Alison Domakin talks about grading practice skills in social work education.

Alison Domakin

Three years ago I started to grade practice skills in child and family social work as part of my work on the Frontline programme in England. Since then I have worked alongside practice educators to assess and grade observations of practice. It has been a privilege to be able to mark the work of students engaged in authentic practice encounters; offer feedback on practice skills and use this to make links between the profession’s knowledge base and practice skills in teaching.

Whilst grading practice is widely regarded as the pinnacle of assessment practice it happens rarely on any professional training programmes. Consequently, a research base investigating the grading of practice skills in child and family social work in live practice contexts is only now starting to develop. This short article will outline the challenges faced when grading practice as an assessment task, provide information about how grading practice skills has been undertaken and share learning from initial research on this.


The challenges of grading practice skills

To date, the prevailing view is that the nature of social work interventions and relationships are so variable, that it is not possible to accurately identify or prescribe what the building blocks of good practice should be in moment by moment interactions with service users. Any attempt to grade social work must, therefore, take account of the fact that skills and knowledge are applied differently within each practice encounter. Each practice decision is dependent on a family’s situation and the unique interaction of a number of different variables, and so differences in the ways in which practitioners carry out their work are to be expected. Grading live practice, therefore, presents three fundamental challenges.

  1. The first challenge is deciding what practice skills to assess. In order to grade practice there must be clarity about what practice skills to assess. For example, are there core practice skills which are essential to effective social work practice which should be demonstrated in all interventions with children and families? Or a range of skills which the practitioner uses as appropriate dependent on context?
  2. The second challenge is how to assess practice skills given that each practice encounter is different and standardization is not possible. Grading practice skills requires markers to be able to make sense of the context in which the skills are applied (Whittaker et al, 2016). How can this be done fairly and transparently?
  3. The third challenge is how to ensure consistent marking standards when grading these different practice encounters using a range of different markers over a cohort of students. Is there consistency between different makers? How can we be confident in the marking process and grades awarded?

These are thorny issues to tackle and it is no surprise that grading practice skills in live practice context is underutilised as an assessment task on professional training programmes.


The research base informing grading of practice skills in child and family social work

The approach to assessing practice which is reported here developed from the work of Professor Forrester who has undertaken a number of research studies in the United Kingdom investigating how practitioners can be supported to work effectively in child and family social work contexts. In particular, he has explored whether certain kinds of micro- communication skills are more effective in helping families than others. As a result, Forrester and colleagues propose five key practice skills to be necessary for effective child and family social work practice:

  • purposefulness
  • clarity about issues and concerns
  • child focus
  • relational capacity
  • Evocation of intrinsic motivation (Whittaker et al, 2016)

On the basis of these findings a grading rubric to assess these five areas of practice skills was developed by Professor Donald Forrester. This includes threshold descriptors for each of the five practice skills, showing what they might look like when demonstrated at different levels of ability.


Grading practice skills on the Frontline programme

Frontline is a new qualifying programme in England specialising in child and family social work which has a different structure to mainstream qualifying programmes. Students are based in statutory local authority settings for year in a ‘unit’, supervised by an experienced practitioner in the role of practice educator. Tutors visit regularly to provide academic teaching and reflection on learning from practice. Students are observed engaging in practice seven times during their qualifying studies. Five of the 7 graded observations of practice are marked by the practice educator, 2 are marked by the tutor. Marks contribute to students’ academic profile, in the same way as written assignments. Each observation is usually audio recorded and strict protocols govern data protection. Families are informed about the purpose of the recording; how data is stored, the right to refuse or withdraw consent and that an observation can take place without a recording if this is more acceptable. The decision to seek permission to seek consent from a family must be approved by the practice educator who is present for each assessment.  Tutors grade practice by listening to a recording.

The first observation is graded by the tutor, and the mark agreed in discussion with the practice educator, to establish consistency in the marking process. The tutor also acts as a critical friend where further conversation is helpful to the practice educator in deciding the mark or feedback for later observations of practice skill. After the first graded observation of practice the recording of the session is used as the basis of a three-way teaching/coaching session for the student, which both staff attend and co-facilitate. This provides the student with an opportunity to hear detailed feedback about practice from the perspective of both the tutor and practice educator. Students evaluate these teaching sessions positively.

For more information about the approach to learning used on Frontline see Domakin and Curry, 2017.


Initial research findings into grading practice skills

Initial research exploring grading practice skills is promising and suggests that reliable results can be achieved when grading practice skills in a range of child and family social work contexts (see Domakin and Forrester, 2017, Domakin et al , forthcoming). However, because each practice encounter is different, we need to think differently about how we approach and support this as an assessment task in order to achieve the most reliable results.

Research from use of simulations of practice in other professions tells us that it is important to include repeat assessments which contribute to a final true average mark. In other words, one way to ensure the greatest possibility of reliable results when there is variation in the task is to do more assessments of practice. Similarly, research exploring the marking of practice skills over the first cohort of the programme (n=723) found that that a minimum of 5 repeat assessments are needed to be confident of gaining a reliable overall grade (Domakin et al, forthcoming).

A second study explored differences between markers, given a diverse group of both academic staff and practitioners grade practice skills. This found a reasonable level of consistency between markers (Domakin and Forrester, 2017). Whilst this is a promising first result, in order to develop grading of practice skills further it is important to develop greater consistency between markers. Rather than expecting there to be a ‘right’ answer, it may be more useful to consider how markers can learn from each other and make the reasoning behind their grading decisions explicit. In other words, by supporting markers through dialogue about how judgements are reached, we are likely to be able to grade practice more reliably. Taking a similar approach to moderation and quality assurance would also be useful.


Concluding thoughts

Social work students, in the United Kingdom, currently have their practice observed during each placement by a practice educator. However, research indicates that there are considerable variations in how observations of student practice are undertaken, depending on the requirements of different universities and the approach taken by the practice educator. Additionally, the need for a greater focus on the development of practice skills within social work education has been highlighted as an area of development for the profession. Grading practice skills is, therefore, a significant innovation in assessment practice in social work. The focus here is on practice skills in child and family social work. Further research would be helpful to investigate whether there are core areas of practice skill essential in both in child and family and adult social work contexts.



Domakin, A. and Curry, E (2017) Partners in practice: practice educator and academic tutor perspectives on working together to support learning on the Frontline programme, Child and Family Social Work

Domakin, A and Forrester, D (2017) Putting practice at the heart of social work education: Can practice skills be consistently graded by different markers in child and family social work contexts?  Social Work Education: The International Journal

Domakin, A., Forrester, D. & Killian, M. (forthcoming) Marking practice skills in social work qualifying education: A Study of Consistency in Grading Seven Hundred Observations of Practice

Whittaker C.E., Forrester D., Killian M., Jones R.K. (2017) 'Can we reliably measure social work communication skills? Development of a Scale to Measure Child and Family Social Work Direct practice', International Journal of Child & Family Welfare, Special issue (1-2).


About the author:

Alison Domakin has been qualified as a child and family social worker for over 25 years. She has experience of frontline child protection practice and has worked in a range of third sector organisations including Childline.

Alison has worked in higher education teaching social work since 2003. She played a significant role in leading a Step up to Social Work programme in her last role which stimulated her research interest in the potential of learning for and from practice.

You can follow Alison on Twitter at @AlisonDomakin.

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