Involving service users and carers in social work education
The recruitment and selection of students is the first area of delivering the degree, rather than planning it, in which service users and carers have actively participated in 2003.
There is consistent evidence from research and consultations that service users and carers across different groups agree about the personal qualities, skills, knowledge and abilities that social workers need (14, 38, 47-8). These views are set out in the Department of Health publication (47), 'Focus on the future key messages from focus groups about the future of social work training'. Their views cover the help and outcomes they want and also the qualities and standards of behaviour they expect. In summary, service users want social workers to be: physically and emotionally available; supportive, encouraging and reassuring; respectful; patient and attentive; committed to the independence of the individual; punctual; trustworthy; reliable; friendly but not frightened to tell people how they see things; and empathic and warm (47).
Service users and carers also attach great importance to the quality of their relationship with individual social workers, to time to develop such a relationship and to consistency and continuity in their contacts (14).
The above knowledge supports the case for service user and carer involvement in selecting social work students. The universities that started the degree in 2003 had only a short time to make arrangements to include service users and carers and will be reviewing them in the light of their experiences. The major challenges relate to the availability of service users and carers, their preparation along with other members of the panel, the substantial time demands that direct involvement places on them, the issues of consistency and equity in the process for students, and the resource implications, including fee payment. Thus, if service users and carers are to be present at each individual interview, and there are three applicants for each place, 90 interviews may be conducted for 30 places and these may take place once a week over six months.
The approaches that have been adopted include:
- Agreeing with service user and carer partners the questions that they would like applicants to be asked, based on work to establish the skills, knowledge and personal attributes that people want in social workers.
- Arranging for all applicants to attend a group session or interview as part of the selection process and including service users and carers on the panel. This may involve asking questions, observing or making a brief presentation in the same way as other stakeholder groups.
- Arranging for service users and carers to be involved in each candidate’s interview. If the same people do not take part in each interview, there may be issues relating to the equitable treatment of candidates, and repercussions if a rejected applicant appeals against the Panel’s decision.
- For the future, several universities propose to have places for service users and carers on their admission panels or teams. This arrangement gives service users and carers a role in overseeing the whole process from design through to monitoring, review and quality assurance even if they do not participate in the individual or group interviews of the candidates. Those involved may be members of a wider service user and carer forum or individuals that report to them or to the programme management board.
The admissions teams have also paid attention to the preparation process for student selection. Some teams have held joint training or briefing sessions for everyone involved in interviewing and gone through each stage in detail. They have also made staff time available to meet the different requirements of individual service users and carers and arranged to provide training in interviewing skills, information, support and feedback.
Whatever the specific arrangement, the degree providers will have to be clear about the part that service users and carers will play in making the decision to accept or reject applicants. The university awarding the degree has the ultimate responsibility for this decision and so there is a power differential inherent in the system. Within this limit, however, there is scope for different levels of influence ranging from giving advice that may or may not be taken, to playing the same part in the decision making as other members of the panel.