Germinating seed

The genesis of enhanceR2P

Colleagues – at home and abroad – might be interested in the background and rationale for the enhanceR2P project: a project that has not yet commenced, but has been in development since Ako Aotearoa ran a series of workshops on their National Project Fund back in April 2015.

Who are Ako Aotearoa and what is the National Project Fund?

Ako Aotearoa is the national centre for tertiary education in New Zealand with a mission to enhance the effectiveness of tertiary teaching and learning practice. Ako Aotearoa exists to assist educators and organisations to achieve the best possible educational outcomes for all learners.  The National Project Fund (NPF) is one of several funds Ako Aotearoa manage in order to fulfil its mission. The NPF is a strategic change fund: a fund that supports evidence-based change in teaching and learning practice for the benefit of learners. It is a contestable fund and only four projects were funded in 2015.

Ako Aotearoa proposed that, in 2015, one NPF project would focus on outcomes for Māori learners, one on outcomes for Pacific learners, and two would have an open focus. Projects with an open focus include discussion of issues for all learners but may include discussion of specific issues for Māori and/or Pacific learners. Our project has an open focus and will include a consideration of issues for Māori and Pacific learners. The NPF can offer funding of up to $300,000 over three years on a co-funding basis: that is, the participating institutions must contribute at least 50% of the overall project costs.  Our proposal is for the full amount over three years (2016-2018) and our respective institutions have agreed to commit 50% of total project costs: in effect this means that the time of the researchers involved is a contribution made by the four institutions.

The selection  process

A team of four social work researchers, from four different tertiary education institutions (Open Polytechnic, University of Auckland, Massey University, and the University of Canterbury), responded to a call to submit an expression of interest in the Ako Aotearoa NPF at the end of May 2015. We sought funding for a project titled ‘Enhancing the Readiness to Practise of New Qualified Social Workers’. The project proposed to enhance the outcomes of social work education in New Zealand by doing three things:

  • mapping the social work curriculum,
  • studying perceptions of the readiness to practise of new graduates, and
  • working with key stakeholders to co-produce a Professional Capabilities Framework specifying the capabilities of social workers from the point of graduation, to more experienced and advanced levels.

The selection process is a rigorous one with proposals made and feedback offered at several different stages. All applicants are advised to read a very helpful publication by Anne Alkema titled Creating sustainable change to improve outcomes for tertiary learners: this publication includes rubrics with explicit success criteria for both open project applications (such as ours) and Māori focussed projects. Rhonda Thomson (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Waewae), the Project Fund Manager, offered the team feedback on our expression of interest and on our full proposal. Expressions of interest are reviewed by an independent selection panel who invite a number of applicants to submit full proposals.

The NPF selection panel consisted of seven members: two members were endorsed by the Ako Aotearoa Māori Caucus, and two by the Ako Aotearoa Pacific Peoples’ Caucus. The Director of Ako Aotearoa acts as the panel’s non-voting Chair.  In July 2015 our proposed project was shortlisted and the team invited to submit a full proposal responding to initial feedback from the selection panel. Prior to submission of the full proposal the team shared their plans with executive members of the Tangata Whenua Social Workers’ Association, the Council for Social Work Education in Aotearoa New Zealand, the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers, and the Social Workers Registration Board: all were enthusiastic about the prospect of the project and the capability of the project team.

The full proposal was submitted and the team invited to make a presentation to the selection panel at the beginning of September 2015. Shortly after the presentation we were informed the project had been selected, the team commended on the quality of their submission and presentation, and – unusually – no conditions were placed on the award of the funding.  The Ako Aotearoa Project Funds Manager Rhonda Thomson said of the project:

The EnhanceR2P project is clearly focused on improved outcomes for learners both during their learning experience and as graduates equipped to do their job. This is an ambitious project with a logical vision for change that could potentially have social, as well as educational, value.

The questions asked and the participants sought

There are many question that could be asked about the nature of social work education in Aotearoa New Zealand, and many people do ask these questions; or rather, they make assumptions based on anecdote, impressions and personal experience.  Social work graduates have, at various times, been considered to be inadequately trained to work with vulnerable children, culturally incapable to work with tangata whenua, or insufficiently aware of issues around risk. For example the report of the Children’s Commissioner on the State of Care (Children’s Commissioner, 2015, p.34) stated that

CYF reports that many new graduates they employ lack the required level of knowledge of child protection, youth justice, child development, mental health, addictions and family violence. This means new social workers need to learn these skills on the job.

The government mandated Child, Youth and Family (CYF) expert panel, currently reviewing the CYF service, intends to review “the professional knowledge, skills and expertise required by Child, Youth and Family… and implications of this for providers of training, development and contracted services”. Their recent interim report  (Modernising Child, Youth and Family Expert Panel, 2015, p. 13) mentioned little about social work education but did state that

There is currently fragmentation at a national level in social worker qualification and training, which is reflected in a lack of consistent practice within CYF.

Of course, both of these comments are made in relation to work with children and families; how well equipped are our graduates to work with people with mental health problems, people with drug and alcohol addictions, people with disability and so on? The truth is that – anecdote and personal experience aside – we do not know very much about what it is that social work graduates are taught on the seventeen programmes recognised by the Social Workers Registration Board. Nor do we know how well prepared they are to enter practice, or how their capabilities – including cultural capabilities – are perceived by managers and users of their services.

The project team do not start with any assumptions about the adequacies or inadequacies of social work education in Aotearoa New Zealand. Our intention instead is to conduct research in three phases that will address the following three questions:

  • What is the content of the current New Zealand social work curriculum and how does it relate to the core competencies of the Social Workers’ Registration Board (SWRB)?
  • How well prepared are NQSWs (social workers in their first year of practice) to enter professional social work, and how is their learning being supported and enhanced in the workplace?
  • What are the professional capabilities, including cultural capabilities, we should expect of NQSWs and of social workers working at more experienced, advanced and expert levels of practice?

We will be inviting all seventeen programmes recognised by the Social Workers Registration Board to participate in the first phase of the project, we sincerely hope they will all agree. Ultimately, the point of the exercise is to work collaboratively with all relevant stakeholders to develop a clearly articulated set of outcomes that can be expected of social workers at different levels of experience. Social workers who achieve these outcomes will do so as the result of very different social, cultural and educational processes.  In other words, our intention is not to create a standardised set of courses, or a national curriculum for social work. It is the view of the research team that agreeing on outcomes does not imply a  universal one-size-fits-all process. Instead, it will offers the clarity required for social work learners, and educators to innovate, create and walk many different pathways to the same outcome.

The road ahead

You can find out more about the proposed methodology of the project on this website. However, it is important to be aware that the project has not yet commenced; that the research team is not yet complete; and that the research design will evolve in response to the requirements of ethics committees, input from our advisory group and reference groups, and feedback from our participants as they engage with the team throughout the project.

It is also critical to appreciate that the third phase of the project, the co-production of the Professional Capabilities Framework, is designed as a highly participatory project phase that will include the direct involvement of a range of stakeholders including social work educators, social workers, social work students, social work managers and the users of social work services. We believe that this will be the first time the development of a competence or capabilities framework for social workers has been attempted using such an open and inclusive process, rather than by a self-elected group of governmental or academic experts.

Of one thing the team are sure, if the community of stakeholders who have an interest in social work education cannot work collaboratively to create such a framework, others will be waiting in the wings to do so for us. The project commences in 2016. We plan to use this blog to keep our community of interest updated on project progress. Please consider subscribing to the blog to receive email updates.

Ngā mihi

The enhanceR2P team.


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