What kinds of knowledge and skills are needed in working with vulnerable children and young people? Open University lecturer and former social worker Andy Rixon interviewed practitioners taking a post-qualifying award in childcare and found that, while some gained greater confidence from having a more certain knowledge base, others were concerned that the knowledge, skills and values that they had acquired from their years of practice were increasingly undervalued.
One interviewee who had been a qualified social worker for 16 years said:
I can see that being better qualified is good for the credibility of social work as a profession but rather than yet more academic qualifications why can’t there be credit for expertise in more practical skills maybe like really skilled interviewing or counselling?
Others felt that their long experience of practice was viewed negatively rather than positively: they believed they were seen as ‘out of date’ or ‘long in the tooth’, rather than as having valuable practical expertise to offer.
Andy Rixon discusses the implications of his interviews with practitioners in a chapter for the Reader for the new OU Masters course, Critical practice with children and young people (K802). Getting the balance right between practical experience and formal knowledge is an issue that’s also taken up elsewhere in K802.
One of the specially-produced DVDs for the module includes a case study of Multicultural Family Base, a community project in Leith, Edinburgh which provides placements for a large number of trainee social workers. Among these is John Byrne, who was born in Ireland and worked in the building trade before deciding to train as a social worker. In an audio interview, John argues that his broad life-experience means he has a lot to offer to the young people he now finds himself working with. However, he also believes that an understanding of theory, for example of child development, is vital for developing his practice.
The other side of the equation was succinctly expressed by Fauzia, a service user at one of the early years groups run by MCFB:
I don’t think books tell you everything until you do it yourself, practically. Just reading through a book isn’t the same thing. You’ve got to have the practical side of it and see for yourself
What do you think? Have services for children and young people got the balance right between theoretical knowledge and practical experience in their workforce? Does increasing professionalisation mean that more emphasis is being placed on ‘reading through a book’ than practical skills? Or do you believe that practitioners could do with more, not less theoretical insight? Feel free to post a comment.