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Sarah Jane Waters Special Edition

How people who use services help create, deliver and appraise social work education

It’s been hard this past year, hasn’t it? In addition to the logistics of home working, engaging at work and keeping safe, those who deliver social work education had to satisfy the requirements of the institution who award the qualification, their departments, course delivery partners and the statutory organisations who set the standards expected.

This pandemic selfishly gave little notice but set colossal tasks with immutable deadlines for outcomes which were inconceivable even in the weeks before. There was a new boss in charge who supplied information sparingly, incompletely and demanded a new way to work.

Co-production groups assisting social work education pre-pandemic had various successes and challenges. With the pandemic, new barriers were created as some old barriers fell.  In Wales, the Social Services and Wellbeing Act (2014), put into practice April 2016, firmly embedded co-production/service user/citizen involvement for services used including the education of  professionals involved with that delivery.

For the Master’s Social Work course at Cardiff University there had been strong elements of co-production before the Act; some members recall being involved now for over fifteen years. The group’s primary focus was and is to support the course in its creation, delivery and monitoring over the academic year along with the academic staff and placement partners. Course content, lecture delivery, dissertation projects, interviews with prospective students, work moderation and various boards are all tasks the group assist with.

On paper, this sounds perfectly equitable and easy to achieve. It isn’t. It requires all parties to be clear about what is expected and when, it needs a driving force at least initially and to keep momentum, it needs frequent input. It needs people. Without this, groups can fall away and become nothing more than an exercise to tick off on a checklist. The Cardiff group has been so lucky with the academics assigned who have a real desire to include the group and co-produce. We are also so fortunate to have the course administrator who, already overworked, is a model of patience, assigns tasks and tries to round up those members we can’t get hold of.

Here’s the rub. These groups require people who understand the need for a social worker, people whose lives are often teetering on the edge, young people who have been looked after, minorities who could be jaded after years of systemic racism and our most vulnerable citizens for these groups to give Social Work education a representative insight. Co-production groups need the people who might be unreliable through no fault of their own, the sick and the disabled, those with substance misuse and/or mental health issues. They include benefit claimants so students can see the tumultuous effects of poverty, unemployment, illness, bad advice and unstable housing. The groups need carers, those who have experienced domestic abuse, people who need older person’s or adult services.

Currently getting a meaningful cross-section of a community together is difficult, people are frightened of doing anything which will draw attention to government agencies, social services and cause more stress. Many people are nervous they won’t be able to help, they feel they aren’t good enough to assist a university.

In the Cardiff group, training is given and the academic staff, group members or partners will help anyone when they ask but members can still feel daunted. In order to avoid groups being mainly attended by white, educated, middle class people who are retired or who are supported financially by independent means, explicit methods to protect benefit claimants and to ring fence their income must be agreed by the DWP/Westminster government. The system in place now makes vulnerable group members even more vulnerable and fearful.

Some services in Wales change every few years and this is a source of difficulty when trying to engage with people who use those services. One organisation may deal with homeless issues and tenant support services one year then have to change their focus another year if that contract is lost to another provider.

The pandemic has made looking for new group members difficult but not impossible. There have been several events run by organisations like the Co-production Network of Wales, Disability Wales and Diverse Cymru but engaging with those who fall under the protected characteristics umbrella could be done far better.

In terms of the pandemic and keeping the co-production group meetings worthwhile we’ve had to be a bit more creative. Unfortunately, in the initial stages of the pandemic it was difficult to engage with those members who didn’t have internet access, couldn’t afford the data/credits to ring in or video call.  It was difficult for those who simply couldn’t use devices, couldn’t afford to get or replace hardware. We are most certainly not all in this together. For one meeting a carer took the group member to the university and couldn’t understand why the meeting had to happen remotely. Reflecting back the invitation had included the meeting link but that didn’t give good enough information about how to use a smart phone, tablet or laptop to access the meeting. Online meetings only needed more emphasis. Never assume, always explain. Every time a member is absent due to technical barriers, disability or life events reminds us that the group still has much to do and problems to solve.

In terms of broader Social Work Education, statutory regulators need to embed co-production more robustly into the framework for gaining the professional qualification. This could go a great way to stop tokenism seeping in and to add credibility to the lived experiences of the people social work students will ultimately be involved with. Universities can learn best practice/what not to do by having a named co-ordinator who liaises with other university co-production groups. Projects such as Powerus-Mending The Gap not only allow social workers, educators and co-production groups to share experience globally but offer modules to help communities overcome social barriers and problems.

Despite everything this past year has shown us that we can still come together albeit imperfectly. We can still add value to the social work programme and we can keep searching for ways to be more inclusive. Perhaps when we meet in person we may adopt some of the changes we made. It’s a good way to end, the thought of meeting again, in a room with coffee and cake.

Sarah-Jane Waters

Chair co-production group Cardiff MASW, BASW Cymru committee member