Involving service users and carers in social work education

Planning for involvement at strategic and management levels

This is the area, along with the selection of students, in which some HEIs can report their achievements in the academic year 2002 - 2003, rather than their plans. A range of approaches are being tried and tested. They seem to be working well, suggesting that there are many ways, rather than one way, to approach service user involvement. A few universities report that it is more difficult to raise service users' and carers' enthusiasm for taking part in planning and management boards than for other activities such as teaching. This seems to stem from a dislike of formal committee meetings and paperwork, and a preference for consultation on their home ground.

Some degree programme providers regard service users’ and carers’ participation in the programme management and partnership boards as the central plank of their involvement strategy. This approach means that service users and carers, together with the other stakeholder groups, have an overview of the degree programme and can influence the decisions about all its aspects, from design through to quality assurance. In relation to service user participation, the issues that arise include: who should decide about the composition of the committee; and how to include both service user stakeholders who have direct involvement in the running of the course, and also independent service user voices (University of Central England in Birmingham).

The level and nature of participation in the programmes varies from 'limited’ to 'integrated’. Some universities and colleges have opted for the attendance of service user and carer representatives at all relevant meetings so that they are part of the body that drives forward the programme and oversees it. Others have opted for meetings with service user and carer representatives about twice a year. Participants may be elected, invited, persuaded, or join because they are the only volunteers.

Some universities are considering or have developed their participation strategy on a school-wide basis so that it covers all teaching and learning programmes including social work and nursing (eg Northumbria University and the Open University). This approach is important as opportunities for interprofessional learning expand and service users and carers become increasingly involved in training on different professional programmes (46).

Example 1

The School of Health and Social Welfare at the Open University reports that it set up its Service User Panel following a workshop with a range of organisations in 2000. This is a largely autonomous body currently consisting of members that come from a diverse field of service user expertise. A person specification for new members and induction and training has been proposed.

The Panel meets formally four times a year and is funded by the School. Members are paid at similar rates to day lecturers and consultants. At each meeting, the Panel and the School staff hold separate sessions and then the groups come together for an integrated session.

The tasks of the Panel have been identified as monitoring the School’s activities to achieve internal consistency and integrity, advising on issues relating to service user involvement in all the School’s activities, and participating in activities to further such involvement. User members also attend School committees as full participants.

In relation to the social work degree programme that begins in 2005, it is proposed that a nominated sub-group of the Panel will participate directly in the plans and processes, and is currently developing a Code of Practice for Service User Involvement. Service users will be represented initially on all the practice course teams.

Example 2

The University of Warwick and Coventry University have worked together on their arrangements for involvement across their postgraduate and undergraduate social work education programmes. They decided that it was in everyone’s interests to harmonise on a sub-regional basis. In their joint enterprise, they have used the notion of guardianship to underpin the work of their new Stakeholder Board. There is a lot of enthusiasm within the universities about this initiative.

The guardians take some responsibility for certain areas of the whole operation in terms of the content and quality of the curriculum. Thus some groups of partners have ownership and responsibility for the issues relating to service user and carer participation, the voluntary sector, and employers. The two organisations that have agreed to be the guardians for service user and carer interests are Disability West Midlands, a federation of organisations of disabled people, and Carers UK.

The Stakeholder Board serves both universities. Its membership covers the three local authority partners, the two service user and carer guardianship groups, one voluntary sector guardian, and university staff. The Board has one large meeting per year and a smaller one half way through the year. At the large meeting, some time is reserved for the stakeholders to meet separately with each university. In addition, the stakeholders discharge their duties in ways that fit in with the different needs and structures of the courses, including their slightly different arrangements for interviewing and admissions.

Although the guardians have a brief to advise on service user and carer interests and to identify specific issues, including the range of groups and individuals that need to be represented, other stakeholders in the university have responsibility for these interests as well. A written schema about how service user and carer interests are represented has been developed to shape and check out the programmes.

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