'None of us fits into neat little boxes'

September 14, 2007

Individuals who have been helped (or not) by social services aid in enlightening and assessing trainee social workers at Hertfordshire. Jak Peake reports

It is Tuesday morning, and I am joining a room full of first-year MSc social work students at Hertfordshire University.

Carol walks to the front and introduces the Creating Links group, whose members include carers and other users of social services who are currently teaching within the university's social work department.

Carol outlines the group's mission statement: "We want to make services meaningful by improving services for us and for the people we look after. We can achieve this by using our different skills and experiences to give social work students an understanding of what life is really like for people who use services."

There are six members of Creating Links. They are experienced in a number of fields including children and families, fostering and adoption, mental health and learning and physical disabilities.

Each member has specific experiences of social services that led them to the group, and each has insight into what it is like to rely on these services for support.

The group is made up of women. Since men have not been excluded deliberately, their absence speaks volumes about the reality of caring.

"None of us fits into neat little boxes," Carol tells the room.

Tanya, a carer for her son, trained as a teacher; Sabita, who cared for her disabled husband, worked as a chemist for a pharmaceutical company for more than 20 years. Few of the group ever expected to have to rely so heavily on social services, let alone eventually help to train its professionals. The group formed three years ago after a series of consultations. Carmel Byers, a senior lecturer who co-ordinates the group, contacted individuals to ask if they wanted to teach at the university. Now the group takes part in an array of activities. Along with presentations, members are partly responsible for teaching sessions, assessing students' work and interviewing new applicants.

It is the group's experiences that lend students a particular insight. Take Isabelle, who currently lives in care and has a learning disability. Unable to read or write as a child, she was also abused. She asks the class to write down ten things they cannot live without.

I compose a list. My choices are decidedly utilitarian and include the internet and good public transport. Others' answers are more profound: love, friendship, independence.

Isabelle's ten are: respect; love; support; sticking up for herself; independence; non-interference; privacy; family; usefulness; positive feedback. None of her choices is material, obvious or predictable. This highlights the pitfalls of assumed knowledge. One student says to her: "I think your top ten's got things I take for granted."

The group gives five presentations. Members' experiences with social services are chequered but are all informative for students. On the one hand, there are tales of extra commitment and dedication; on the other, there are blunders, mismanagement, negligence - and even discrimination.

Sabita tells how, after her husband suffered a debilitating stroke, she was told by a social worker to choose: either she or her teenage daughter must care for him full-time. No alternative was offered. But since she had become the sole earner she did not want to surrender her income. "They didn't think of the financial impact," she says.

When nurses informed her of her rights, Sabita returned to the social worker and was offered a care package. She suggests that, as an Asian woman, she was a victim of racial and sexual discrimination, and speculates: "Would they have asked the same of my [white] husband?"

Jane, a carer, describes an incident involving Michelle, a foster person she looked after, and a social worker. The social worker arrived late with the wrong paperwork. She then asked Michelle - whose brother had recently committed suicide - whether she had any siblings. The social worker went on to inquire: "You don't have a disability, do you?"

Since Michelle had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and spent the previous six months in hospital, the worker's failure to read the case notes served only to distance and anger her. It was a cautionary tale for all prospective social workers.

Conversely, Tanya explains how a dedicated social worker helped rehabilitate her son. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia after substance misuse in his teens, he was sectioned twice.

While sectioned he was not permitted to leave the hospital and became anxious about his empty flat. Tanya alerted the social worker, who remedied the situation by arranging a visit to his flat. Hoping to curb his isolation, the social worker also introduced him to a resource centre. Initially, he showed little interest in a return visit but the social worker persisted and he now regularly attends the centre. This story, Tanya says, was an example of a "successful social worker, going beyond the call of duty".

The session is eye-opening. One student says she has learnt that "what we don't do also has an impact". Byers suggests the group brings crucial "experiential knowledge", as opposed to "book learning". "Real is a word that keeps cropping up," she says, adding that such real experiences are "as valuable as anything you'll get from a theoretical base".

Recent reforms in social work policy and practice have seen a shift in power between services and users. Since 2003, it has been a government requirement that users are involved in all aspects of social work education. It is part of a wider strategy by the Government to recognise user needs, re-examine past failures and improve services for those receiving them. In practice, there are sometimes reservations to users being trainers on courses. Sabita recalls students questioning why the group assessed them. After it was pointed out to them that in their working lives they would be unlikely to deal exclusively with academics, they conceded the point. Byers says students come to appreciate the group.

Nationally, the extent of users' involvement in social work degrees varies. Some universities fulfil only basic requirements for user inclusion. Birmingham University, however, like Hertfordshire, has taken a progressive approach.

Alongside employing two user-involvement co-ordinators, the university has facilitated "Recovery through the Arts" workshops and exhibitions of mental health users' art.

Such inclusion demonstrates a leap forwards in improving social services for end users, a movement it is hoped that will gain in strength.

Some names have been changed.

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