Kubiak, C., Rogers, A. and Turner, A. (2007) A path of crazy paving: tensions of work-based learning in health and social care. Paper presented to: European Conference for Education Researchers, Ghent, Belguim, 19-21 September 2007.
This paper reports on one milestone in an ongoing four year project examining the practice development of a cohort of support staff in health and social care settings studying a work-based foundation degree by distance learning. Worker development is investigated in the context of their work setting, academic studies and personal past, present and future. In the United Kingdom, the Foundation Degree was launched as a predominantly work-based qualification aimed at widening participation in higher education. Vocational programmes for assistants in health and social care are part of a government strategy emphasising ongoing development in a rapidly changing field as well as reconfiguring of roles and responsibilities in the health service to create a workforce of flexible, skilled and qualified staff (Department of Health 2001). Despite the priority given to the development of assistant level staff, their learning presents a number of challenges. In practical terms, such development is often poorly resourced or even presented as a threat to professional roles (Keeney et al. 2005). In educational terms, despite the aspirations, of vocational studies, Foundation Degrees can have difficulty connecting work-based learning and theoretical knowledge (Kubiak et al, 2005; Wilson and Blewitt 2005). In research terms, there are few critical studies of work-based learning programmes for assistants and their work and learning experiences remain poorly understood and largely undocumented. In addition, while the development of professionals has received considerable attention, the learning of those outside the professions deserves further study. Overall, the impression of assistants is as a marginal group, often overlooked or in ambiguous position in learning and work. To understand the learning of assistants in vocational degrees, three areas are relevant. Firstly, the nature of the workplace will influence learning. For example, work practices and worker role, regulatory frameworks and collegial relationships affect work-based learning (Hodkinson et al. 2004) in the way they serve to distribute opportunities to act and interact in workplaces (Billet 2002). Secondly, students' experience of learning is mediated by their personal characteristics and situation. Engagement in learning opportunities can be influenced by the relatedness between employee and workplace values, personal goals or prior educational experience (Hodkinson et al. 2004) or ability to construe particular opportunities (Billet 2002). Student age, recent experience of study, family commitments (non-study and non-work) and support from partners are also influential (Arthur and Tait 2004). Third, the way in which the distance learning pedagogy supports the use of the workplace as a site for formal learning will be explored. Thus, the project aims to examine support worker practice development using the following three questions 1. How do workplace conditions influence student practice development? 2. How do student characteristics and personal circumstances influence practice development? 3. What features of distance learning course materials and tutor support are particularly supportive of students learning? This phase of the project has used two in-depth interviews with students as they move through one year of a course of study to capture the changes in understanding, workplace conditions and life circumstances. Considerable time was given to exploring life history. Focus groups with workplace supervisors has also identified potential practice and service changes sought. The tensions and contradictions of student learning through work are explored as a way of understanding the social construction of the workplace and the dynamics of work-based learning. These tensions include the coexistence of autonomous and co-created of support worker practice, study as relevant but intrusive, collegial support and resistance, legitimation and suspicion in the workplace and fragmentation of career and learning pathways and consistent sense of mission in the helping professions. The use of tensions in practice development to guide educational design will be explored. In addition, the utility of the interview method in capturing the situated and tacit nature of practice development will also be considered.