“The teaching team gives students the technical knowledge, law and theory. Then we come along and say: ‘This is the reality; you can walk out of here and forget all about it until tomorrow, but we’re living it 24 hours a day.’ They seem to appreciate that,” chuckles Kevin Holmes. Holmes chairs the Portsmouth University-affiliated Social Work Inclusion Group (SWIG). Founded in 2004, the collective of service users play a crucial role in developing students’ knowledge and understanding of social work at BSc and MSc level.
There’s nothing unusual about service users participating in interview panels for prospective students, or delivering lectures. From the 2015-16 academic year, the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) will require that every programme it approves – including social work courses – builds in service user and carer involvement. Many already do. But academics at Portsmouth hope their department is helping to point the way towards more deeply co-operative and mutually beneficial arrangements.
Besides interviewing, teaching and facilitating debates, SWIG members participate in staff meetings and are intimately involved in annual course planning. Additionally, taking cues from the theory of social pedagogy, they and other service user groups have been producing creative work – including film, drama and music – about their experiences in conjunction with students. Kevin lectures from the first month, exploring issues such as “What is disability?”. “He gets people to think critically and review their preconceptions,” explains senior lecturer Pete Shepherd. “It’s powerful.”
The world of university
Second-year BSc student Natasha de la Perrelle, who joined the course after gaining experience working in care homes, believes the department’s approach has been beneficial to her development. “We’ve worked closely with SWIG members on a regular basis to discuss current issues,” she says of her first year. “They’ve been there when we’ve done presentations and were part of our fitness for practice panel at end of year. It’s ] positive learning experience when we’re putting theory into practice.”
Second-year MSc student Toni McFarlane concurs. “Within the world of university and lectures, you can become separate from the actual work you’ll be doing; the people you’ll be supporting,” she admits. “Quite often what you might read, or the current debate might be around a subject… a SWIG member will come into a lecture and completely disagree with it.”
Multi-disciplinary research carried out by the HCPC with students and academics tallies with de la Perrelle’s and McFarlane’s experiences, according to Michael Guthrie, the organisation’s director of policy and standards. “Involving a service user or carer with direct experience, in teaching or how students are assessed allows a much more rounded picture and gives a better link between theory and practice,” he says. “Social work has been strong in thinking about how you engage and empower service users around their right to be involved at every level, so [they] can actually affect their needs, rather than those of professionals.”
With precisely this aim, in Portsmouth, collaborative creative work with service users enters the mix as courses progress. Shepherd’s colleague, social work lead Kieron Hatton, says this has a strong positive impact on the attitude students carry with them into professional life. “It’s the concept of the ‘common third’ – neither party comes to a situation as an expert, but brings a mix of creative and manual skills,” he says.” Students don’t get assessed on the quality of the product; they’re assessed on the quality of the relationship and their ability to communicate with service users.”
Many SWIG members have suffered in the past from professionals who lack those skills. Holmes met his colleague Ann Blackburn – who, like him, has cerebral palsy – several years ago at a day centre, where scant regard was being paid to her needs. “I’d moved to Hampshire after working to the top of my career in the USA [teaching at the Center for Independent Living in Oregon],” Blackburn explains via an iPad. “And they put me in a day centre – why did I work hard at school to end up making baskets?”
Hard work is a topic SWIG members and academic staff return to again and again. Hatton and Holmes were both involved in earlier inclusion initiatives at Portsmouth that subsequently foundered – for reasons ranging from a lack of resources, to an overly tokenistic approach. Both describe the current project as something that’s taken an enormous amount of effort to implement.
“You need a teaching team that really wants to do it,” says Holmes bluntly, “and you need service users who’ve got a little bit of get up and go, and aren’t content to sit on their rear ends all day living on benefits.”
There are still challenges to overcome. Hatton explains that the core SWIG group has become gradually less diverse because of factors such as young people growing away from the care system, and individuals’ poor health meaning they can no longer contribute. Jackie Kennedy, another long-term SWIG member with a history of mental health service involvement, adds that a lack of engagement with people from BME backgrounds is another concern at present.
The benefits system presents a further handicap. Service users below retirement age often can’t be paid for their input without jeopardising their main livelihood – meaning many are recompensed via a meal out here, a voucher there. It is an ongoing learning curve, admits Shepherd. “We’re always mindful of reviewing and evaluating. We get feedback from service users and students as to what’s worked, what could work better,” he says, adding that there are other factors to be taken into account, such as ensuring that service users are adequately prepared and do not become exhausted by their work.
Everyone, though, expresses hope that their combined experiences may have a wider impact in the future. Hatton is preparing to step into a research role that will see him pulling together evaluative materials gathered over the years, with the aim of producing a resource that can be used externally. Holmes, meanwhile, is working on a film with Yohai Hakak, another academic from the department, examining SWIG’s work over the past 12 months. It follows in the footsteps of “Life At The Other End”, the pair’s 48-minute 2012 production looking at drama work carried out by SWIG and students (below).
Ultimately he’d like to see a national network of service user groups developing, reaching beyond social work education into related healthcare professions. McFarlane’s closing words leave no doubt as to the positives that could come out of realising that pipe-dream. “You need that [reminder]: whose perspective is important to me?” she says. “Is it the person I could be working with, or what the current debate says? It’s that snap back to, ‘Well I’m a service user, this piece of legislation impacts on me, and this is what I think about it’. It can be a contrast to what a lecturer or an author might say, and to my mind it’s invaluable.”