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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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To reflect upon what causes gaps between people is a challenge that should involve social workers and service users in social work practice, education and research. Within the PowerUs network, gap-mending practices have been developed whereby more reciprocal relationships are aimed for between social work students, teachers and service users in joint development projects.1 The principles of these practices are similar to those found in research about so-called strength-based social work, which emphasises the importance of enabling niches rather than placing an emphasis on categorising and diagnosing personal problems (Healy, 2014, p 166).

In this chapter we will write about a gap-mending course at Lund University in Sweden in which social work students and students from user organisations study together. The following chapter will explore how ‘mend the gap’ has been introduced in the UK. Together these chapters will demonstrate the strength of the approach and the diverse contexts in which it has been applied. In the Swedish example, marginalised and discriminated groups have been invited to study a 7.5-credit course together with social work students. The external students were recruited from different service-user organisations and have a background of drug abuse, mental health problems, homelessness, physical disabilities or a combination of these problems. Most of the external students can be considered to be far from the labour market. The work with the so-called Mobilisation course has continued, and the course ran for the 25th time this fall of 2019. In total, over five hundred social work students and 250 service-user students have participated in the course. The results of our research show that the participation in the course strengthens social work students as well as service-user students. Many of the service-user students continue on to further studies or work opportunities.

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The mandatory requirement for service-user and carer involvement in social work education with government funding to support this involvement for qualifying and post qualifying training, established an international precedent in 2002 (Branfield, 2009). Shaping Our Lives, a national service-user led organisation that has undertaken a wide range of research to promote the meaningful involvement of people in very diverse contexts, became a key partner in establishing the PowerUs network (see Chapter 2 – Heule, Knutagård and Arne Kristiansen) and initiating gap-mending practices in the UK. This chapter explores how PowerUs, in partnership with Shaping Our Lives, created a new direction for service users and carers to positively and critically impact social work education.

For a long time, the UK was the leader in service-user and carer involvement in professional social work education. Also, for a long time in the UK there seemed to be only one model for such involvement. More recently what we have learned is that, as is so often the case, it is only by combining the best of different international experience and learning that we are likely to develop the most effective approaches to this involvement. For this reason, the UK is a helpful, if sometimes uneven, case study of and starting point for understanding user involvement in professional learning and qualification.

There was talk of ‘listening’ to service users in UK social work from the 1970s onwards. The statutory reforms that took place and led to the creation of social services departments in 1971 made reference to participation: involving and including the perspectives of service users.

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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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This chapter presents two projects in which service users are involved as supervisors of students in social work training at the University of Lund, Sweden, and the University of Agder, Norway. The chapter describes how both institutions relate to and try to solve dilemmas and problems connected to power, inequality and the creation of knowledge within the context of social work education.

Within social work education it is increasingly recognised that service users should play an active role in the development of education and knowledge (IASSW – AIETS, 2014). However, the many experiences of engaging and involving service users in education have also revealed several dilemmas and problems that need to be addressed. These dilemmas are mainly related to the fact that social work is an area defined by power and inequality in power, which affects social relations and the production of knowledge within that area.

Although the idea of service-user involvement in social work and social work education can be traced to different political and ideological discourses (Rae, 2012; Beresford, 2016), it is deeply rooted in a participatory and democratic discourse. Anti-oppressive practice and the willingness to change unequally distributed power are central to the involvement of service users in social work education as well as in practice and research (McLaughlin, 2009a, 2009b; Beresford, 2016; Beresford and Carr, 2012). The dynamics of power and inequality and their consequences thus become explicitly expressed key points, and we keep a critical focus on the identification of dilemmas and the different kinds of problems related to involving service users in social work education.

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For many years we have been pointing out that a promising method of teaching about mental health is to provide interested parties (especially students and social therapists in general) with first-hand knowledge about mental illness (Kaszyński, 1999). It is therefore essential to have direct contact with individuals with mental illnesses in order to understand them and modify our stereotyped view of deep emotional problems (Couture and Penn, 2003). This approach, which we call ‘social education’, requires above all a willingness to submit to the authority of those who are predominantly the focus of our educational interactions and themselves subject to authority. As a result, this approach makes us advocates of empowerment. If the objective of our educational activity is to answer the question of how to support people in their development and motivate them to change, then an essential condition becomes our ability to perceive and experience the external world from the subjective perspective of those who become partners in the educational relationship.

First, we present the history of shaping the concept of service-user involvement at the Institute of Sociology of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. We emphasise that its indisputable strength is the involvement and cooperation of various actors – academic teachers, people with experience of the diseases, students, social welfare practitioners and therapists. It is necessary to highlight at this point the particular importance of the participation of students with experience of emotional difficulties in the educational process.

The activities described in this chapter are undertaken by a team of lecturers professionally associated with the Institute of Sociology of the Jagiellonian University and social practitioners involved in various activities for people with mental health problems. From the very beginning, the project was based on close cooperation between both groups.

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A Human Library or Living Library is a metaphorical version of an actual library where, in place of actual books, Living Books, people with experience using social work services, directly or as carers to those receiving services, narrate a chapter from their experiences to a small group of social work student ‘readers’. Two approaches are presented from two universities, one from the United Kingdom and the other from Finland. In the University of Sheffield (UK), people with experiences of social work services, teachers and students have developed living libraries as a regular feature of the syllabus for a qualifying master’s degree programme in social work since 2014. In the Diaconia University of Applied Sciences (Diak, Finland), bachelor-level students in social services initiated and organised a Human Library event as part of their project studies. In this article, the terms Living Library and Human Library are used interchangeably.

The Human Library method has been employed globally as an anti-oppressive tool to bring together representatives of different minorities in society who volunteer to share their life stories and experiences in order to help others overcome prejudice using active dialogue based on respect (Pardasani and Rivera, 2017). The development of the Human Library has offered a new way of bringing the experience of people who have used social work services into the classroom. According to the Council of Europe web pages (Council of Europe, n.d.), ‘the first ever living library (Menneske Biblioteket in Danish) was organised in Denmark in 2000 at the Roskilde Festival. The original idea had been developed by a Danish youth NGO called “Stop the Violence” (Foreningen Stop Volden) as part of the activities they offered to festival goers’ (Human Library, n.d.).

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This chapter describes two annual conferences that are run in partnership with service users in both the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The conferences have some differences in the way they are planned and delivered, but there are also many common themes. At both events, service users share their stories and interact with students. This chapter gives a description of both conferences and shares the experiences of the authors in organising an event with service users.

There are many ways to involve service users in education. Approaches used by colleagues in different universities and countries can be a source of inspiration. It is possible to learn from their experiences and develop ideas and tips for your own situation. This happened when the authors of this chapter came together to write this chapter.

The conference at the University of Suffolk, UK, is an interprofessional event and is a mandatory part of the curriculum for all second-year students on the following undergraduate courses which lead to registration as health or social care professionals: adult nursing, mental health nursing, child health nursing, midwifery, operating department practice, paramedic science, social work, diagnostic radiography and therapeutic radiography. The post-graduate police students also attend. The conference has been running for four years and there are approximately five hundred delegates, including students and qualified professionals from the health service, the police and social services. The aim of the conference is to promote service-user involvement and to hear the voices of service users. The conference title reflects this: ‘Can You Hear Me? The Voice of the Service User’. Due to the number of different professionals attending the conference, a wide range of service users from different backgrounds are involved.

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There is an increasing literature setting out models and good practice in service-user involvement in social work education (Skilton, 2011; Robinson and Webber, 2013; Tanner et al, 2015; Askheim et al, 2017; Duffy et al, 2017; Cabiati and Levy, 2020). Pedagogically this work is framed by approaches to integrating the voices, lived experiences and experiential knowledge of service users and carers into social work education. While these voices are becoming less marginal within social work education, the contribution of service users and carers as co-authors in this literature is less visible (McPhail, 2007; Fox, 2016; Bell et al, 2020; Levy et al, 2016, 2020). This chapter contributes to addressing this lacuna by being co-authored with three Scottish service users and/or carers, also called experts by experience. All three have written reflectively on their experiences of involvement in social work education and their perceptions of the impact of their involvement on students’ learning, social work practice and on them personally. The chapter also includes reflective accounts written by Italian social work students as part of their course work. The EBE and students all used the concept of ‘inspiring conversations’ (Cabiati and Levy, 2020) as a starting point to explore and reflect on their experiences of user involvement in social work education.

‘Experts by experience’ (EBE), rather than ‘service users’, is used in this chapter as a term that more coherently conveys the essence of experiential and tacit knowledge; that is, knowledge acquired through living with a disability, being a family carer and/or receiving social services.

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