Involving service users and carers in social work education

Practice learning opportunities

The development work undertaken by national bodies and the degree programme providers shows that service user and carer organisations want to play a more active part in providing a range of practice learning opportunities (47,49).

The capacity of service user and carer organisations to offer practice learning needs to be built up in the next three years, as many have not been previously involved. As part of this process, they may access the funding and training materials to support the induction to work-based learning and assessment for organisations new to practice learning being developed through Topss England. They could benefit also from working closely with social care employers that are experienced in practice learning and have a pool of practice teachers that could provide mentoring and support.

The Wiltshire and Swindon Users’ Network has provided SCIE with a commentary on the ways that social work students benefit from placements within user-controlled organisations:

”User-controlled organisations such as the Wiltshire and Swindon Users’ Network already offer placements to students, and those at the Network have been very successful. Usercontrolled organisations demand of the students a willingness to question their value base and attitude in a way that is not possible within other placements. Issues of empowerment, rights, and responsibilities, and choice and control are perceived differently in usercontrolled organisations, and the student acquires much learning towards making a more balanced judgement in assessment. With the inception of the new degree, it is important that usercontrolled organisations continue to offer placements, and that the qualifications relating to the role of practice teacher are not so restricting that they exclude experienced practice teachers from continuing in this role within user-controlled organisations.”

The Practice Learning Taskforce, set up by the Department of Health and hosted by Topss England, began a two-year project in January 2003 that aims to improve the quantity, quality and diversity of practice learning opportunities in partnership with all stakeholders in the degree programmes. In its first year it supported 72 regional development projects with funding from the Department of Health. Three of these projects focused specifically on involving service users and carers (University of Derby and Derbyshire Social Services, University of Plymouth, and Swindon Practice Development Centre). Working with service user and carer organisations was also included in the project themes on preparing for and generating new practice learning opportunities (eg University of Sunderland and New College Durham). The paper Practice learning 'Everybody’s business’ summarises the key messages from these projects, and gives signposts to the agencies/universities and project contact details (49). Further information is available from the Taskforce.

The regional projects, the SCIE survey, and the preparatory focus groups (47) show consistently that service user and carer organisations could contribute to practice learning at each level over the three-year degree programme, provided that they are properly supported and paid. This includes the time students spend on preparation for practice, observation of practice, and their 200 assessed social work practice days.

Different levels of resources, commitment and methods apply to the range of practice learning opportunities. Initially, the activities will centre on preparation for practice, during which the student’s capacity to act appropriately and safely in a practice environment is assessed. This will contribute to the HEI’s statement of fitness to undertake formal practice learning. At this stage, service users and carers may make direct inputs into seminars or prepare materials, including videos of interviews or role plays, for use in individual study, skills laboratories and group work. Also, staff and individuals in service user and carer organisations may offer their own practice and circumstances for shadowing or observation by students, providing commentary and explanation (50).

Although many organisations do not have the capacity to offer an entire second or third year student practice opportunity, they may be able to contribute along with other agencies, provided that there is external support from experienced practice teachers and assessors.

The range of practice learning opportunities suggested by both service user and carer organisations includes the following:


University of Nottingham: Service user assessment of students

In this approach, service users take the lead in the 'Users’ and Carers’ Perspectives in Community Care' module aimed at second year students on the MA route as part of the 'adults’ pathway.

What is distinctive about this module is that it is planned, delivered and assessed by service users and carers, who are paid for their services. The module thereby operates in partnership with a local organisation, 'Advocacy in Action', which has a long and trusted relationship with the university.

The aim of the module is that "students will be able to grasp the significance of the perspectives of service users and carers within community care. It is argued that social workers have historically not understood that users and carers are first and foremost people, with unique experiences and narratives. Through a process of experiential learning, the module will demonstrate that an understanding of these users and carers as people is an essential prerequisite for successful social work practice. The common theme of the module will be the shared humanity of social workers, service users and carers”. The module raises the issues relating to the power dynamics of communication with service users, hence the importance of service user and carer-directed assessments.

The course is delivered in six one-day workshops. Eight or nine service users participate in each module, sharing their personal experiences. The last two workshops are assessment days. Students give a presentation of their life history, bearing in mind the communication skills they use. Some assessors may have learning difficulties or other disabilities. Students must take account of these issues in their presentations.

The grading is a percentage mark, based on the service users’ judgement on how well the students have been able to engage in the themes of the module through their presentations. There is also a proportion of the mark awarded in recognition of the overall contributions of students to the module, judged by service users over the entire module. In 2001 and 2002, the coordinating tutor moderated the final mark awarded. For 2003, this tutor has been part of the teaching team and will therefore be part of the assessment process itself, with no consequent need for moderation of the marks.

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