Involving service users and carers in social work education

Identifying partners

The universities and colleges start this process from different positions, as do their potential partners. Whereas some universities and local groups have started almost from scratch, others already have tried and tested arrangements with local groups.

The alliance between the Wiltshire and Swindon Users' Network and the University of Bath over almost 10 years is one of the most long-standing and often quoted examples. Members of this Network are already engaged in many aspects of current social work courses over and above delivering teaching sessions. They also have links with other HEIs, including Wiltshire College, Trowbridge.

The University of Salford partnership with CATS and later YIPPEE has been developed over five years. Their approach to joint work is based on citizen empowerment and participation built up through self-directed group work. They estimate that it took 18 months to build up their skills, confidence, and understanding of the social model of disability to a point where they could contribute fully in twos or threes to social work training. CATS and YIPPEE meet fortnightly and now have an office at the university, shared with some lecturers. They presented their model at the International Schools of Social Work Conference in 2002 (39). Since the new degree was announced, both the Wiltshire and Swindon Users' Network and CATS are being asked to advise other universities on their strategies for service user involvement.

Mental health survivors have contributed in some way to teaching on many social work education and ASW programmes and also to nursing education (27, 30, 40-2). The University of Birmingham supports Suresearch, which is a network of service users in research and education who have experienced mental distress, and their allies. The group meets bimonthly at the university.

More recently, young people have begun to become involved, using a range of methods, including drama, poetry and videos. For example, the young people from the Lancashire Children's Rights Service used drama to convey their expectations of social workers to a large group of lecturers and practice teachers at Lancaster University's first planning event for the degree.

However, the major shift to the systematic involvement required on the new degree has made it necessary for programme providers to review their arrangements. In doing so, the questions that they are posing themselves include:

The changes also give the service user and carer organisations, once informed about them, the chance to consider:

Many universities have carried out mapping exercises to draw up lists of potential local partners, sometimes working with neighbouring course providers to do so. In such exercises, there is scope for considering whether national organisations might act as a resource. For example:

If national initiatives similar to the one described above are funded, they should substantially increase the capacity of service user and carer-controlled organisations to work with the degree providers.

Mapping local resources is a big task and information may be sought from coalitions of disabled people, centres for independent living, religious bodies, the many other organisations with specific interests, and Councils for Voluntary Services.

Universities and colleges that have limited experience of service user and carer participation and few links with local groups have to opt for 'starting somewhere' by working initially with one or two groups and building up a longer-term strategy together with them. Service user and carer organisations can contribute a lot to the recruitment of new groups. Some groups have put a lot of work into developing accessible leaflets and information about how they contribute to training and reproduce the feedback given by students, staff and the service user or carer trainers. For example, members of the group called '' in Exeter carried out their own research on users as trainers. They have produced four lively and useful information sheets that quote the views of those involved, giving detailed advice on the process, including where to find users (43). These leaflets were incorporated into the University of Plymouth 10 October 2002 conference report with permission to copy them subject to acknowledgement (44).