Learning from people: the training method bringing service users and social workers together

Social work students were put together with unaccompanied minors to create a new, collaborative learning space

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Photo: Monkey Business Images/ REX/ Shutterstock

by Helen Casey, Felicity Shenton, Bini Araia and Jenny Simpson

Late last year saw the implementation of an innovative and thought-provoking method of social work education called ‘Mend the Gap’. This is a model for the effective involvement of people who are at the receiving end of services, together with those who provide professional support.

This approach originated in Sweden and was developed by the international network and learning partnership: ’PowerUs’ (2012).The aim of the approach is to promote an equal learning environment where people can share knowledge and experiences about their roles.

The programme, which involved social work students, criminology students and young unaccompanied minors, was identified by Investing in People and Culture, a support service working to promote support and equal rights for refugees and asylum seekers in Teesside.

The programme

Over a six-week period the participants met weekly. They included twelve young people who were unaccompanied minors from Iraq, Iran, Eritrea, Ethopia and Kurdistan; six students, six facilitators who were from a range of educational institutions, a voluntary sector organisation and a Social Work Teaching Partnership (Durham University, The Open University, Investing in People and Culture and the North East Social Work Alliance) and three interpreters.

The goal was to identify key gaps in knowledge and explore these through conversations and activities around the following themes which were identified by young people prior to the programme commencing.

The agenda developed was:

  • Children’s rights
  • Access to appropriate education
  • Age assessments
  • Roles and responsibilities within Children’s Social Care
  • Meetings and decisions about care

Each meeting began with either a presentation or an exercise that allowed all the participants to consider the topic that was being discussed. These discussions revealed gaps, not just in the knowledge and understanding of the unaccompanied minors, but also the students and practitioners that were taking part in the project.

Examples included the unaccompanied minors not being clear about the roles of social workers, foster carers or Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs), as there are no such equivalent roles in their countries of origin.

Another example of a lack of clarity was the processes concerned with age assessments. The unaccompanied minors shared that they did not understand either the purpose or the processes involved.

For the students and practitioners who were part of the project, it became apparent that there is a seven-year difference between the Ethiopian calendar and western calendar, it is now 2010 in Ethiopia.

The practice implication being that if social workers and other professionals are not aware of this, they are likely to doubt the information that is provided by young people who are unaccompanied minors because they are not familiar with the cultural connotations.

What was most striking was that young people and students learned together for the first time about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, revealing major gaps in young people’s experiences of having basic rights such as education, communication and physical activity. A young person who took part in the programme said: “Mend the Gap helps to make processes simpler and helps us understand what our rights are”.

A key characteristic of this approach is to build relationships and trust which was demonstrated through the activities which were incorporated in each session e.g. Football, table tennis and a climbing wall.

The benefits

Unlike any other social work education method, Mend the Gap brings together service users and practitioners into the same physical space in an environment where the power dynamics are removed and provides the opportunity to connect and learn from each other as people, rather than through the traditional service user and social work practitioner relationship, which has arguably influenced legislation and local authority policies and procedures.

The benefits in terms of social work education are multiple. Students are provided with opportunities to develop their communication skills, they have direct contact with service users and hear first-hand the implications of service provision and its effects.

An Open University student, Elaine, when speaking about the approach said:

“It is good to know I am not alone coming across all the stumbling blocks …coming together helps with communication, helps young people to have a voice.”

Significantly, this approach has worked well with service users who have felt most marginalised and stigmatised by their experiences and would not have become involved with social work education through more traditional routes. One young unaccompanied minor said:

“Mend the Gap helps to make processes simpler and helps us understand what our rights are.”

Importantly, in this particular programme example students were beginning to actively engage with the significance of culturally-appropriate practice.

A further added advantage of the Mend the Gap approach is the way in which students are able to understand the relationships between services within the local authorities and the private, voluntary and independent sectors, as well as creating a rich understanding of the gaps between service users and practitioners.

Service users and carers

As the research project ran it was quickly recognised that there were benefits, not only for social work students, but also practitioners in seeking to extend the opportunities to deliver Mend the Gap programmes throughout the region. Ewan Weir, director for people in Newcastle council and chair of the North East Social Work Alliance, was so impressed by the project that he committed to arrange a presentation for other directors of children’s social care in the region.

Further outcomes regarding the project are best summarised by the comments from students and young people involved in the programme which are taken from the short film made to capture learning (see the link below):

For those involved in the Mend the Gap it is not just a ground-breaking way of delivering social work education, the approach is also a catalyst for changing social work practice and engaging in relationship-based social work.

Authors: Helen Casey (Staff Tutor, The Open University); Felicity Shenton (Project Manager, North East Social Work Alliance:, Bini Araia (Project Manager, Investing in People and Culture) and Jenny Simpson (The Open University – Head of Social Work, England)

3 Responses to Learning from people: the training method bringing service users and social workers together

  1. Simon Blackburn April 17, 2018 at 9:34 am #

    Wow, such differences in basic knowledge and awareness levels being uncovered. A great project.

  2. Louise April 18, 2018 at 9:17 am #

    Had the privilege of meeting with some the young people to discuss the issues they had raised – an inspiring group and a fantastic project.

  3. londonboy April 18, 2018 at 10:22 am #

    ‘The benefits in terms of social work education are multiple. Students are provided with opportunities to develop their communication skills, they have direct contact with service users and hear first-hand the implications of service provision and its effects’

    I can understand why this programme is so positive for all.
    I really do not understand though why it should be ‘branded/funded as a programme’ and seen as exceptional. To be honest, that it is, is indicative of the mountain Social workers have to climb to be part of support services that meet the needs of people services are there to help/serve. This programme seem to exposes the very low baseline many services use currently.