Flinders University and Uni SA took the radical step of being competitive collaborators in an effort to find meaningful field placements for their Social Work students.  Prior to this collaboration, getting placements in schools was hard to do as schools weren’t happy about the placement arrangements. Mary Duncan, Manager Field Education (School of Social and Policy Studies) at Flinders University said, “They weren’t working because it was thought that students were placed in school without a lot of planning.”

The collaboration also involved the participation of the KidsMatter Coordinator who was able to tap into her network and the schools’ existing interest and commitment to the KidsMatter Framework in order to generate placement take up.

Through conversations with the Department for Education and Child Development (SA), KidsMatter schools were identified as a great opportunity for social work student placements for a number of reasons:

  • The KidsMatter framework, underpinning values and principles align closely with Social Work values
  • KidsMatter focus aligns with the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) core curriculum content areas
  • School settings provide a range of experiences that align with Social Work practice
  • KidsMatter enables a shared supervision model for students

Mary said, “Social workers have a very broad continuum of practice areas (e.g working with individuals and groups, doing community development, social policy and research) and there are opportunities in schools, in the KidsMatter program, to do all of those things.

“I want students to think that schools are micro communities in a bigger community and what’s happening in that bigger community impacts on school and the students and families in that school.”

Chris Champion from KidsMatter recognised symmetry between the KidsMatter framework and the social work competencies.  He said “There are four core components of the KidsMatter Program: creating a positive school community, social and emotional learning for students, working with parents and carers and helping children with mental health difficulties. These match perfectly the seven social work and human service work standards and competencies that the students must identify and meet as part of their assignment criteria.”

The aim of these in-school placements for Social Work students was to ultimately benefit primary school children by targeting their mental health and social and emotional needs and showing the importance of a healthy mind and life.  However the Social Work students who had placements within the KidsMatter schools benefited immensely too as many had a desire to work with children, but were not often given the opportunity.

There were other benefits too. The program also included education of parents and carers on these important topics and support for them to have a better understanding of their children’s current mental health state.   Additionally, the schools benefited from having this program in their schools due to the ability to easily integrate social work skills into their environment without any budget outlay. The students who had placements within the KidsMatter schools benefited immensely too as many had a desire to work with children, but were not often given the opportunity.

How did it happen?

As preparation for these placements, Uni SA and Flinders University ran a two-day induction for the Social Work students at which KidsMatter staff presented the framework, and went through the expectations on the Universities and the schools and what some of the challenges might be. Placement was not like a student teacher placement as it would be managed by a social worker in the field. The induction also covered appropriate conduct in their placements, as they were still students and needed to ensure they operated in a legally safe manner.

Additionally, as part of the placement program, group supervision was provided and these sessions incorporated theories and frameworks aligned to early childhood education.

Successes of the partnership

Mary Duncan saw the placement program as very successful.  “There have been great outcomes at all levels. At the partnership level we have a group of organisations committed to the ongoing development of a placement program in schools. For the universities, we have increased placement numbers and been able to focus efforts and resources on placement development. For students they have reported that their presence in schools has contributed to KidsMatter outcomes and their own Social Work learning outcomes.”

She also made the point that this collaborative approach with KidsMatter schools has meant the placement program has been much more efficient and effective.  “One of the challenges of social work placements is, if you’ve got your staff resources spread over 10 very different agencies, the support you can provide is minimal. If you’ve got a focus like KidsMatter, it’s much easier; even though it’s multiple settings it’s systemically the same. So we can hold a comprehensive two day orientation for students going into KidsMatter schools.  If we had 10 students in one type of placement, 10 in KidsMatter and 10 in a third program we just couldn’t do it.”

Patricia Muncey, KidsMatter Placement Program at Uni SA believes the collaboration with their traditional competitor, Flinders University, was very successful. “We both desperately needed more placements for Social Work students and for Social Science students.  It’s made a huge difference to both universities because we’ve been able to do combined training, share resources and give students a really good introduction to the whole program that we would have just been duplicating otherwise.”

The benefit for the students has been substantial.  Robby Drake, from Uni SA said, “As far as our students were concerned they had the opportunity to have a placement which was very hands on.  They got direct practice and the extent of which they could stretch themselves depended on a lot of them and the school.  For example, some students ran “What’s the Buzz?”  a social and emotional skills-based program.  They could also do support work in social skills and develop their own programs which fit within the KidsMatter framework around student wellbeing. They can work autonomously and also as part of the school team.  In our supervision model, we also provide the opportunity for the students who are working in schools to come together during the course of their placement so that they can share ideas for how they are going in the schools, and share ideas in the programs.”

To underline the success of the partnership, Mary Duncan pointed to research conducted by two of her Social Work students on evaluating the placements program.  The findings showed that the majority of social work student respondents believed that they contributed positively to the implementation of the KidsMatter program.   Additionally, a principal who was surveyed commented that the Social Work students provided additional resources and a knowledge base that could be utilised.

Additionally, the feedback from schools has been positive, and participating schools are asking for more students to do placements in their schools.  “It’s like an extra set of hands you’ve got.  They come from a broader perspective than education students on placement,” said Mary.  “There’s more flexibility in how a social work student could support the KidsMatter program because the social work program looks at an individual as well as who’s in their immediate community, who’s in their family, what are the relationships between those important communities, what’s that outer layer of legislation policy and how does that contribute to or mitigate against KidsMatter outcomes. That would be my idea of a highly functioning social work student.”