Voices of experience

The following article is from Community Care:

The involvement of users in shaping services has been one of the main social care developments in recent years. The new three-year degree for social workers is no exception, with the Department of Health commissioning a series of focus groups through which service users put forward their ideas.

In the groups, 84 people from a range of backgrounds and ethnic groups considered how changes to the elements of social work training could improve service delivery.

Two themes dominated. First, the need for social workers to understand what a client’s life is like and not to make assumptions or judgements about wants or needs. Second, the quality of the relationship that the social worker has with the service user.

The implications for social work training apply not only to the content and shape of the degree course but also to the selection and assessment of students, their continuing education and their career development. This suggests that links should be made between the different parts of the process – from selection, through training to career development. Can the experience of service users be the common thread that shapes the process?

As well as the practical knowledge and skills needed by social workers, service users identified the importance of particular personal characteristics, such as empathy, warmth, trustworthiness and honesty.

Focus group members made several suggestions for improving the selection of candidates. Attracting people from diverse communities with the “right” personal characteristics was only the start; the challenge for higher education was to find new ways to involve service users in the selection and education of trainees.

Service users were also enthusiastic about being involved in practice learning opportunities for students. Several ways of giving trainees direct experience were suggested, including visiting clients and seeing them in situ. This could be done by:

  • Shadowing a user for a period of time.
  • Shadowing experienced social workers and working with clients under supervision.
  • Inviting users to give talks about their life experiences.
  • Visiting service users at home or at a club.
  • Using user input to assess performance, especially of practice placements. Assessment panels could be set up for this.

The changing nature of employment practices, individual responsibility for life-long learning and managing careers might result in a bigger role for social care employment agencies. They could develop partnerships with social workers, higher education institutions, local authorities and other employers in order to maximise learning opportunities for trainees and qualified staff. However, there may be a tendency to lose sight of the service user’s experience, which plays a crucial role in grounding the theory and practice of trainees, social workers and their managers.

Examples of effective partnerships between agencies, education and training institutions do exist. But these seem patchy and underdeveloped. Employment agencies depend on public sector policy and have few incentives and limited opportunities to become involved in social work education.

Although the potential for partnership working at all levels is great, much preparatory work needs to be done to persuade some agencies to take part.

The focus groups greatly influenced the social work training requirements issued in May 2002.1 This is a challenging agenda for training institutions, but it offers the prospect of a generation of social work practitioners delivering a service that users identify as representing the best of current social work interventions.

Alix Crawford is service development manager at the Institute for Applied Health and Social Policy at King’s College London.

1 Department of Health, Requirements for Social Work Training, May 2002, at www.doh.gov.uk/qualityprotects

Background Reading 

For a full summary of key messages from all the focus groups go towww.doh.gov.uk/swqualification

What clients want
Service users views about social work emphasise the importance of recruitment of individuals with particular personal characteristics.

  • Empathy, warmth, trustworthiness and honesty.
  • Commitment to user independence.
  • Practical knowledge about options.
  • Personal skills in counselling.
  • Cultural sensitivity.
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