Involving service users and carers in social work education

Training and support

The importance of training and support for service user and carer participation is a clear message from contributors to this project. We suggest that the implementation strategy for the degree programmes should accord priority to the development of training. Written and agreed protocols should also be in place specifying the arrangements for supporting service users and carers in all their day-to-day work on the degree programmes. These should cover preparation, delivery and debriefing, and set out what support will be available, how it will be provided and by whom.

The need for proper induction, training and support is not confined to service user and carer organisations and individual trainers. It applies also to academic and administrative staff, students, and staff in the agencies providing practice learning opportunities. The amount and type of preparation and training may vary between these groups and individuals within them, but the case for including everyone rests on the reasons that follow.

First, it should not be assumed that all staff and the new intake of students understand the principles and practicalities of working with service users and carers. This includes what to expect, how to behave, and the questions that should and should not be asked in discussion sessions.

Second, service users and carers should not be expected to participate without access to training and support to develop their skills and confidence if they require it. Only a very small minority of service users and carers are interested in training social workers. The pool of potential trainers is unlikely to increase if they are not offered the tools to do the job.

Finally, training and support have been identified as levers for making service user and carer participation work. The responsibility for making it a positive experience for all the parties involved cannot lie with any single group: rather, it has to be shared out. Students want high quality education and their teachers share this interest. Service users and carers want to make their best possible contribution to teaching and learning. They value training, support and constructive feedback as mechanisms to improve their inputs. Service users have also pointed out that involvement in student training can be energising and rewarding. Properly organised, it can increase personal confidence, skills and knowledge, and open doors to further education, paid work and public service.

There are a variety of approaches to 'training the trainers’, and it is unlikely that one course or method will suit everyone. This is because service users and carers are a very mixed group with diverse backgrounds, life experiences, education, motivation and commitments. It is also because the type and level of their involvement in social work training will vary. Service users who are designing and delivering a course module over a term may have different training and support needs from service users who are contributing to a single session on the course.

Some training programmes are already tried and tested but others require a substantial investment of resources to develop them. The mental health survivors and service user movement has a long track record in providing training courses and packages for service user trainers. Their methods and materials are adaptable for use in the training of other service user groups. More recently, many other organisations for children and young people, adults with disabilities and carers have developed 'training for trainers’. The Central England People First National User Training Development Project for people with learning difficulties described here is an example of one such initiative (34).

In addition to training developed and delivered by service user and carer organisations themselves, other sources of access to training for trainers should also be explored. The options include:

The case for offering training to service users and carers involved in the degree is emphasised here. However, there is a distinction to be made between offering training and requiring it. Some people are cautious about creating a pool of special trainers in case it makes service users’ and carers’ contributions 'too professional’, and dilutes their impact on student learning. There is no evidence that this will happen but every effort should be made to include a wide a range of service users and carers and offer the type of training and support that they require.

Example: Central England People First National User Training Development Project

Central England People First is a user-led organisation for people with learning difficulties with over 10 years’ experience in service provision, advocacy, research, consultancy and training. It carried out this project to help other people with learning difficulties to learn how to be trainers with funding from the Department of Health.

The project team was made up of four members of Central England People First with experience in training and partnership working. They developed the two-day training programme and materials, with help from the project support person and external advisor. They took care to design a programme that the four team members with learning difficulties could deliver themselves, calling on additional support only when needed. They also ensured that the courses were delivered in an empowering way with plenty of opportunities for everyone to actively participate and gain skills and knowledge that they could use to provide training.

Eight organisations across the country tried out the programme and 80 people with learning difficulties and supporters attended the training. Over the two days there were opportunities to practise 'role plays’, speaking in public, using a video recorder, and to attend workshops on how people could use their own experience as a basis for training activities that they could lead.

The participants’ evaluation forms completed at the end of the course contained positive comments about each of its components. The training programme was established and made available for adaptation and wider use. The project shows not only that some people with learning difficulties can and want to participate in staff training but also that they themselves can take the lead in training potential trainers.