‘Social work students are increasingly being asked to act as advocates – and that’s a good thing’

Students who learn how to enable service users to make their voices heard at core group meetings will make better social workers, says practice educator Helen Bonnick

By Helen Bonnick

Social workers often approach core group meetings and case conferences with some trepidation; more so if the service user is arguing against the likely plans. And what if the advocate the service user brings with them for support is a social work student? It would not be surprising if that led to a feeling of having been let down, or undermined by one of your own.

This is happening more and more. In my experience, schools, prisons, refugee centres, substance use agencies, children’s centres and other (often voluntary sector) organisations increasingly expect social work students to stand beside service users in challenging decisions taken within the statutory sector. It may be a case where a parent is challenging the requirements of a child protection plan, contact arrangements, or a child’s removal; someone wishing to see their file; or perhaps a care leaver angry about their own care journey and wanting to bring a complaint about the decisions made on their behalf so many years before.

Enabling a service user to make their voice or opinion heard at a core group meeting brings its own challenges and learning for students. My role as an off-site practice educator is to assist them in considering not just their own role as a member of the agency, but also as a student social worker. Fighting the cause of the underdog can seem a very noble pursuit, but the service user’s right to be heard is only one consideration among many.

Where are the boundaries to the role of the student in such a situation? We wouldn’t expect a student to help a service user sue a local authority, for example. How can professional ethics be maintained while bringing a challenge against a decision of a potential colleague? How is information given by different parties weighed and assessed? How does the student understand the role of advocate? Whose needs are paramount and how can their voice be heard?

It could be a prime piece of work for critical reflection in a student’s portfolio. Law, theory and ethics all come together in a beautiful jigsaw as the student reflects on what they know, what they don’t know, and what they need to know.

It is not about taking sides. A student social worker is not required to accept every decision made in the name of children’s services without question, but nor should they assume that the cause of the other party has more merit. They might be encouraged to understand the context of interventions, work pressures, or additional information which might be held; and they might think about what they would have done differently.

My hope is that having made such a journey from the service user’s point of view now, their future practice as a qualified social worker will be improved. Challenges from service users may be met not with fear and anxiety, but with a confidence built on sensitivity, respect and a strong sense of justice.

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