The experience of trainee social workers is undergoing a transformation as more service users and carers become involved in teaching and assessing students. The General Social Care Council‘s head of education inspection Helen Wenman says: “Service users are becoming involved in all aspects of designing and delivering the social work degree. As it has been developed, universities have been able to develop how they involve service users and carers.
“They need to have a voice and it has become apparent that you need to involve students in that experience. This approach means students develop ways of relating to people as part of their training and they seem to value that.”
The idea of involving service users in training and assessment has been around since the 1970s, gathering pace in the 1990s when people with mental health problems began to be involved in some professional courses. However, the government’s recent emphasis on putting people at the centre of service delivery means that training is being transformed, with more service users becoming actively involved in teaching and assessing trainee social workers.
The 2007 Social Work Education Quality Assurance Report from the GSCC says: “The majority of higher education institutions reported increasing participation by people who use services and carers in all aspects of the social work degree. There has been a considerable increase in those involved in design and in the assessment of competence to practise.
“People who use services and carers are increasingly formally involved in membership of quality assurance groups and in annual course reviews and re-approval processes. Overall, there is a greater shift towards the integration of people who use services and carers in professional learning.”
At Liverpool Hope University, half the training on the social work degree course is provided by service users and staff from the health and social care charity PSS. Service users are at the heart of the course, says Liz Brooksbank, a qualified social worker and trainer seconded from PSS to the university’s BA in social work.
She says: “Students work with a range of client groups. They are supervised by practice assessors as they get to know the work and they also have the support of tutors.”
Carers and service users are also involved in guiding trainee social workers at Brunel University, along with teaching, assessing and selecting candidates. The university created a service user and carer involvement social work education committee in January, and two or three service users sit on the committee at each of its monthly meetings.
The university works closely with Horizon House, which supports people in their recovery from mental illness, inclusion in the community and return to employment. Service users from Horizon House are integral to the teaching and assessment of trainee social workers at Brunel.
Lynn McDonald, deputy director of Brunel’s social work division, says: “It’s about understanding people and bringing them together in both a formal and informal setting. The committee has shared governance, which shifts the balance of power and gives service users and carers greater involvement.
“Another important aspect of service user and carer involvement is working together on specific tasks. There needs to be collaboration with agencies that are willing to share information so you can try out new ideas.”
McDonald cites the mantra of “nothing about us without us” as integral to the way the university involves carers and service users in guiding, teaching, assessing and selecting social workers.
Mike Edwards, the manager of Horizon House, says: “The trend for users being involved in social work degree training reflects government policy, and is emphasised more within universities.”
One of these users is Louise MacNamara. Sitting on the social work education committee means she is central to the way trainee social workers are taught and assessed at every stage of the course. She says: “It is a useful forum for us to provide input into the way the course is run. Horizon House is closely involved with Brunel University’s degree course and we have students working with us, which works really well.”
The GSCC report highlights the fact that higher education institutions teaching the social work degree are enthusiastic about involving carers and service users in the training and assessment of social workers because it raises awareness of issues and gives a valuable insight into the role.
This is echoed by Skills for Care, which aims to modernise adult social care in England. Nasreen Hammond, of its Learning Resource Network, says: “There is a big emphasis on supporting the engagement of service users and carers. Every university received funding when the degree in social work started in 2003 and every year since. It has been developed in different ways, such as carers’ groups and service user groups helping to recruit and train students. There are also user-led organisations where students can get placements.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing universities seeking to involve more users and carers is engaging with those people they want to involve, which often means working with other organisations to get a diverse cross-section of representatives.
One student benefiting from the increased participation of service users is Sharon McCartney at Liverpool Hope. She says: “It provides an opportunity to build relations with service users in different areas. People get to talk about how they view social work in general, which is beneficial. They are the people you are going to be working with, so that makes them the professionals. Working with people who use services and carers can highlight where they have had problems, so you can make sure you avoid them.”
Laura Goodman, who is also studying the social work degree at Liverpool Hope, says one of the main benefits of involving service users in teaching and assessing trainee social workers is that stereotypes and prejudices are broken down. She adds: “Getting the service user’s perspective helps you develop empathy it provides a real insight into what it’s like to have mental health problems, to have a disability or how it feels to be institutionalised.”
Break down stereotypes
This is echoed in the work taking place at Brunel University where McDonald says: “It’s important to break down stereotypes. If you just meet someone once the stereotype can be strengthened because you look for what you believe in, so one-off exposures don’t shift attitudes. Working regularly with people, away from hospital, foster homes, court or prison is really important in shifting ideas and stereotypes.”
Involving carers and service users in social work training is becoming increasingly widespread. Birmingham University, for example, recently developed a selection panel for prospective social workers, with members including carers and service users.
The university’s service user and care co-ordinator Joy Fillingham sums up the approach at many universities when she says: “It involves older people, young people, those who have been in the care process, people with physical, mental and invisible impairments: as broad a cross-section as possible is involved in the admissions process and assessing trainee social workers’ fitness to practice. We work with service users and carers so that this element runs through everything we do.”
This article appeared in the 20 March issue under the headline “Can we be of service?”