23 September 2017

Closing the Gaps between Education and Practice: Creating Dialogue, Increasing Knowledge Transfer in Social Work Curricula

Last week a new law was passed in Greece that democratises and strengthens the quality and capacity of social work to meet people’s needs.  The law recognizes the role of the IFSW member, the Hellenic Association of Social Workers in facilitating the further development of the standards of the social work profession. This is unique and major achievement for the Greek profession and all the people and communities that need and use social work services.

Many other countries with professional regulation are forced into a context where an independent government regulator focuses, not on the development of the profession, but controlling the profession by using top-down standards. Such technocratic methods all too often stifle the profession and its need to grow in meeting new challenges in responding to the changing political and social context of our work. For example, forming partnerships across policy, practice and the people that use social work services, ensuring that all parts of the dynamic matrix are working with jointly agreed common objectives that best serve the aspirations of communities and society.

Developments in Greece were timely in that they were announced at the same time as IFSW launched an interim Education Commission. The concept of the Commission was born out of many discussions between social work educators and the national associations of social work in the attempt to find solutions to a historic separation of the global profession when both IFSW and the schools of social work morphed from being working groups in 1928 to become independent bodies.

The aim of the Education Commission is to create a structure for the transfer of knowledge between social work education and practice where both are informed and learning from one another. Moreover, the Commission intends to support social work programmes and educators when experiencing political or technocratic pressures to make “concessions” to the quality of education. The Commission will commence with an extensive consultation and a participatory process facilitating dialogue with social work educators, representatives of people the use social services, the national associations of social work, employers and relevant government bodies. The aim of the consultation would be to establish agreement on minimum standards of social work education that support the development and capacity of training programmes, to co-create participatory models of education which ensure that curricula are consistent with the profession’s global principles and definition.

This is not a simple discussion. With 126 IFSW national association members representing 3 million social workers and thousands of social work schools taking account of every view will be a complex task. Yet it is a discussion that the Federation feels necessary, which will result in an agreement on a structure where all parties are working together at the national level and in accordance with the global principles, values and ethics as articulated in the Global Definition of Social Work.

While this vision may take some time to achieve, it will, once established, address problems such as the high proportion of social workers leaving the profession within the first few years after becoming qualified. It will also help nurture a culture of solidarity, co-creation and support for social work programmes and educators who find themselves under pressure from top-down policies and reforms that do not embrace the values of the profession. Ultimately, it will provide the people that use social work services with more certainty of getting the best trained and supported professionals.

Issues that are of immediate concern to the Education Commission relate to the problem that in some countries there are no practice placements, unqualified staff or an absence of awareness of the social justice principles of the profession. The Commission is also mindful that are the complexities of cultural difference or diverse practice settings. These challenges will be met however in the same way the global professional bodies developed the Global Definition of Social Work and established global professional principles. The Commission welcomes and supports diversity. It will apply a process of enabling dialogue between the actors, countries and regions; while also maintaining that social work is an international profession based on universal principles and values.

A further important reason to work towards agreed global minimum standards of social work curriculum and an internationally recognized policy framework is that it will assist the social work schools to resist pressures from authoritarian governments or regional bodies that try to marginalize or control social work education. This is an issue at the heart of the Hellenic Association’s plans.

Social work education in Greece suffered enormously under the EU austerity directives. Their budgets were slashed by 30% and there are proposals that standalone education programmes dismantled and blended into other educational programmes. Now, the Hellenic Association is in a position to advance the integrity of social work education. Their aim is to enhance quality, not by technocratic top-down process, but by supporting and working with educators to build the capacity of their programmes enabling them to maintain social work values and partnerships that meet their real needs of communities.

This mirrors the global aims of the IFSW Education Commission. To create platforms of for the discussion to take place to overcome the historic gaps which have left the profession in some countries vulnerable and at times defenceless against imposing government strategies. The Education Commission will shortly be launching a transparent and open dialogue. We hope all people in the profession and representatives of people who use social work services will be a part of this process and assist in taking this great profession to higher levels of quality and impact to achieve that transformational change in our communities that is at the heart of the Definition of Social Work.