Gatekeeping in Bachelor of Social Work field education.
Gatekeeping is a mechanism to evaluate students' performance and suitability for social work practice in order to assure the quality of professional practice and to protect the integrity of the profession. Gatekeeping in social work education, particularly field education, however, has been documented as challenging and problematic. This article synthesises the importance of gatekeeping in social work education and reviews some major challenges of gatekeeping in social work education with particular emphasis on field education. It also discusses some limitations of previous studies on gatekeeping in social work education. Directions for future research and recommendations for strengthening the gatekeeping mechanism in social work field education are presented.

Tam, Dora M.Y.
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Name: Women in Welfare Education Publisher: Women in Welfare Education Collective Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2003 Women in Welfare Education Collective ISSN: 1834-4941
Date: Sept, 2003 Source Volume: 6
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Gatekeeping is an essential and ongoing mechanism in the social work education process. It serves to evaluate students' suitability to practise social work and to prevent unsuitable students from entering the profession. The gatekeeping process includes assessing students' academic performance and professional suitability at admission to the social work program, during their classwork, and in their field education. The gatekeeper role in field education has been documented as the most challenging and unpleasant responsibility in social work education (Raymond 2000). The major purpose of this article is to synthesise the importance of gatekeeping in Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) field education, recommend ways to overcome the challenges of gatekeeping in social work field education and provide some directions for future research.


Gatekeeping consists of an evaluation and screening mechanism of student performance that is characterized by its continual nature. Gatekeeping is defined as a mechanism to ensure that social work graduates meet requisite suitability standards for beginning practitioners (Ryan, Habibis and Craft 1997). Barlow and Coleman (in press) highlighted gatekeeping as an on-going process of screening people for the profession that begins at the admission application for the social work program and continues throughout the program, including before and during the field practicum and even after graduation. Gatekeeping in BSW field education, in particular, is an important process to identify potentially harmful behaviour in apprentice practice and to screen out students if their inappropriate behaviour does not change (Hartman and Wills 1991). The key personnel responsible to carry out the gatekeeper role are academic staff, university liaison staff, and the field instructors. Gatekeeping is an ongoing process, which continues after graduation. Upon graduation, the agencies that employ social workers, as well as the professional bodies, take over the responsibility for gatekeeping for the practising social worker.

The avoidance of gatekeeping responsibilities can lead to potentially dangerous outcomes for the general public, who entrust the lives of their loved ones to professional helpers such as social workers (Gibbs and Macy 2000). More importantly, the integrity of the profession is highly dependent upon the competent gatekeeping activities performed during and after educational programs (Coleman, Collins and Aikins 1995). Overall, gatekeeping is more than protecting the interests of the profession; it is an important process that functions to graduate qualified social workers, to protect the quality of professional practice, and to guard the well being of service users. To develop a proper gatekeeping mechanism for social work education, one has to fully understand the nature of social work and the work expectations within the profession. The next section looks at the philosophical foundations of social work and their influence on social work education.


Social work is rooted in humanitarianism and egalitarian ideals. Fundamental is the belief in the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human being and a commitment to the values of acceptance, self-determination and respect of individuality (Canadian Association of Schools of Social Work (CASSW) 2002; Council on social work Education (CSWE) 2002; Reamer 1993, 2001). Social workers are committed to the development and equitable allocation of resources to meet individual, group, and community needs.

Social work students are expected to internalise social work values and to practice in accordance with professional standards of practice. Those who have personal values inconsistent with those of social work are considered unsuitable for working within the profession (Gray, Lafrance and Herbert 2000; Miller and Koerin 1998). What are the roles of schools of social work in educating social workers, who are expected to commit to the philosophical foundations of social work? The following is a review on the implications of the philosophical foundations of social work on Bachelor of Social Work education.

Schools of social work are obligated to provide high quality professional education and ensure that graduates have achieved the performance level required for beginning professional practice (Coleman, Collins and Aikins 1995). Schools of social work are also obligated to ensure that social work students who graduate not only are knowledgeable and skilfull but also possess the requisite professional qualities critical to protecting the public (Gibbs 1994b). To fulfill these public responsibilities, an effective gatekeeping mechanism will assist the evaluation of students' suitability and the screening out of unsuitable students.

Field education is characterized by its pivotal function in the professional education process. It provides students with a hands-on experience for skill development, knowledge integration, and active learning (Raymond 2000). Goals of field education are: to train effective social workers whose practice reflects the knowledge, skills, and values of the profession; to allow students opportunities to apply and integrate theory into practice; to provide an opportunity for learning; and to develop a sense of professional identity (Fortune 1994; Hamilton and Else 1983; Raymond 2000). With reference to the accreditation requirements for the BSW programs in North America, all undergraduate students are required to complete a minimum standard hours (ranging from 400 to 700 hours) of field education for the BSW degree (CASSW, 2002; CSWE, 2002). In other words, students spend a greater proportion of their time in fieldwork than in any course in the BSW program. The close interaction between the student and the field instructor provides substantial learning opportunities for the student is an important opportunity for the field instructor to carry out a comprehensive evaluation of the student's professional suitability.


As mentioned in previous sections, field education is essential for evaluating students' commitment to social work, their ability to work with people, their ability to learn new skills, their application of knowledge, and for determining students' capacity to become competent and reflective practitioners (Fortune 1994; Raymond 2000). Field education is also the most intensive process for students, particularly for those who seldom express their views in the classroom, to demonstrate their suitability for the profession. Professional suitability refers to a good understanding of social work knowledge and values as well as the performance of appropriate behaviours in given situations (Lyons 1999). Inability to master the entry-level of practice competency would be a reason for a program to consider the student unsuitable to receive a BSW degree (Kropf 2000; Moore, Dietz and Jenkins 1998; Moore and Urwin 1990, 1991). It is important to ensure that there is an effective mechanism to assess students' performance and suitability to practise in the social work profession. This mechanism is gatekeeping.

Gatekeeping in social work education, particularly in field education plays a vital role. Gatekeeping in social work field education, however, has been documented as one of the most unpleasant and challenging responsibilities (Raymond 2000; Ryan, Habibis and Craft 1997). Studies have documented problems with gatekeeping such as the lack of standardized criteria for suitable professional practice; the inadequacy of effective screening in the admission application and the pre-practicum; the lack of support from the social work institute, inadequate qualified field instructors and placements; dual role dilemmas of gatekeeping; and the fear of litigation (Cole and Lewis 1993; Gibbs and Macy 2000; Kilpatrick, Turner and Holland 1994; Kropf 2000; Moore, Dietz and Jenkins 1998; Moore and Urwin, 1990, 1991; Ryan, Habibis and Craft 1997; Slocombe 1993).

Lack of Standardized Criteria

The lack of standardized criteria for professional practice has prevented adequate gatekeeping in field education (Cobb and Jordan 1989; Cole and Lewis 1993; Gibbs 1994a; Hartman and Wills, 1991; Ryan, Habibis and Craft, 1997). Inability to define professional suitability and to formulate concrete criteria for non-academic reasons were the two most dominant factors leading to difficulty with terminating a student's enrolment for non-academic reasons. The lack of standardized criteria for professional suitability allows students to graduate even though they are unable to demonstrate adequate knowledge, skills, and behaviours for professional practice. To overcome the ambiguity, some researchers have suggested developing clear standards of professional suitability (Gibbs 1994b; Miller and Koerin 1998; Ryan, Habibis and Craft 1997).

Inadequate Screening at Admission and Pre-Placement Phases

The lack of effective admission and pre-practicum screening has been documented as another problem in the process of gatekeeping (Gibbs and Macy 2000; Kropf 2000; Moore, Dietz and Jenkins 1998; Peterman and Blake 1986). Most social work programs in North America use grade point average (GPA) as the primary indicator to assess students' eligibility to be admitted to a program or be placed in a field practicum. Studies have documented that over 73% of the BSW programs in North America surveyed are unlikely to deny students entry to the program based on GPA than other admission requirements (Isaac, Johnson, Lockhart and White 1993; Gibbs 1994a). Wahlberg and Lommen (1990) conducted another survey on pre-placement screening in BSW programs. They reported that less than one percent of students were denied entry to the field practicum. These studies suggested that screening at admission and pre-practicum were inadequate.

Another problematic aspect with GPA as the primary indicator of suitability is that some students have good classroom performance but their fieldwork performance is inadequate. In this situation, students are able to complete the classroom requirements, but their personal values, interpersonal skills or readiness to work in the field are not adequately examined. One explanation for this problem in gatekeeping is the increased ratio of students to academic staff (Gibbs 2000), which has resulted in a decrease in interactions between the two. As a result, the professional suitability of students is rarely properly evaluated. It has been well documented that GPA or classroom competency is insufficient to provide insight as to whether the students have internalised the requisite values, attitudes and ethics that support professional practice (Cole and Lewis 1993; Coleman, Collins, and Aikins 1995; Gibbs 1994a; Ryan, Habibis and Craft 1997).

The implication for this non-screening at admission and the pre-practicum phases is that the gatekeeping responsibility is then primarily shifted to the field instructors, who are usually not an employee of the university and have to make the tremendously difficult decision to terminate students who slip through the admission and classroom 'gates' (Gibbs 1994b; Kropf 2000). Such non-screening processes in the admission and pre-practicum phases failed to fulfill the gatekeeping function and have posed additional responsibilities to the field instructors to screen out unsuitable students.

Lack of Institutional Support

Frictions between field instructors and university staff liaisons have also created complications in the gatekeeping process. These have been documented in the literature. Some field instructors report a lack of support from university field liaisons, who sometimes failed to respond when the field instructor asked for help with a student (Kilpatrick, Turner and Holland 1994). In some cases university liaison staff transferred the students who had exhibited unsuitable behaviours to other fieldwork settings or negotiated with instructors to give the students a second chance. In these situations, field instructors were discouraged to carry out the gatekeeping role, as their professional judgments were not well received by the university staff (Coleman, Collins and Aikins 1995).

Inadequate Qualified Field Instructors and Practica

Due to decreased resources and increased workload, recruiting and retention of experienced social workers to become field instructors has been a problem in social work and some other professions such as nursing (Gibbs 2000; Slocombe 1993). Without adequate qualified and experienced field instructors and practica, the quality of gatekeeping is hardly assured.

Dual Role Dilemmas

Another dilemma that field instructors face is that of dual roles. Some field instructors believe in a strengths perspective whereby every individual should enjoy choice and opportunity (Hartman and Wills 1991; Miller and Koerin 1998). The strengths perspective respects individual choice, believes people have the potential to change and improve, assists people to maximize their potential, supports people to excel, maintains a non-judgmental attitude, and most importantly, nurtures people's strengths. Under the influence of the strengths perspective, some field instructors are reluctant to fail students even though the student failed to perform at a competent beginning-level of practice. Field instructors, who identify more with their helping role than the role as an educator may be unwilling to carry out the gatekeeping responsibilities and fail a student.

On the other hand, some believe that field instructors are not clinicians but educators. They stress the important role of gatekeeping for field instructors and believe that field instructors are entrusted with the responsibility of determining whether a student should enter the social work profession (Moore and Urwin 1990, 1991; Younes 1998). Supporters of the educator position assert that field instructors, who do not perform the evaluative role objectively and conscientiously, fail in their responsibility to clients, communities, the profession, and the student. They further affirm that field instructors who have difficulty differentiating between working with a client and working with a student are considered to be failing to make the transition from a helper role (Coleman, Collins, and Aikins 1995). This dual role dilemma has resulted in inconsistency in carrying out the gatekeeping responsibility in field education.

Fear of Litigation

Field instructors find it difficult to fail a student because some screening guidelines and policies are not available in some social work programs. Several studies have identified that over 60% of social work programs do not have a "suitability" screening policy in place (Barlow and Coleman in press; Koerin and Miller 1995; Ryan, Habibis and Craft 1997). The lack of a suitable 'screening out' policy might result in litigation that makes many social work educators hesitate to fail a student (Coleman, Collins and Aikins 1995; Raymond 2000; Gibbs and Macy 2000). There were cases in which the courts overturned dismissals for misconduct on the basis of the university's inadequate decision-making procedures rather than for the unsuitability of the professional behaviours (Cobb and Jordan 1989). That is, litigation has discouraged both university staff and field instructors from dismissing unsuitable students. These results suggest that it is timely to strengthen the gatekeeping mechanism by developing an adequate suitability screening policy with which the standards of professional practice will provide a precedent for academic terminations.

Overall, gatekeeping plays a prominent role in social work field education, but problems discussed above have made gatekeeping less effective. To overcome such challenges in gatekeeping for social work field education, some researchers have suggested that standardized criteria and a suitable screening out policy be developed for professional practice (Barlow and Coleman in press; Gibbs 1994a; Koerin and Miller 1995; Ryan, Habibis and Craft 1997). Other researchers have suggested the provision of adequate field instruction preparation as a partial solution (Freeman and Hansen 1995; Kilpatrick, Turner and Holland 1994). Available research on gatekeeping issues, however, has some limitations that need to be addressed.


Major limitations of previous research are: the lack of confirmatory designs; representational sampling; and psychometric information on the developed instruments.

Lack of Confirmatory Design

Some research studies have identified important criteria for professional suitability for social work practice. These criteria include maturity, self-awareness, commitment to the social work values and code of ethics, good interpersonal skills, good writing skills, good verbal communication skills, respect for others, ability to manage personal issues, the desire to learn, mental and emotional stability, acceptance of human diversity, commitment to social change and social justice, commitment to personal growth; receptiveness to feedback, and critical thinking (Barlow and Coleman, in press; Freeman and Hansen 1995; Gibbs 1994a, 1994b; Gray, Lafrance and Herbert 2000; Koerin and Miller 1995; Miller and Koerin 1998; Ryan, Habibis and Craft 1997). The results of these studies enrich our understanding on gatekeeping criteria in social work education.

These criteria on professional suitability for social work practice, however, have not been adequately validated. The reviewed literature on professional suitability in social work is largely exploratory and descriptive in nature (Barlow and Coleman in press; Freeman and Hansen 1995; Gibbs 1994a, 1994b; Gray, Lafrance and Herbert 2000; Koerin and Miller 1995; Miller and Koerin 1998; Ryan, Habibis and Craft 1997). There is a lack of study validating findings from previous studies and to develop valid indicators on professional suitability for social work practice. It is therefore timely to move our understanding on professional suitability beyond the exploration stage and to develop valid and reliable indicators for assessing students' suitability for social work with reference to the findings collected from previous studies.

Lack of Representational Sampling

Limited representational sampling has been an issue in previous studies. In a review of eight research studies on gatekeeping issues in social work education between 1991 and 2001, five (63%) reported having collected data from Deans or Directors of the Social Work programs in Australia and North America (Tarn 2001). Field instructors, who play a vital role in evaluating students' performance, were largely excluded from these studies. Alperin (1996) suggested that there is a need to study the gatekeeping issues from a wider perspective by expanding the scope of the sample.

Lack of Psychometric Information

The last limitation to be discussed here is the validity and reliability issues of the measuring instruments. There is no validated instrument available neither for measuring professional suitability for social work or for attitudes toward gatekeeping. Gibbs (1994a, 1994b) developed a 7-item Likert scale to study reasons to pursue counselling-out. However, the rational of choosing those seven items was not explained. Reliability and validity information of the scale was also omitted. Another study conducted by Hartman and Wills (1991) included two scales: one scale measured field instructors' attitude towards gatekeeping and the other measured the field instructors' perception towards students' behaviours. Similar to Gibbs (1994a, 1994b), Hartman and Wills did not address the psychometric property issues of the two scales. The results of the study remain exploratory and need further investigation to confirm their validity and reliability. Therefore, the validity and reliability of the data drawn from these studies remain hard to generalize.

In summary, the review on previous studies has identified several important aspects to guide future research studies. First, previous exploratory and descriptive studies identified some important information on gatekeeping in social work, particularly certain criteria on professional suitability for social work practice. There is a need in future studies to validate such findings. Second, there is a need to expand the scope of research participants beyond academic administrators of Social Work programs. Third, scales developed in previous studies (Gibbs 1994a, 1994b; Hartman and Wills 1991) need to be further validated in order to establish reliable and valid instruments in measuring gatekeeping related issues. Overall, future studies on gatekeeping in social work field education could be strengthened if they address the above research needs derived from previous research.


Gatekeeping is an important mechanism to evaluate students' performance and to assure the quality of social work graduates. The primary goal of gatekeeping is to ensure that social work graduates have internalised social work values and have mastered the required knowledge and skills to practise social work competently. Without proper gatekeeping mechanisms, students may slip through the 'gate' even though their professional behaviours are in question. Gatekeeping within social work field education has been documented as one of the most challenging responsibilities throughout the gatekeeping process. A number of gatekeeping problems have been identified in social work field education. The last section of this article discusses some recommendations to strengthen gatekeeping in social work field education. Recommendations are based on three main problem areas: practical, organizational, and attitudinal issues. Practical problems refer to the lack of standardized criteria and inadequate screening at admission and pre-practicum phases. Organizational problems include the lack of institutional support and the lack of qualified field instructors and placements. Attitudinal problems consist of field instructors' dual role dilemma and the fear of litigation.

1. Recommendations for practical issues

In response to the lack of standardized criteria, the preceding section on limitations of previous research has addressed the need to validate previous findings on standardized criteria on professional suitability for social work practice through a confirmatory approach.

Regarding inadequate screening at admission and pre-practicum phases, academic staff are responsible for assessing students' suitability beyond classroom performance. Students' suitability for social work practice includes both academic performance and personal suitability. The former is simply referred to in the grade point average (GPA); while the latter is referred to students' values and behaviours that tie to professional expectations and practice. Students who fail to internalise social work values or exhibit behaviours that violate the code of ethics should not be placed in the field. Assessment on students' suitability for admission and for practicum may encompass multidimensional indicators at admission and at prepracticum phases.

At admission, the multidimensional indicators on students' suitability for social work may include personal interview with students, references, and statements of intent from the student. Even though personal interview with students is time consuming, it is the very front 'gate' that social work educators can directly assess students' attitudes toward social work. Letters of reference and statements of intent usually provide selective information but do not replace interviews with students. Interviews can be conducted in small groups or individually. Small group interviews have more advantages than individual interviews as the former is more cost-efficient and provides opportunity to assess students' interpersonal skills.

At pre-practicum phase, suitability indicators may include personal interview by the university field education coordinator, a reflection paper, and letters of reference. The purpose of the pre-practicum interview is not only to focus on matching a student's interests with a suitable agency, but also include assessing the student's learning goals, knowledge and values toward social work practice. Goals of the reflection paper are to assess how well the student is able to integrate classroom learning and to evaluate personal strengths and limitations toward practising social work. The reflection paper also serves as an indicator of the student's written communication skills. Letters of reference provide additional information on the student's values, knowledge, skills and interpersonal suitability for social work practice. For borderline cases, the student may be placed under probation in field education, may require intensive field supervision, or may require taking some additional coursework before being placed in the field. Students who exhibited questionable values and/or behaviours should not be placed in the field. If the university were able to carry out adequate screening at admission and at pre-practicum phases, the gatekeeping function would not be shifted heavily to field instructors, who are usually neither an employee of the university nor being paid for their work as field instructor.

2. Recommendations for organizational issues

Institutional support is crucial in attracting and retaining field instructors and practica. Institutional support refers to support provided by the university to both field instructors and agencies. Institutional support to field instructors can be strengthened by: enhancing communication between the university and field instructors; providing adequate informational, technical, and collateral support to field instructors; supporting field instructors who encountered 'difficult' students; and liaising closely with field instructors who reported to have students who may warrant failing the practicum.

University support to agencies can be enhanced by: actively engaging organizational representatives in the development of the field education curricula; and offering preplacement workshops for some specialized fields such as child protection, probation, and medical social work so that students are better prepared, particularly the multidisciplinary nature of work in these settings, before they begin their practicum.

3. Recommendations for attitudinal issues

In response to the attitudinal problem, the major challenge is the dual role dilemma in which some field instructors are reluctant to carry out their gatekeeping role. To overcome this challenge, an alternative is to provide field instruction training, which helps field instructors to recognize their role in the gatekeeping process as well as aware of the latest theories and skills in field instruction. Professional development workshops on field education also provide opportunities for field instructors to share successful field instruction experiences as well as the challenges they face. Moreover, with well-developed suitability criteria, adequate screening at admission and at pre-practicum phases, and strong institutional support, field instructors might become more confident and competent in carrying out their gatekeeping role.

To conclude, the effectiveness of the gatekeeping function in social work field education relies on the quality of field instructors. Retention of experienced field instructors and attraction of more social workers to become field instructors are dependent on the level of university support, the minimization of practical challenges, and a shared responsibility between the schools of social work and social work practitioners in the field.


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Dora M.Y. Tam Author:

Dora Tam is an assistant professor with the Social Work Program in the University of Northern British Columbia, 3333 University Way, Prince George BC Canada V2N 4Z9. Tel: (250) 960 6521. Email:
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