Citizen Leadership

Involving looked after young people and care leavers
in the teaching of social work students

“Absolutely brilliant. Made me realise or re-realise why I want to be a social worker. As academia has been first and foremost in my thoughts recently, am I capable? etc. But today’s exercise just reinstalled my beliefs and expectations for my future.” (1st year Social Work student)

Starting the journey

The practice of involving service users in the development and delivery of social work courses has tended to be ad hoc, relying on the individual contacts and personal motivation of the teaching staff. Therefore, the requirement from the Social Care Institute for Excellence (Future Objectives: Theme 4; Developing Learning Organisations) to establish collaborative learning involving service users, carers and employers presented a significant challenge to the School of Applied Social Studies at RGU to review the way it involved service users.

Teaching staff on the SIRCC Residential Child Care Pathway Course were, arguably, advantaged in having recent links to practice and the ability to call on looked after young people with whom they had a working relationship. However, such an informal approach was far from satisfactory, as it is selective, not strategic or addressing current issues.

The previous experience of my colleagues and myself using personal contacts and bringing in the occasional young person to speak to students 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 university 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.

Meeting friends along the way

Early in the spring of 2005 a user-friendly leaflet was distributed to a range of service providers involved with LAC (looked after children), inviting young people’s involvement with the course. Face-to-face contact with a number of young people in the residential establishments visited went a long way to creating a buzz. On the strength of this, a date was set for the optimistically titled ‘a big day out’, which would provide a starting point for involving the young people.

Based on sound participatory principles, it was decided to engage the services of The Debate Project, which is a young person’s consultative group that has evolved under the auspices of the Scottish Throughcare and Aftercare Forum. They came prepared with a range of games and activities that were aimed at bringing the group of fifteen young people together.

The group gelled quickly and managed to produce some excellent potential teaching materials around a graphic representation of which qualities are embodied in the ideal social worker. It was no surprise that the views expressed focussed squarely on the quality of the relationship between the young person and their social worker. They are looking for someone who is genuine, a good listener, makes them feel special, is there for you and is punctual!

On reflection this was an independent endorsement of the Changing Lives report (a Government-commissioned review of social work in Scotland) which re-affirmed the relational aspect of social work. The Group, as the young people have named themselves, highlighted the need for respect, recognition of diversity and most importantly a feeling of safety. Again, links can be made to a recent survey undertaken by the Scottish Commissioner for Children and Young People which placed bullying as the second most concerning aspect in children and young people’s lives.

The first opportunity for involvement occurred when some of the group were involved in the selection of a new staff member. They impressed with their enthusiasm and the focus of their questions that sought to elicit how attuned the candidates were to the needs of young people.

The ideal social worker? – let’s go for it!

 It was agreed by the teaching team that the young people would take the final lecture of a first year module on social work roles and tasks. They would devise a session around the ‘ideal social worker’ exercise, with the goal of consolidating the teaching around values and the SSSC (Scottish Social Services Council) Codes of Practice by offering the student group the chance to discuss the concepts with those who have experienced the reality.

The Group of nine young people ranging in age from 12 to 26, all with a variety of care experiences including disability settings, met regularly over the next four months to develop further teaching materials and to practice how they were going to organise the three-hour teaching session.

The format for the day was innovative in that the young people completely ran the session from the introductions through to the endings. In addition to the ‘ideal social worker’ task, the Group decided to give the student group the opportunity to practice ‘meeting and greeting’ a service user. This second exercise arose because the Group felt that so much was invested in that first meeting with their social worker and it was an area in which many of the student group would have had limited experience.

The session started with clarification of the Group agreement regarding boundaries and confidentiality and then led on to clearing the floor of desks and chairs and the allocation of colour-coded name badges prior to dividing the group of 50 students randomly into smaller groups for the purpose of the exercises. Each of the young people then attached themselves to one of the smaller groups and led the students through the session. The process was videoed and the students completed evaluation forms.

In terms of demonstrating the excellence of this initiative, the Group felt that the words of the students should be allowed to convey the value. Here are some of their words :

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

“I think there should be more of these kinds of sessions as it is very intimidating to meet service users and you’re never prepared about what to say, and practising helps.”

“I thought the way the lecture was organized was very good. The music created an informal atmosphere, although the ‘authority’ of the service users was maintained (i.e. it was clear that they were taking the lecture). Setting the ground rules and being allocated into groups was also done in the same informal yet organized manner.”

“This refreshed me and was a very clever idea to do this. It reinforced to me that I was on the right course, and felt passionate to start working with these clients…”

Hopes for the future

On the basis of the confidence gained with the first big piece of teaching, the Group are keen to develop further inputs. This is starting to take place with inputs across the curriculum. It is recognised that there are many challenges in terms of involving the Group members in the organisational aspects of course development and evaluation. To this end it is important that the development of individual members’ personal skills is a component of the process.

The Social Work Section has become a participating unit for the delivery of the Youth Achievement Awards. This scheme offers young people the opportunity to gain accredited awards by way of peer-assessed and moderated portfolios. They can progress through various levels of award, from bronze through to platinum. It is to the Group’s credit that the teaching work they have done is already at silver level and they will be able to be retrospectively credited for this work. In terms of social inclusion and promoting positive educational experiences this is a key component of the project. It is hoped in the longer term that members of the Group will be able to progress to further or higher education, an area in which LAC have traditionally experienced poor outcomes.

Given the commitment to avoid some of the historical pitfalls of service user involvement the ultimate goal is make a Big Lottery Young Peoples’ Fund application and secure the services of a development worker (one with previous care experience) who can take the group forward in a spirit of partnership with the University. This could open the possibility of building the service as a reference/consultant group for other agencies.

A final word from a member of the Group :

“This experience has given me the chance to put something back and hopefully make the system better in the future.”


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