Involving service users and carers in social work education

Teaching and learning provision

There is more experience of service user and carer involvement in this aspect of running social work programmes than in any other. However, this experience is unevenly spread across universities and also across course modules within one university. Although many programmes arrange for service users and carers to run disability, equalities and carer awareness sessions or to give accounts of their personal experiences of services, few have service user and carer-led inputs firmly embedded throughout the course. The degree programmes provide an opportunity to try out and test new more systematic arrangements. At the start, it seems advisable to keep an open mind about the value of the various approaches. Thus, it should not be assumed that what worked before will work now or, indeed, that what worked before will not work now.

A lot of flexibility is needed to meet the learning needs of the students, the academic and practice requirements for the award of the degree and to accommodate the preferences of service users and carers. For example, many groups of trainers follow the social model of disability and focus on the barriers to full participation. They have agreed together what they will teach, and so a person with a learning disability or physical disability will give the same input, focusing on part of the social work role such as assessment or review without reference to how they have been labelled by diagnosis or client group.

Other service users want to specialise in a particular area such as mental health, looking after a child with a disability or the experience of being a looked-after child. In addition, some groups want to design their own modules or inputs whereas others want to develop them in joint work with teaching staff.

Many programme providers have selected specific modules for development in partnership with service users and carers. For example, the University of Central England in Birmingham has built on previous experience to involve service users and carers in the design and delivery of the modules on Expectations of Professional Practice, Issues for Different User Groups and Specialist Practice. As the Expectations of Professional Practice module is delivered early in the course, priority was given to establishing a strong user presence in its core team and a large number of service users have become involved. Whereas some module teams such as the Specialist Practice module on Mental Health quickly achieved strong service user involvement, others such as the comparable modules on children and families and on adults are building up wider core groups through consultation and networking before the courses are delivered in 2005.

Some programme providers and their partners have secured external funding to support the joint development of new course modules. The project being undertaken by the Family Rights Group, ATD Fourth World and Royal Holloway, University of London is an example of this approach.

As the Royal Holloway example shows, designing training programmes from scratch with the active and ongoing participation of service users and their organisations requires a substantial investment of resources. This is distinct from sustaining service user participation in delivering training that is a longer-term activity.


Involving families living in poverty in training social workers: A joint Family Rights Group, ATD Fourth World, Royal Holloway, University of London, and Families Living in Poverty project

This group has come together for a one-year project that will work with families living in poverty who have experience as users of services in order to develop and pilot a poverty and exclusion training programme. They are focusing on this issue because families living in persistent poverty are particularly likely to experience social exclusion and social work interventions. The project is funded by the Department of Health, the Gulbenkian Foundation, SCIE and the Social Work and Social Policy Learning and Teaching Support Network (SWAPltsn).

The Family Rights Group works with families, practitioners, researchers and policy makers to improve services for families whose children are involved with social services. ATD Fourth World is a human rights organisation that believes that only by working in partnership with families experiencing poverty and social exclusion can real and effective change come about in the lives of those most disadvantaged. Most of the families they work alongside with have experience of social services intervention and the care system. A wide group of family members who do not wish or initially lack the confidence to engage in direct teaching or policy forums participate in family workshops so that their voices may be heard. Royal Holloway, University of London Department of Health and Social Care provides both qualifying and post-qualifying social work courses and undertakes childcare research.

The project aims to produce:

  • A model for involving families in the training of social workers that has been developed by families in partnership with some providers and users of training.
  • A training module on social work, poverty and social exclusion to be delivered by families living in poverty and academics that can be used in qualifying and postqualifying training programmes, including practice teachers programmes, for children and families’ social workers.
  • Training for family members on increasing their own training and presentation skills.
  • model training programme for families who may become involved in training social workers.
  • Increased confidence, skills and self-esteem for families attending the group.

The project’s activities include:

  • Establishing a working group made up of 8-10 family members from varied ethnic groups, four academics, two practitioners, a social services manager, ATD Fourth World, Family Rights Group, and at least one representative from the national bodies involved in developing social work education.
  • Holding meetings of the working group on six days over the course of the year. Family members meet with ATD Fourth World and the Family Rights Group in the morning and are joined by the rest of the group in the afternoon.
  • Holding six separate meetings of the family members with ATD Fourth World to prepare for the working group meetings, provide support, and undertake training on presentation and training skills.
  • Preparing a literature review and drafting the academic component of the training programme (Royal Holloway staff).
  • Piloting the training programme in Royal Holloway’s qualifying and postqualifying courses.
  • Producing a report of its work and recommendations that will be relevant to other institutions and organisations considering the same challenges.

On completion of the project, the training programme will be tested further on the qualifying and post-qualifying social work courses at Royal Holloway and at least two other universities.

The findings of the project will be disseminated widely and the family members will be involved in all these activities. The final report will be available on the SCIE website ( and the training module will be available on the Social Policy and Social Work Learning and Teaching Support Network (SWAPltsn) website.

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