27 May 2015

Social work students do not know what makes a difference to service users

Article in Community Care 26 May 2015

Social care consultant and service user, Clare Evans, argues social work education should be less theory based with more emphasis on values

The recent article by Professor Ray Jones about the suitability of the content of social work degree courses was insightful and timely.

However, another question that should also be asked is whether students are focused on the right values for their placements during course work.

Firm value base missing 

As a disabled person and practice educator I work externally with a user-led organisation and two separate higher education establishments. This work has not given me confidence that degree courses are helping social work students gain a firm, personal value base.

In a post-personalisation world I feel there is too much academic study and assessment which is unrelated to the assistance which users’ really value at a time of crisis, for example needing to arrange long term care in a family carer’s sudden absence, or in response to a sudden deterioration of a long term condition.

Nor does the current curriculum help students gain any real recognition of what those needs might be. Their academic work studying social policy and some outdated social work theories seems far removed from the realities of users’ needs, which are often simple and practical.

Translating the needs of service users
There have been numerous efforts made to collect the views of service users about what they value in their social work contact and the resulting reports show even the most articulate of us (who it is often assumed do not need social workers) talk of the value of social workers as empathetic champions of our individual pathways. This is in contrast to the rather bureaucratic solutions often resorted to by untrained staff.

But I see no evidence these views are being translated into the preparation of the next generation of social work students. Perhaps other pressures, including those of academia, have been stronger.

At a recent social work project board meeting I commented that it was more important to have students with some life experience and understanding than simply a three A’s entry requirement. I received little sympathy from academics as there were clearly funding and status issues attached to their academic requirements.

The importance of life experience
I have seen students who have gone straight from school to their degree course and second year placement and I have seen students with life experience returning to social work training via access courses. As they both started visiting service users undoubtedly the latter found it easier to get alongside those users and relate to them. They were able to start from where the user was and see the value of building an asset based approach, despite the necessary assessment framework they worked within.

There are particular opportunities to learn about and test out the value base students bring in their voluntary sector placements, particularly in user – led organisations, where they are unconstrained by statutory regulation.

Unpredictable
But insight and a strong value base are, I admit, unpredictable qualities to develop. If it were easy to spot the student social worker who had them then our task would be much more straightforward! This was forcibly brought home to me when I contemplated how to assist a 20 year old, with no work experience, begin to understand her student role on placement. After a month of difficulty and disillusionment, she suddenly announced she had “got it” and my goodness she had! The complete submersion in a user-led organisation, working with disabled colleagues, had enabled her to grow rapidly to gain the insight and values she needed!

Clare Evans is a disability, equality and social care consultant