In this blog Peter Beresford (Professor of Social Policy, Brunel University, email@example.com) reports on a unique national event held 16 June 2015 which brought together social work educators, service users, carers and practitioners to explore a valuable new theoretical approach – Mending The Gap. Peter discusses how this approach offers the promise of challenging unhelpful divisions and misunderstandings across professional higher education.
These are tempestuous times for social work in England. There have been two recent reviews of social work education, the Narey and Croisdale-Appleby reviews, both of which have made the case for radical reform. Big changes are in the pipelines for the way social workers practice, with a review of the so-called ‘Professional Competency Framework (or PCF). New courses have been established like Frontline and Think Ahead where the rhetoric is of developing new ‘elite’ pathways into social work to up the perceived quality of the workforce. Most recently, the new voice for social work, recommended by the Social Work Task Force in the wake of the Baby Peter Tragedy, The College of Social Work, has had its funding stopped by government and is closing down.
Yet if social work sometimes seems short of media or policymaker friends, its claim to being an effective pioneer and innovator is a strong one. It was probably the first profession to pay serious attention to issues of equality and diversity – becoming a precedent for others - even though it has often been dismissed as preoccupied with ‘political correctness’. While there may still be a long way to go, its commitment to advancing women and black and minority ethnic managers is second to none. Third, is the commitment it has shown to advancing service user and carer involvement particularly in its professional education and training. Such involvement is not only a formal requirement for all stages and all aspects of such training. There is also a budget from central government for each higher education institution to undertake it and evidencing it is a requirement in the revalidation of courses. It is perhaps therefore not surprising that social work educators in other countries envy such arrangements. Moreover, the regulatory body for social work the Health and Professions Council (HCPC) has now extended this requirement to all the allied health professions for which it is responsible.
It was this social work commitment to user and carer involvement which led PowerUs: the social work learning partnership, with the support of the Higher Education Academy and the HCPC and The College of Social Work, to organise a national partnership event in York on 16th June 2015, with a focus on ‘Mending The Gap’. Organisers included the national disabled people’s and service users’ organisation and network, Shaping Our Lives, the London South Bank University and New College Durham.
The aim of the day was to bring together service users, carers, educators and other experts to explore and take forward PowerUs’s idea of mending the gaps in professional education and practice. Such gaps include those crucially between service users and providers, ‘expert’ and experiential knowledge and between social work education and practice. A series of three workshops during the day looked in depth at:
- What the gaps are;
- How educators, professionals and their professional bodies can do more to mend the gaps between professionals and people receiving services;
- The ideas participants have for measuring the impact of involvement and gap mending approaches.
We heard how students and service users were learning together breaking down barriers and distrust in England, Sweden, Norway and elsewhere. We heard directly from participants building new trust and understanding between each other:
I've been battling for years for the right care for my husband, and you do have ideas about what social workers are, with sandals and long flowery dresses; but these young people were wonderful; bright and enthusiastic and just really lovely. It changed my views of social workers. A carer
We didn't know that we were 'Gap mending', but now that we have heard about the approach we realise that is exactly what we have been doing. It is so good to be able to define of put a theory to a practice that was so positive and effective. It puts a context to the work and makes you realise the approach can be used in many different ways. An academic
We heard about gaps in power, in understanding, resources and perceptions. We heard about ways in which those gaps were being mended. For example, carers studying alongside social work students in a neutral environment, getting to know each other as people; through the mindfulness course run by Sunderland University and Sunderland Carers. And at New College Durham, parents who feel more empowered and confident from having been involved with the gap mending programme, for example, who have presented at conferences, meet with social service managers and are co-developing new initiatives.
We listened to mental health service users explaining how they had gained new confidence, skills and sense of their own worth through being involved in Converge at York St. Johns University which delivers educational opportunities for adults who use mental health services. Young people talked about being actively involved in professional education and the gains it had offered them. We heard from women at risk of having their children removed from them how they had come to play an active and helpful role in the learning of social workers.
The HEA supported ‘Mending The Gap’ Day certainly wasn’t intended as an end in itself. Instead the organisers see it as a beginning. We already know that user and carer involvement in social work education is greatly valued by all the stakeholders involved; academics and educators, students, practice educators, service users and carers. What we don’t yet know is what impact it actually makes on subsequent professional practice. This is a key issue for all helping professions. What is still needed is in-depth research which is itself participatory, which explores this issue. Then we may have an even clearer idea of what gaps need mending – and how best to mend them.
How will you take forward ‘Mending The Gap’ approaches in your educational practice, staff group, your service users and your HEI? If you would like to contribute to the discussion you will need to first log-in to your MyAcademy account. If you don't already have an account, you can create one here: https://my.heacademy.ac.uk/welcome/
Peter Beresford OBE, is Professor of Social Policy at Brunel University London and Co-Chair of Shaping Our Lives, the independent national disabled people’s and service users’ organisation and network.