The role of the support workforce in practice-based learning

Practice-based learning is an essential element of physiotherapy pre-registration education. When a learner is on placement, the whole team has a pivotal role in taking a shared responsibility for the practice-based learning – this includes both registered staff and support workers

Workplace development
[illustration : Carole Verbyst]

A team approach

We recognise that practice-based learning takes place across all areas, pillars (research, clinical, education and leadership) and levels of practice. Whilst the team will look different depending on each individual service and area of practice, we need to recognise and utilise the wealth of knowledge and skills of everyone within our teams.  The team should welcome learners into their team and treat them inclusively, upholding the values of the profession and their local organisation. This in turn allows the learner to be and feel valued. 

Support workers can make a valuable contribution to pre-registration students’ practice-based learning, and they can provide an enriched experience for learners. Support workers can offer a safe and supportive space which can feel less intimidating for novice learners.  They can do this in a variety of ways depending on their experience, level of practice and competence to support learning in practice.     

Leslie George, a physiotherapy lecturer and course director at Ulster University, says:

Physio support workers are vital in supporting physiotherapy students with practice-based learning during their placements.  

‘On returning to the university environment from placement students regularly highlight that support workers are important for development of skills, confidence, and professionalism. Through effective team working they provide students with vital supervision and feedback in conjunction with practice educators.  

‘All in all, the skills of support workers assist students in translating university-based learning and teaching to its practical application therefore ensuring the continued development of the physiotherapy workforce.’

A delegated activity and the HCPC position

As part of its standards of education and training, the HCPC stipulates that students on placement must have a ‘practice educator’. The practice educator is responsible for a learner’s education during their practice-based learning. The HCPC expects a practice educator to be a HCPC registered professional or other statutory regulated professional.

The HCPC also recognises that a variety of staff in a placement environment can contribute to practice-based learning. It does not set standards and limits on models of learning or involvement of other staff, but it does expect that the qualifications and experiences of staff are appropriate to the specific aspects of practice-based learning they are involved in, and that they are able to effectively support learning.


Associates network

CSP associate and student associate members can join the CSP associates’ network for free to connect with other support workers, raise awareness and contribute to the development of your role in physiotherapy and promote equity, diversity and belonging among support workers .Join the network.

Support workers cannot undertake the formal role of ‘practice educator’; however, with the right experience, training, education and competence to support learners in practice, they can contribute to practice-based learning within the scope of their role. 

Sally Ireland is a therapy assistant practitioner who works as part of the hand therapy team at Northwest Anglia Trust. She says: ‘In my area of work we regularly have students join the team for practice-based learning. As the support worker in the team, I will provide tutorials and practical demonstrations on some of the conditions I see and the treatment modalities I provide. A student will often shadow my rehabilitation sessions with patients and assist in the running of the weekly wrist group. 

I think it is really important for support workers to be involved with students during their time on placement. They get a better understanding of my scope of practice as well as the value of a support worker within the team. Being involved in their learning, it reinforces my knowledge and skills as a clinician, and I find it very rewarding seeing them progress through their placement.

Working with students is considered a delegated activity and the named practice educator is accountable for their decision to delegate aspects of student training, supervision and support to a support worker. 

You can read more about supervision, accountability and delegation of activities here

What are the benefits?

There are many benefits for pre-registration learners when working with support workers on a practice-based placement. These can include: an understanding of the roles and responsibilities of support workers, appreciation of the knowledge, skills and expertise held by the support workforce, an awareness of the principles that underpin safe and effective delegation to support workers and an opportunity to learn and practice core technical skills most frequently undertaken by support workers but which are the foundation of registered practice. 

There are also many benefits to support workers when working with learners. These include an opportunity to educate students about the role and value of the support workforce, the chance to develop and hone leadership, coaching and teaching skills, and the opportunity to influence the next generation of registered physiotherapists to be inclusive and to value diversity in their teams.

Developing support workers to contribute to practice-based learning

Educating, training and supporting students on placement is a skill and requires specific competencies, which could include teaching methods and approaches, communication skills including coaching techniques and how to provide feedback, as well as recognising when a student might be struggling, supporting an underperforming student and supporting an excelling student.

For support workers to effectively contribute to practice-based learning there must be investment in the support workers’ own learning and development to ensure they can undertake this aspect of their role confidently and successfully. Investing in support workers’ learning will empower them to contribute fully to practice-based learning, and it is also a requirement from the HCPC that anyone contributing to practice-based learning has the qualifications and experience appropriate to the specific aspects of practice-based learning they are involved in.

Mark Hennessey support worker at Northumbria Healthcare Trust
Mark Hennessey support worker at Northumbria Healthcare Trust

Mark Hennessey, a support worker at Northumbria Healthcare Trust,  says: ‘In 2022 my trust, Northumbria Healthcare, gave me the opportunity to take part in a pilot course ran jointly across local universities called ‘educator training for support workers’. 

‘This course’s main benefit was validating the skills we already have and use every time we are involved in student placements, but in addition to this gave me a good insight into other factors such as the stresses/outside influencing factors that can affect a student on placement and how to best support them through those whilst gaining the most from their placement. I understand that this course will hopefully be rolled out elsewhere soon.’

Support workers make a significant contribution to student education and in turn create quality learning experiences for physiotherapy pre-registration learners. 

Practice based learning

The AHP principles of practice based learning

The CSP principles of practice-based learning fully support the integration of the support workforce within the practice education team. Read the interactive document and consider what they could mean to you, your team and the development of the future workforce.


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