Field Education Stakeholders: Untangling the Rhetoric from the Reality


Field education is among the most memorable components of a student’s learning experience (Barton. Bell, & Bowles, 2005; Garthwait, 2008; Lam et al., 2007; Maidment & Crisp, 2011; Parker, 2006; Smith, Cleak, & Vreugdenhil. 2015). From a Higher Education Provider (HEP) perspective, while field education constitutes the most dynamic method of practice learning, it is also the part of the curriculum that is the most complex to deliver. This complexity is tri-fold in terms of (1) the number of stakeholders to implement and deliver field placements; (2) the interrelationships, roles, responsibilities, and expectations placed on. and between, each stakeholder; and (3) the neoliberal context (i.e. the economic imperatives, sector constraints, and regulatory environment) in which it operates, with its pervasiveness explored in Chapters 1 and 2. Chapter 2 concluded with a call to bring field education stakeholders to the table and collaboratively explore options for the development, delivery, and assessment of new models of field education in the cunent environment.

This chapter drills down further to examine who these stakeholders are, their interrelationships and influence within the stakeholder system. We assert that many of the current opportunities and challenges in contemporary social work field education are understood practically in terms of the primacy of the relationships between field education stakeholders and the context in which they occur. This examination enables opportunities for cunent field education processes to be challenged and the possibilities for change and innovation.

We introduce the primary stakeholder groups, their roles, and their inextricable links to each other in the delivery of field education. Each stakeholder constitutes an integral component of the learning structure. While the position of each stakeholder differs in relation to the stirdent, they each scaffold practice learning, ensuring each student achieves quality learning outcomes. These interrelationships form an interdependent system of service delivery. Without this system, student placements cannot occur.

The centrality of the Field Education Team (FET) in considered in this stakeholder system. We describe a rhetoric that stakeholders are united in their shared purpose of facilitating practice learning opportunities. The reality, however, is more complex when each stakeholder group is individually examined. Competing priorities and tensions between these stakeholder groups highlight the opportunities, uncertainties, and challenges that are inherent in these relationships. We argue that this risk is primarily, but not solely, carried by the FET, with any changes in these subsystems creating a ripple effect throughout the entire system.

Primary Stakeholders in Social Wor k Field Education

To assist our stakeholder analysis, we have identified five key groups of stakeholders: the HEP; placement agencies; service users; the Australian Association of Social Work (AASW) as the regulating body; and students. Each of these groups consist of subsystems of additional stakeholders, as outlined in Figure 3.1.

Each stakeholder plays a formal role in seeming placement opportunities and/ or facilitating student learning during placement. In the main, this stakeholder system provides enriching and beneficial experiences for all stakeholders (Egan, 2018; Gushwa & Harriman, 2019). For example, for HEP, FET. and placement agencies, existing relationships can be strengthened by positive placement experiences that lead to future placements, partnerships, workforce development, and research opportunities. Placement agencies may benefit from having project work completed, or client work expedited, to reduce service waiting lists that otherwise might not have been possible without student contribution. For students, a positive placement experience is among the most memorable components of their degree and for some, it can result in employment (Bloomfield et al., 2013; Healy & Lonne, 2010). Alongside these positive benefits, we acknowledge that challenges arise when difficulties and competing priorities between stakeholders surface, highlighting the vulnerabilities of this interdependent system (Ayala et al., 2017;Nedenet al., 2018).

Diagrammatic representation of key stakeholders in social work field education

Figure 3.1 Diagrammatic representation of key stakeholders in social work field education.

Each stakeholder group and their roles and interactions with the FET is now outlined, beginning with the university-based FET’s perspective.

Social Work Field Education Team

The Australian Social Work Education and Accreditation Standards (AASW, 2020) stipulate that every social work program must have a dedicated field education team, with dedicated administrative support, to coordinate and deliver the supervised field placement components of the social work degree. The size of the social work program and the positioning of field education within that program influences the configuration of professional and academic staff appointments. Also stipulated in the Standards is the requirement for one or more staff members to be appointed as Field Education Coordinator; a position tasked with academic coordination, accreditation compliance, staffing appointment and training, and provision of student education (AASW, 2020).

Field staff juggle many competing academic, administrative, and relational demands in managing the dynamic and unpredictable daily nature of tire work (Hunter, Moen, & Raskin, 2015). Necessarily, field staff need to be “many things to many people”. Managing this juggle can become all-consuming in order to simultaneously protect students and then learning opportunities and develop and maintain agency relationships. The administrative roles and responsibilities of field education team staff are significantly different fr om that of other social work academic roles and, at peak times, overshadow the academic responsibilities of the role. Another distinguishing feature of the administrative role is the perpetual and cyclical focus on procuring or creating placements for every enrolled student. We now examine each of these roles to explain how this “juggle” manifests for field education staff.

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