Grappling with the implications of The Promise for teaching social work in Scotland

29 June 2022

Topic: Active implementation, Corporate parenting, Local authority
Author: Autumn Roesch-Marsh, Ruth Emond, Helen Whincup

Dr Autumn Roesch-Marsh, senior lecturer in Social Work, University of Edinburgh, Professor Ruth Emond, professor of Social Work, University of Stirling, and Dr Helen Whincup, lecturer in Social Work, University of Edinburgh and The Promise Oversight Board member, draw on their experiences in teaching Social Work students to consider how The Promise should be incorporated into courses to ensure that new social work practitioners are equipped with the knowledge and skills to understand and support the changes The Promise calls for.

When reading The Promise, do not look for the place, role and purpose of the current features of the ‘care system.’ Whilst certain aspects of the current structures are referenced, The Promise sets out an overall view of what the new approach should be. Nor should you look for where to lay blame for what has gone before, you will not find it in these pages. Instead, please look for what you can do to support the change for Scotland’s children and families. (The Promise, pg. 6)

On the 23 May a group of twelve academics from universities across Scotland came together at the University of Stirling to discuss The Promise, the central output from the Independent Care Review in Scotland, which was published in February 2020. We were prompted to hold this event as we felt there had not yet been an opportunity for the Higher Education sector to grapple collectively with our role in delivering the kind of change called for in The Promise.

In our discussion we acknowledged the range of roles the Higher Education sector might have in delivering The Promise including: corporate parenting, learning and teaching, and research. For this first event, we decided to focus our discussions around teaching, including pre and post qualifying programmes. Across the programmes represented on the day there were staff involved with BSc and MSc Social Work and MSW programmes, as well as a range of post qualifying programmes including Child Protection, Mental Health and Residential Childcare. The assembled group brought with them a wealth of practice, teaching and research experience around a range of themes relevant to The Promise. Our purpose on this first day together was to begin a collective conversation about the role of social work educators in the process of change that will be necessary to deliver The Promise in Scotland. This blog post aims to capture some of the themes that arose.

We began by reflecting on our own engagement with the process of the Independent Care Review. It felt essential to acknowledge and consider this as an important starting point, not least as how students, practitioners and educators engage with The Promise will be influenced by what they bring in relation to the process of the review. We then considered how we had engaged with The Promise since its publication. Although we were all very familiar with it and had introduced teaching relating to it on our programmes and referenced where the fundamental themes embedded in The Promise already appeared, we felt it was important to acknowledge what a demanding time it has been because of the pandemic, with increased workloads across Higher Education. We were also aware of the many ways social work education and social work practice has been changed by the pandemic; we recognised that these changes have implications for the implementation of The Promise. For example, the moves to more online teaching and home working have brought new challenges in terms of teaching the skills and relationship-based approaches that are repeatedly called for in The Promise.

We focused the discussion that followed around the five foundations of The Promise: Voice, Family, Care, People, and Scaffolding. We discussed each of these in terms of the Knowledge, Skills and Values that would be necessary for each, this included talking about the contribution of service users and carers within our teaching in these areas.

Not all of our reflections can be captured here; however, we would like to share a few threads that we hope to take up in future meetings, further writing and in our teaching. First, in our discussion on Voice we reflected on the wealth of research evidence and practice wisdom we were already drawing on in our teaching in this area and we felt very strongly that a critical understanding of voice should be woven through everything we teach. The concept of voice was debated and we acknowledged its complexity. Laura Lundy’s (2007) work on the interrelationships between voice, audience, space and influence was highlighted. We shared some examples of how we were teaching students to engage sensitively and meaningfully with children of all ages and the importance of relationships and feedback mechanisms within this. We highlighted the range of opportunities that students get to practice the skills of engagement and active listening both within the University and out on practice placements. We agreed that for our next meeting we would take a deeper look at the theme of Voice across our teaching, including some of the research that members of the group have done on this topic and how it can enhance teaching (see for example Bruce 2014; Roesch-Marsh et al. 2017; Whincup 2017).

On the theme of Care we discussed the importance of exploring with students the contexts which shape care and of asking the critical question: What is getting in the way for families? We also spoke about the immense value of having international social work students on our programmes as they bring different understandings of care that force us to question our ‘norms’ and think in different ways about what it means to care and how this should be done. Across all of our programmes, there were opportunities for small group learning and support for students to think, reflect and apply knowledge. We returned at several points to discussing the importance of grounding students in ideas about ‘use of self’ and the powerful impact we can have when we ask students to think very personally about the questions: How do we care? How are we cared for? There was also a recognition about the different ways to show care and the importance of assessment and report writing skills in this.

On the theme of People we considered in detail the value of theory and research in opening up conversations about the complexity of relationship-based practice in different contexts and the need to balance engagement with different ethical principles. Most of us were making use of an ecological approach in our teaching, informed by theorists like Bronfrenbrenner, to help students to understand the importance of a whole host of relationships and contexts in the lives of children and families. We were very positive about the emphasis in The Promise on supporting the workforce and taking care of the people that do the caring, whomever they are. However, we raised concerns about how this might be implemented in a time of ongoing austerity and staffing shortages. We discussed the challenges of providing social work practitioners with the support they need in their complex jobs and the danger that short-term wellbeing schemes might risk over simplifying this area. We discussed ways we might strengthen this aspect of our teaching and agreed to share some of the approaches under development at a future meeting.

On the theme of Family we spoke in detail about the challenge of balancing different imperatives within social work practice around risk and promoting continuity and connections with family. For us as a group of academics this was one of the most complex areas as we considered the need for a nuanced understanding of children’s needs, including instances where family members have different or conflicting needs.

The final theme was Scaffolding. We had some wide-ranging discussion about the challenges for system change and keeping the child at the centre, given the complexity of services and policy. We were aware of a range of policy developments underway around this theme and discussed ways we might critically engage students in the policy making process. As with the other themes, we felt it was crucial that students were supported to develop critical thinking skills to engage with The Promise on different levels. The Promise does not give answers to the issues that it raises so we need a workforce who can engage critically with research evidence, practice experience, and the voices of those with care experience, in order to work with others to improve and transform practice.

Given we are educating the next generation of practitioners and deliver a range of CPD and community and practice engagement, we all felt that it was imperative that Higher Education institutions take a leadership role as key change makers for practice. We will be meeting again at the University of Strathclyde in September 2022 and we hope to see even more of our Higher Education colleagues at this meeting. We will also be looking to support an event to engage Practice Educators to explore The Promise in relation to social work placements.

If you would like to attend our next event to be held in September at the University of Strathclyde please email Dr Laura Steckley:


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