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Meaningful involvement of service users and carers in social work education

About a year ago the British Journal of Social Work published online our paper about a study exploring stakeholder perspectives on the meaningful involvement of service users and carers in social work education. This paper has now been published in the October issue of the journal. The full paper can be downloaded here.

The paper explored the following questions: What is the meaningful involvement of service users and carers in social work education? How do you make involvement meaningful at the advanced level of the post-qualifying (PQ) framework for social work, where the levels of education and practice experience are high?

When I worked at the Institute of Psychiatry, Karen Robinson, a service user researcher, and I co-produced a study which involved 29 stakeholders – service users, carers, social workers undertaking advanced PQ programmes, social work lecturers and employers. Karen interviewed them to explore their conceptions of meaningful involvement. We found four predominant models (consultation, partnership, political and user control) which have different implications for how service users and carers may be engaged in advanced post-qualifying social work education.

The models can be placed on a spectrum of opinion which spans from the primary purpose of involvement being to add value to students’ learning (‘added value’), to it being to empower the service users and carers involved (’empowerment’).

Universities whose primary purpose is to ‘add value’ to advanced PQ programmes, aim to provide learning opportunities unavailable from traditional staff members which are valued by students as helpful to their future practice. Members of this school of thought are likely to argue that service user and carer involvement at the advanced level is different and perhaps more complex than at lower levels. They are more likely to favour careful selection of service users and carers to meet the specific needs of the advanced level group and the learning objectives of a particular session. They prefer the long-term, consistent involvement of a relatively small group of service users and carers through all stages of the programme following either a consultation or a partnership model. A service user or carer with substantial teaching expertise is likely to be valued as a ‘user consultant’ within these models.

Universities whose primary purpose is to seek to empower the service users and carers involved in advanced PQ programmes, aim to challenge the traditional power imbalance between social worker and service user or carer. They stress the importance of equal access to involvement by all service users and carers, and do not usually favour selection of service users or carers on the basis of specific skills. Larger numbers of service users and carers are likely to be involved, reflecting a larger number of experiences and with a more democratic style of leadership. They may argue that if sufficient resources were invested in involvement activities, and sufficient training was available to service users and carers, there is no reason why any service user or carer should not be able to make a valuable contribution to an advanced PQ programme. In general, they do not think there are significant differences between involvement at the advanced level and at lower levels.  Members of this school of thought are more likely to follow a political model of involvement and effort is made to strive towards a model of user control of advanced PQ programmes. However, a service user or carer with substantial teaching expertise is likely to be described as a ‘professional user’ within these models. This term is likely to have negative connotations.

We conducted a literature review to inform this study, which has been published online separately. Most studies in this review related to qualifying social work programmes and conceptualised involvement at the ’empowerment’ end of the spectrum. However, due to a lack of evaluative research, there is little evidence about which model most effectively improves outcomes for future service users of graduates of these programmes. As ever, more research is required.

In September, the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) launched a consultation on service user involvement in approved  education and training programmes. HCPC are proposing to introduce a requirement that other professional groups involve service users in their training, which already happens in social work. This is potentially a sign that HCPC recognises that social work leads this agenda – something that should be celebrated. However, as post-qualifying social work training has largely been removed from regulatory control (except for Approved Mental Health Professional training), it is possible that user and carer involvement in PQ programmes may not receive the attention it did previously. To ensure that social work continues to strive towards the meaningful involvement of service users and carers in its pre- and post-qualifying education, it is worthwhile bearing in mind the existence of a diversity of models and their potentially divergent outcomes for practitioners and service users. And the need for more research to explore these outcomes…

You can download a PDF version of the paper by clicking here.

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