Voices of experience

The involvement of users in shaping services has been one of the
main social care developments in recent years. The new three-year
degree for social workers is no exception, with the Department of
Health commissioning a series of focus groups through which service
users put forward their ideas.

In the groups, 84 people from a range of backgrounds and ethnic
groups considered how changes to the elements of social work
training could improve service delivery.

Two themes dominated. First, the need for social workers to
understand what a client’s life is like and not to make assumptions
or judgements about wants or needs. Second, the quality of the
relationship that the social worker has with the service

The implications for social work training apply not only to the
content and shape of the degree course but also to the selection
and assessment of students, their continuing education and their
career development. This suggests that links should be made between
the different parts of the process – from selection, through
training to career development. Can the experience of service users
be the common thread that shapes the process?

As well as the practical knowledge and skills needed by social
workers, service users identified the importance of particular
personal characteristics, such as empathy, warmth, trustworthiness
and honesty (see panel, right).

Focus group members made several suggestions for improving the
selection of candidates. Attracting people from diverse communities
with the “right” personal characteristics was only the start; the
challenge for higher education was to find new ways to involve
service users in the selection and education of trainees.

Service users were also enthusiastic about being involved in
practice learning opportunities for students. Several ways of
giving trainees direct experience were suggested, including
visiting clients and seeing them in situ. This could be done

  • Shadowing a user for a period of time.
  • Shadowing experienced social workers and working with clients
    under supervision.
  • Inviting users to give talks about their life experiences.
  • Visiting service users at home or at a club.
  • Using user input to assess performance, especially of practice
    placements. Assessment panels could be set up for this.

The changing nature of employment practices, individual
responsibility for life-long learning and managing careers might
result in a bigger role for social care employment agencies. They
could develop partnerships with social workers, higher education
institutions, local authorities and other employers in order to
maximise learning opportunities for trainees and qualified staff.
However, there may be a tendency to lose sight of the service
user’s experience, which plays a crucial role in grounding the
theory and practice of trainees, social workers and their

Examples of effective partnerships between agencies, education and
training institutions do exist. But these seem patchy and
underdeveloped. Employment agencies depend on public sector policy
and have few incentives and limited opportunities to become
involved in social work education.

Although the potential for partnership working at all levels is
great, much preparatory work needs to be done to persuade some
agencies to take part.

The focus groups greatly influenced the social work training
requirements issued in May 2002.1 This is a challenging
agenda for training institutions, but it offers the prospect of a
generation of social work practitioners delivering a service that
users identify as representing the best of current social work

Alix Crawford is service development manager at the
Institute for Applied Health and Social Policy at King’s College


1 Department of Health,
Requirements for Social Work Training, May 2002, at


Background Reading 

For a full summary of key messages from all the focus
groups go to


What clients want 

Service users views about social work emphasise the importance
of recruitment of individuals with particular personal

  • Empathy, warmth, trustworthiness and honesty. 
  • Commitment to user independence. 
  • Practical knowledge about options. 
  • Personal skills in counselling. 
  • Cultural sensitivity.


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