Involving service users and carers in social work education

Why the guide was developed

Involving service users and carers in the education and training of social workers is higher on the policy and practice agenda than ever before. A three-year qualifying training for social workers was introduced in England in 2003. The successful completion of the programme leads to the award of a degree at honours level that is the new professional qualification for social work. For the first time, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) that run these programmes are required by government to involve service users and carers as stakeholders in all parts of the design and delivery of the programme.

Although the national 'Requirements for social work training' (1) specify that service users must be involved in all parts of the degree, they do not prescribe how the universities and colleges should go about meeting this remit in partnerships with them.

The opportunity to develop local arrangements with service user and carer organisations is both exciting and challenging. It has to be undertaken in parallel with all the other work involved in setting up and running the programmes.

The total number of service user and carer organisations covering all ages and interests is not known. In preparation for the degree, some universities and colleges have carried out local mapping exercises. National exercises are also underway, including a Shaping Our Lives National User Network project supported by SCIE. In making estimates, we have to take account of the numbers of groups and organisations that are led or controlled by service users or carers and also of the local branches and groups of national charities for service users, including children and young people, and carers. Nationally, therefore, we are estimating in thousands rather than in hundreds of groups of different sizes and membership interests. Some of these organisations are already involved in selecting and training social care workers and students, and they can build on their experiences, but for others it is new territory.

Similarly, many universities already have some experience in service user and carer involvement, typically in teaching sessions on the Diploma in Social Work, the approved social worker (ASW) and other post-qualifying and advanced programmes. They, too, are well placed to build on their existing links. However, in common with colleagues on all the degree programmes, they are engaged for the first time in developing strategies to integrate the active involvement of service users and carers systematically into all their work. This involves translating into practice the statements of intention submitted to the General Social Care Council (GSCC) during the degree accreditation and the subsequent course validation and approval processes. It also involves joint work to develop approaches that are comprehensive and fit for purpose.

At the time of writing, 66 universities in England were accredited and approved to offer the degree. Final figures on the number of students enrolled on the courses that began in 2003 are not yet available but a preliminary figure of about 2,300 students has been quoted. In Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, the degree programmes will be introduced in 2004. The pace and progress of work on service user and carer participation varies, with some starting their preparations in 2002 and others scheduling this work into the six months before the start of the programmes.

As anticipated, a wide variety of approaches to the same task of developing participation are also evolving. These will be tried out and tested over the next three years. Encouragingly, the Department of Health Policy Research Programme is commissioning evaluative research on this initiative. Until the first intake of students graduate and begin to practise in 2006, we cannot make judgements about the relative effectiveness in terms of processes and outcomes of the various approaches to involving service users and carers. What we can and indeed have set out to do is describe the similarities and differences in the emerging approaches, and bring together knowledge and resources to inform continuous development and the debate on the criteria for evaluating them.