family behaviours from such perspectives enables reflection on how external forces impact on performativity in private spaces. Engaging with a more fluid understanding about the role of internal and external factors influencing behaviour has the potential to lead to more sensitive, informed practice where monolithic accounts of ‘types’ of family are challenged and an understanding of how different family relationships and forms are navigated individually and collectively is promoted. Contributions from pedagogic research To explore the impact of this pedagogic process, the author researched students’ experiences of studying on the integrated life course module over a three-year period utilising a mixed-methodology approach drawing upon three different methods of data collection. Data were drawn from two student focus groups: assessed module assignments and student module evaluations. Ethical approval was obtained for this study and all participants signed consent forms. The findings were categorised into key themes using thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006). Whilst detailed findings from this research cannot be presented here, it is helpful to note three key themes emanating from this research in order to highlight the potential of this integrative pedagogic strategy. Theme one: observational space One theme emerging across the data-sets was the value students experienced from having reflective observational space. Many student comments related to the importance of being able to stand back and fully consider both the context and the detail of the scene. Students spoke about observation being ‘an art’ which provided the opportunity to mine many layers of interaction which they often found difficult in the ‘constant bombardment of practice’. Students spoke about the freedom to become absorbed in the moment and ‘really look’. Most appreciated engaging with a holistic experience and the way they were able to become immersed and ‘really get that sense of the whole’. Theme two: enhanced emotional engagement A second key theme emerging from the research related to the emotional understandings that students engaged with. Not taking notes and being preoccupied with questioning enabled students to develop a closer emotional engagement with their experience. Detail from the student portfolio assessments revealed sensitivity to process and complexity. In line with other research findings (e.g. Youell, 1999), students were sensitised to their feelings of discomfort arising from not being in their professional role and how difficult it was for many to tolerate not moving to intervention. Students deconstructed their practice in a deeper way; for example, many displayed increased sensitivity to the anxiety experienced by people who are being observed and acknowledged a heightened appreciation of the privacy of home space and family life. The observational space also enabled students to reflect on their own emotions and how interpretations of what they saw were impacted upon by their own biographies. Theme three: disciplinary richness A third key theme that emerged from the research was that students appreciated the richness presented by the integration of different disciplinary perspectives in their learning. Psychological theories were used to critique sociological understandings and vice versa. Many students commented on the links between understanding subjectivity and how we observe with our own internal lens and positioned this with an understanding of sociological thinking relating to individual social structural positions and experience of social groupings. Individual subjectivity in this context included appreciating the lenses we wear have both personal and social dimensions. How—and why—we are as we are is the result of many layered experiences at a personal and structural level. Students commented on the interconnections between these processes and how this reflexive position had enabled them to consider more fully the context of the families they worked with in practice. Students often critiqued the lack of appreciation of family diversity and drew upon an intertwining of psychological and sociological knowledge as a way of seeking to more fully engage with the lived complexity of family life that moved beyond monolithic categorisations. Limitations The research presented here is a small-scale study with limited claims to generalisability. Further limitations of this research are, first, the results of the completed questionnaires were brief in many instances and, second, the views of the self-selected focus groups may not have been representative of the student cohorts overall. Students who had a particular interest in the module, for example, may have chosen to participate. Third, whilst the module assignments presented rich data, they were written for a different purpose and no further interrogation of meaning was possible. Contribution to new thinking The case study is presented as a contribution to the current debate regarding conceptualisations of practice and the content of social work education in England, particularly in a fast-track context in child and family social work. The ‘fresh thinking’ suggested is to encourage movement from adopting a binary position in relation to fast-track (narrow, lacks theory) versus traditional teaching (broader, theoretically rich). This is more likely to be achieved in pre-qualifying social work education if we consider developing a range of alternative integrative pedagogic approaches which are academically rigorous and lend themselves to condensed delivery times as disciplinary knowledge is co-taught and assessment integrated. The case study presented appears to have perceived value in this context and is offered as one example that can be explored and built upon further in other contexts. Conclusion This paper began by exploring the dynamics and implications arising from the bifurcation and contradictory dual functions inherent in the social work role. The topography of the current landscape was then examined to highlight how this discourse is currently impacting on contemporary conceptualisations of practice and how this intersects with the ‘narrow’ and ‘broad’ versions of praxis currently co-existing. As a response to the current reductive versions of practice being promoted in government policies, it is suggested that, as a profession, we need to respond pro-actively to current changes in social work education. Fast-track programmes for child and family social work are clearly the government’s preferred direction of travel. It is argued that social work education needs to deconstruct axiomatic arguments connecting fast-track programmes to narrow, atheoretical, overly skills-based approaches to practice. A key contemporary challenge is how to move away from fixed either/or conceptions of practice and education and to seek a fluidity in our pedagogic responses. 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The British Journal of Social WorkOxford University Press

Published: Oct 16, 2017

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