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A Comparative European Analysis

During recent decades a strong interest has grown in actively involving service users in social work education, research and policy development. Drawing on a major European Social Fund project, this book presents an overview of inspiring collaborative models that have proven their efficacy and sustainability. Contributions from service users, lecturers and researchers from across Europe provide detailed case studies of good practice, exploring the value framework behind the model and considering their added value from a user, teacher and student perspective.

The book concludes with a series of reflective chapters, considering key issues and ethical dilemmas.

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Over the last three decades, governments in Europe and North America have increasingly emphasised and promoted user involvement in the planning, delivery and evaluation of social and health services (Omeni et al, 2014). Many factors drive the focus on user involvement, such as an increased focus on evidence-based practice and user-centred services, incentives offered by legislation, incentives from the user movement and professional development incentives (Waterson and Morris, 2005). The involvement of service users has become an important cornerstone of social practice and policy, but is also growing common in research and education, particularly in medical education, mental health nursing and social work (Rhodes, 2012). The rapid growth of the concept of user involvement in education shows in the emergence of many innovative collaborative practices across Europe and beyond, the scope and breadth of which differ across educational and national contexts. Whether sustained or developed on an ad hoc and experimental basis, all practices reflect a shift in professional theory and practice from passive to active models of working with vulnerable groups (Schön, 2015).

Although there is still a lot of work to be done with regard to evaluating the longer-term impact of user involvement on the practice of (social work) students (Chiapparini, 2016), it is beyond doubt that engaging service users in social work education contributes to professional learning and academic teaching. Because of their lived experiences, service users bring an eye-opening and clarifying perspective on what it means to live with disease, oppression or exclusion. They have a unique insight into what support is needed, which approaches work, and can provide valuable feedback on their personal experience with social services and professionals.

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In the concluding chapter of the recently published Routledge Handbook of Service User Involvement in Human Services Research and Education, Cameron et al (2021) discuss whether or not service-user involvement makes a difference. They are very careful and modest in their answer: ‘It can and should make a difference when it is carried out meaningfully and when it is allowed to have an impact’ (Cameron et al, 2021, p 507). In this chapter, we take this discussion a bit further by connecting the collaborative models presented in this book to the social work theory of ‘structural social work’. This theme was developed at a meeting in Antwerp where members of Bind-Kracht and representatives of the Mobilisation course discussed the values underlying their projects. We built on this discussion at the international meeting in Antwerp as part of our transnational European Social Fund project. During the group discussions, we discovered how the objectives, methods and results of our models are linked to the characteristics of structural social work. In other words we investigated whether cooperation with service users in education, research and policy is structural social work.

In order to answer this question in a well-founded way, we dispose the core elements of structural social work and link them to the examples and conclusions of the chapters in this book. But first we start with a brief description of our view on structural social work. Structural social work is grounded in critical social theories and is related to critical and radical social work. It emphasises emancipation and social justice and challenges the dominant social and economic structures and excluding societal processes like colonialism, capitalism, racism, heterosexism and ageism. This approach focusses on how these structures and mechanisms are the root causes of social problems and produce and reinforce oppression.

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In this chapter, we describe and analyse a collaborative practice in social work education that is applied in a similar way in different European educational institutions, namely co-teaching in tandem. For the purpose of the chapter, we focus solely on the Flemish (Belgium) and Dutch (the Netherlands) context, since both have many characteristics in common. Typically, the involvement of service users has started with the involvement of people with experiences of poverty and social exclusion. Flanders is internationally known for its participatory anti-poverty policy. Through a scientifically informed, structural vision of poverty integrated in policy thinking, we focus on ‘vulnerable people in society’ who have multi-dimensional problems but also many strengths. With the recognition and subsidisation of associations wherein people in poverty cooperate to influence policy and practice (Dierckx and Francq, 2010) and of the non-profit organisation De Link – which since 1999 has developed the methodology and a training programme for ‘experts by experience in poverty and social exclusion’ (Spiesschaert, 2005) – Flanders, with the act on the fight against poverty (Decreet betreffende de armoedebestrijding, 2003), has enabled people in poverty to participate in anti-poverty policy and practices (Driessens and Goris, 2016). De Link stimulated ‘working in tandem with an educated expert by experience’ in various settings. Bind-Kracht, anchored at the Karel de Grote University of Applied Sciences and Arts, developed training programmes in qualitative social work, in which people in poverty are recruited by the associations together with researchers and lecturers. Both organisations inspired lecturers from universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands to implement this method of working in tandem in their own educational programmes (Bouwes and Philips, 2016).

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