Social work academic Jo Rees examines research findings on service user involvement in post-qualifying social work education
• Authors: Martin Webber and Karen Robinson
• Title: The Meaningful Involvement of Service Users and Carers in Advanced-Level Post-Qualifying Social Work Education: A Qualitative Study
• Published by: British Journal of Social Work, October 2011
• Aims: To increase understanding of the concept of meaningful involvement of service users and carer involvement in post-qualifying (PQ) social work education.
• Methodology: The qualitative methodology employed a collaborative model; the research was co-produced by one service user and one social worker.
• Conclusion: Meaningful involvement of service users and carers in PQ social work education is a complex task that cannot be ignored, but at present remains allusive.
Involvement of service users and carers is a fundamental characteristic of both the provision of social work services and of social work education at all levels within the UK, including advanced level post-qualifying (PQ). The aim of the study, which was partly funded by the General Social Care Council, was to explore the concept of meaningful service user and carer involvement in social work education, particularly in light of the restructuring of social work education in the UK by the Social Work Reform Board. Meaningful involvement was defined as the development of relationships based on trust and the attention paid to power imbalances. The authors state that, despite a dearth of outcomes-based research specific to this topic, the difference in outcomes produced by diverse models of involvement is exacerbated in advanced post-qualifying social work education and thus deserves attention. Therefore, the objectives for and evaluation of service user and carer involvement are perceived to be arguably imperative contributors to the evidence base for service user and carer involvement in social work education.
The study employed a qualitative methodology within a collaborative model; the research was co-produced by one service user researcher and one social work researcher. Power differentials were explored by the authors who concluded that, in this instance, any perceived imbalance between the two researchers was not an issue and did not impact upon the study. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with seven social work academics and four mental health service users and carers involved in advanced PQ programmes; a focus group was held with ten social workers studying on a PQ programme, a questionnaire was completed by a further six PQ students and two interviews were conducted with local authority managers.
There are four models for service user and carer engagement in PQ social work education, according to the report’s authors: consultation, partnership, political and user control. The consultation model respects the expertise of the service users and carers but the balance of power is retained by core programme staff, while the partnership model emphasises equality and the equal distribution of power. The political model is characterised by empowerment and political emancipation of service users and carers, while the user control model lays the balance of power in the hands of service users and carers. Interestingly, in this study the user control model was expressed by core programme staff rather than by service users and carers themselves.
The study reveals that participants support the concept of service user and carer involvement in PQ education. Participants perceive the candidates on advanced PQ programmes to have different learning requirements from social work education at other levels, requiring service user and carers to develop a more flexible tailored approach. Different perspectives about the primary purpose of service user and carer involvement in PQ education were also explored: for example, while some participants focused on the capacity of involvement to positively influence education (and in turn the quality of social work practitioners and ultimately service users), others emphasised the political element suggested by potential modification of power dynamics.
Instances of poor practice were provided, drawing on the experiences of service user and carer involvement where insufficient preparation or training contributed to negative encounters. Long-term involvement was perceived to be valuable in protecting service users and carers, permitting full understanding of the programme and enabling the development of mutual respect.
Involvement in assessment was perceived to be tricky, with calls for key overall responsibility to remain a duty of university staff. Some participants argued for employment as lectures, while the majority settled for equality with lecturers in all spheres; for example, pay, access to institutional facilities and professional development prospects. On-going training was deemed to be crucial, as was emotional support and flexible capacity to accommodate varying requirements (health, personal etc).
Crucially, this study supported the perception that the golden chalice of meaningful service user and carer involvement within all domains of PQ education (and arguably, at all levels of social work education) remains obstinately out of reach.
The authors acknowledge that this study was not comprehensive and consequently does suffer from limitations. The research was informed by a small sample or participants that may not be representative of other PQ programmes in the UK. The shallow pool from which participants were drawn may have negatively influenced the diversity of perspectives exemplified here.
For policy makers
Meaningful involvement of service users and carers in PQ social work education is a complex task that cannot be ignored.
For social workers
Despite the reported intrinsic benefits to service users and carers, there is little or no evidence to confidently state that service user and carer involvement has altered social work practice, nor significantly benefited people who receive social work services.
For service users and carers
Meaningful involvement requires a long term commitment and a culture change within institutions.
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Jo Rees is a social work tutor at Swansea University
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