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Meaningful involvement of service users and carers in social work education

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 framework for social work, where the levels of education and practice experience are high?

These questions have bedevilled us at the Institute of Psychiatry, where we run an advanced level post-qualifying (PQ) programme for social workers. We wanted to avoid tokenism, so we conducted a small qualitative study to explore what stakeholders understood meaningful involvement to be. The findings are published online today in the British Journal of Social Work.

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 will be published 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 alack 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.

The College of Social Work is preparing to take over ownership of the continuing professional development of social workers and post-qualifying training. While it would be inappropriate to stipulate a model of involvement which universities must follow, it is worthwhile bearing in mind the existence of a diversity of models and their potentially divergent outcomes for practitioners and service users.

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

4 thoughts on “Meaningful involvement of service users and carers in social work education

  1. robert guzder says:

    It’s a fascinating topic and one where I expect my own opinions might change over time. My perspective now is that of a newly-qualified worker – so I have up-to-date experience of social work study at the lower level, and the beginning of seeing how this relates to practice.
    What is striking is that although my social work education emphasised the expertise of service users, this emphasis was very different to that placed on academic or professional experts. With the latter, there is encouragement that students develop critical thinking skills, while with the former the emphasis is on social work values (especially empowerment). This approach seems to me to be flawed: if we truly valued and respected service users’ expertise we would subject it to the same rigour as others’. My first months in practice seem to show a similar problem of approach. The process seems to be anchored on “service users have said that this is what they want”. But which service users? And why did they say it? And can one service user speak for another? Certain of my first cases have troubled me in this regard, in ways that are too complex to explain here.

    The root of the problem, possibly, is that process and approach are not so much based on a valuing of service user input, but on a wider political dogma that choice is inherently good. As one man said to me, “I have an increasing choice of increasingly poor service providers”.

    However, I’m new to all this, and I’m also happening to be working mostly with older people, who may have a more traditional view of service provision. And as I said, my view may well change.

  2. ermintrude2 says:

    My question would be about what makes a ‘service user’ – I am a social worker but I have also had a social worker myself at one point and I’ve been a carer at another point and had to ‘deal’ with social services from that angle.
    I think in some ways we have to think what outcome are we striving towards? Is it for those training to receive particular focus to their studies, is it about ’empowering’ service users and carers and giving them a ‘stake’ in the process of social work education or is it about creating a tier of ‘service user experts’ and defining people by their involvement with social services?
    I don’t have any answers to these questions – incidently but sometimes asking the questions can be a push towards different ways of thinking rather than providing a neat and cosy answer.

    The universities (as social workers do) hold the power in the relationship with ‘service user’ experts and there’s actually no way around this but it has to be acknowledged and thought given to the process of who/how is chosen/applies for the ‘service user expert’ ‘role’.

    When I was doing my ASW training, some of the most valuable sessions involved those who had used mental health services and been subject to compulsory detentions. Not a coincidence.

    In my mind, it is most important that the voices that don’t volunteer and step forward are also heard.
    Social Work education needs to be inclusive to create broad minded social workers who are fit for practice.

  3. Julie Wilkes says:

    I’d like to propose a different take on service user involvement in sw education, that successfully addresses questions of power imbalances, input quality and support. However, it isn’t a piecemeal (ie individual HEI) based solution. The networks and organisations that beat represent service users’ views and interests and in which service users are well engaged and represented are the civil society organisations that exist at local and national levels. These organisations are themselves frequently involved in campaigning for a better deal for their beneficiaries, and often have understanding of the ‘cutting edge’ of best practice, often ahead of their statutory counterparts. Crucially, they have the trust of their service users and have heavy user involvement in governance. They can provide support for individuals and additional knowledge from their research and their wide networks on service user voice and opinion. They are ideally placed to deliver material to support HEI learning modules on a commercial basis. They could be incentivised to work in a much more systematic way with HEIs delivering both qualifying and pq level programmes to ensure meaningful involvement of service users and to pursue their own mission in so doing. Material could be constantly updated in line with emerging circumstances and needs. For maximum impact, this would need to be co-ordinated regionally and nationally, to ensure the greatest value for the time and effort expended (and the widest possible reach of best practice ideas. An organisation like the SW College and its communities of interest in different aspects of sw practice is ideally placed to support this kind of development, and help raise standards overall. I’d be keen to know what others think of this idea.
    Julie Wilkes
    Independent consultant and campaigner

    1. Thanks, Julie. You make some very valuable points. I think there is considerable scope for more co-produced modules on qualifying and post-qualifying programmes. Where I have seen these in action, they appear to work well. The current financial climate which HEIs find themselves in disincentivises this kind of provision as the resources are not available. However, this should not stop us exploring it further and evaluating the effect of these modules on outcomes for students and the people they work with in their practice.

      All the best,


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