It’s the New Thing !

By Jeremy Millar

Date Posted: Monday, 14 December 2009


Jeremy Millar teaches at the School of Social Work at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. His research interests include Care Leavers, Participation, and Cultural Competence. This article is an account of an original and imaginative project in which young people in care participate in the training of social workers. It is as moving as it is informative.


It’s the new thing!


Teaching social work now has to involve the perspectives and direct inputs from service user and carers (SCIE Annual Report 2003/2004). All well and good we might say until one takes a closer look at the complexities of the task. At the Robert Gordon University it is now over five years since we embarked on the road to including service users and carers in the delivery of our social work courses and it is an opportune time to take stock. My involvement resulted directly from my previous practice experience of working with care leavers and my conviction that any involvement by young people should go beyond the tokenistic. To this end our original recruitment strategy extended an invitation to all residential and support services for children and young people in the North East of Scotland. This resulted in an open meeting at the University facilitated by an established care leavers group; the Debate Project. Out of this initial meeting we recruited a core group of children and young people from a range of settings and covering an age range from 12 to 27.

The challenge of engaging with this diverse group of children and young people has proactively addressed issues relating to ensuring the fullest participation possible utilising the best practice guidance developed by SCIE (Wright et al 2005).
This developmental process highlighted a number of complex issues including;

· How can young people be equitably involved
· Who takes the lead in supporting user involvement
· The need for significant energy and resources to be put into the process
· How the School can avoid a tokenistic approach that is reactive to external deadlines
· How to promote a more sustainable engagement
· How young people can utilise their involvement to promote their personal development

The challenge called for an inclusive approach that acknowledged the diversity of experiences among ‘looked after children and young people’ in the north-east of Scotland. It also flagged up the need to address a cultural shift involving the School of Applied Social Studies in developing a ‘whole system’ approach (Wright et al 2005:12-13). The key elements of a whole system approach are:

  • Culture: refers to the ethos of the organisation, one shared by all staff and service users, which demonstrates a commitment to participation.
  • Structure: refers to the planning, development and resourcing of participation evident in the organisations    infrastructures.
  • Practice: refers to the ways of working, facilitation of involvement and utilisation of the skills and knowledge that enables children and young people to become involved
  • Review: refers to monitoring and evaluation systems that contribute to the evidence of change brought about by the participation of children and young people.

These can be conceptualised fitting together as in a jigsaw puzzle offering a joined up approach with the focus shifting appropriately to reflect needs and priorities at any given time. It aims to avoid hierarchical structures which inhibit the fullest participation of minority groups.

The main objectives discussed at the outset was to develop a self sustaining group of children and young people who will be able to assist the School of Applied Social Studies in developing their effectiveness in the training of social work students. It was envisaged that this would be done through involvement in;

· developing course materials
· teaching inputs
· selection of students
· selection of staff
· networking with other youth participation groups
· contributing to the body of research in this developing field

This article offers a reflective account of the process and a sense of whether the original objectives have been met. Central to this is hearing the voices of the young people themselves;

“Firstly I got involved with the Group because I felt it was important that people working in social work and social care had a real idea of what it was like to be a service user.  I experienced lots of different things and felt that really the things I experienced something positive should come out of them somewhere along the lines”.

“It feels really good to be involved with people who are already working with service users and people who plan too just because I think its important that they want to know what its like for people who have had first hand experience, to know that they are open to learning and to listening and to taking things on board and also it’s nice to think that all the things I have gone through, those experiences might and can make some difference to other people in my situation and also to how the students will work in future.
I think it can make a difference because studying doesn’t really give you any real life practical experience and if these students who are training if they have never experienced any of the things in the way of life that people who are service users have experienced then it can make it very difficult for them to understand what it is like so I think listening to real life experiences and learning things from people who have been there makes a difference because there is no way of having that first hand knowledge without experiencing it yourself or finding out from people who have experienced it”.

The above statements demonstrate a desire to draw on personal experience in order to offer the students an insight into what was felt to be beneficial and what was not. The Group offered their insights to the first year intake of students through an exercise known as the ‘ideal social worker’ which is described in the next paragraph.

The Group members organised the random dividing up of the 60 students into groups. They then got the students to clear away the tables and chairs so that the exercise could take place on the floor with everyone at the same level. The exercise involved the students constructing a large piece of paper and then drawing around one of the students to leave an outline on the paper. Into the body of the figure would be written the desirable qualities of a social worker and out with the body, would be the undesirable characteristics. During the task the young person facilitating the group would be able to prompt and where appropriate share experiences. The discussion offered students the opportunity to share their experiences and motivations for coming into social work.

The students’ comments on this exercise evidence the value for their individual learning;

“Surprised me. Service users tend to prefer their social worker who is not ‘textbook’ – prefer a human.”

“Was strange being told what to do from young people.”

“This session has been brilliant and it has made an enormous impression on me.”

This session has now been run five times and the Group members have reflected on their experience and the following observations have been made;

Social workers need to be more open, less guarded about certain things.  They should be caring, understanding, open minded.  But often you do not find this in social workers.  Some areas for concern were raised:

1. life experience or age is an issue – it seems that there are now people leaving school and coming straight onto a social work degree, and group members questioned whether this would enable them to understand the issues involved
2. there was one of us in each small group of students – ‘I tried asking them questions but they kept turning it round and asking me what I thought.  I wanted to know what they thought!’
3. ‘I went to shake hands with the students but one girl wouldn’t shake my hand, she said she had a phobia about shaking hands.  What kind of social worker is she going to be if she can’t even shake hands?’
4. We divided the students into groups and some of them didn’t want to go in the group we were putting them in, they were trying to cheat – so we made them stay in the right group, they should be able to manage without their friends and see what it’s like’
5. We got them all to sit on the floor along with us but some of them didn’t want to sit on the floor, they wanted to sit on chairs, higher up, looking down on us.

It clear that the young people were picking up on issues of power and status as well as concerns regarding the ability of people with less life experience to respond to their needs adequately. As the students progress through their training this early experience of direct contact with service users is often commented on as being pivotal to their appreciation of the need to address core values and acknowledge the relational as opposed to the functionary aspect of the social work task.

The Group members have been instrumental in teaching inputs across all courses and in a variety of forms ranging from direct teaching on children’s rights through to role playing in case study. Group members have, in addition, assisted in assessing suitability of applicants to the social work course and the readiness for practice of students about to go out on placement. It is clear from the following comments the value that they place on their teaching;

“It feels ace teaching students, its amazing like I said I don’t work its the only work I do, this and go to meetings…..I love being in the room with other students cos you feel like its worthwhile, everything you’re doing is worthwhile. That’s why I joined the group, we haven’t had any bad feedback at all its all been good, which just proves its a good thing and makes it really enjoyable especially.  It feels ace teaching students just because you know you are helping make a difference”.

“Erm the teaching, I like the teaching.  I think it’s a very good thing to do, to teach students, and I think we should do more of it because I think they are learning better from us from what they are of other people”.

“It feels funny teaching students because I am only 14 and like it feels weird because they are way older than me.  It feels funny to teach them but apart from that it’s good”.

The original goal of the project was to offer the young people the chance to gain accreditation, along the lines of SVQ/NVQ for their involvement leading to an improvement in their own educational prospects. We looked at Youth Achievement Awards but found that the time commitment to support the candidates exceeded what was on offer from the School. To get around this we made application to the Big Lottery Fund for the cost of a development worker. Unfortunately we were not successful and our aspirations for investing in the Group membership have been curtailed. I am acutely aware that whilst the young people are generous in giving of their time and enthusiasm for little more than an Asda token to the value of £20 we are still in an exploitative relationship with them. The limited funding that we have sourced to enable social activities, attendance at conferences and the purchase of teaching aids has helped promote the Group identity but has also raised expectations that we struggle to meet. Working with young people is a joy due the enthusiasm and commitment but it also present difficulties when working within bureaucratic environments that move slowly and cautiously.

The acceptance of the young people within the University environment has been wonderful to see and a credit to staff members from the reception through to the Head of School. In terms of demystifying higher education and offering the possibility for the young people of educational advancement the experience has been invaluable. I witness the pleasure that they get from saying to carers and staff that they teach at the University. I am also struck on occasion by the lack of belief in the adults who hear their story.

The culture within the School has most definitely changed for the better with the majority of teaching staff welcoming the involvement of the Group members and progressively involving them in more activities. It is also striking that staff have stepped up to support the young people’s involvement in more practical aspects. There is still, however a considerable amount of time spent on supporting young people to be up and ready at the crack of dawn to be uplifted and driven off to conferences in the south. Planning is everything but ensuring that mobiles are charged, clothes are looked out and some crisis hasn’t overtaken the young person is beyond even my organisational control.

In terms of truly embedding the involvement of the young people in the life of the University I feel that we are at a critical point. The momentum of the original membership is dissipating with people moving away, growing into new phases of their lives and struggling with the challenges that life throws up. Recruitment has been difficult to sustain in an equitable manner through open recruitment events and we have fallen back on word of mouth introductions. We don’t have the funding to offer new members the sort of induction opportunities the core group experienced and we have not progressed in terms of offering the opportunities that we hoped for in terms of personal development. Many of the big ideas to produce a model of peer support and induction into the role have been lost along with even grander aspirations to extend the service beyond the walls of the University.

Looking at the research into others’ experience of involving service users (Robson et al 2003) similarities with our project are described including a perception that sometimes it is about image rather than substance, the right thing to be doing but without the attendant shift of culture. There is also a question as whether service users are involved in decision making within the organisation and the direction of service development. I could see this element as being a considerable challenge for the University.

More recently Cowden and Singh (2007) looked at service user involvement in health and social care and identified the dominance of managerial agendas in which service users are involved as ‘consultants’ with a narrow remit to progress the more effective targeting of scarce resources rather than offer a critical insight into how existing services might be reformed to truly address service users needs. This can be construed as a continuation of a disempowering tokenistic power relationship disguised under the new umbrella of service user and carer involvement. How we support service users to be involved as I stated before is complex and asks questions regarding their status as activists rather than puppets.

In teaching social work we should endeavour to preserve and enhance the political dimension of the task by entering into true partnerships with service users and carers to question and dispute the new managerial approach and consumerist role of service users that relegates their input to one of tinkering within the existing oppressive structures. Tangible evidence of parity would be through a financial recognition on a par with that of visiting consultants and professionals including the payment of taxis etc to facilitate attendance. There could also be a lot more access provided to University facilities such as the sports and library facilities which would enhance the social inclusion of service users and carers and support their personal development.


The Scottish Institute for Excellence in Social work Education, Annual Report 2003-04

Practice guide 06: Involving children and young people in developing social care (2006) The Social Care Institute for Excellence

Robson,P., Begum, N., Locke, M. (2003) Developing user involvement: Working towards user-centred practice in voluntary organisations,  Oxon: Policy Press

Cowden, S & Singh, S. (2007) ‘The ‘User’: Friend, foe or fetish?: A critical exploration of user involvement in health and social care’ in Critical Social Policy  2007;27;5 Sage Publications


© and Jeremy Millar :  December, 2009