Service-User Involvement in Social Work Education: The Road Less Traveled

By Dill, Katharine; Montgomery, Lorna et al. | Field Educator, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Service-User Involvement in Social Work Education: The Road Less Traveled


Dill, Katharine, Montgomery, Lorna, Davidson, Gavin, Duffy, Joe, Field Educator


Introduction

This paper outlines the experiences of an undergraduate social work program (Bachelor of Social Work) in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Two terms used throughout the paper include: 1) "service user," equivalent to "client" in the North American context and 2) "caregiver" also known as "carer," a term used to describe individuals who play the role of caring or supporting service users/clients.

This first author (KD) had the rare opportunity to learn about social work education from a different vantage point while living for a period at Queen's University in Northern Ireland. Her experiences of working in the North American Social Work context suggest that the role of service users in the social work educational context still remains an elusive subject (Austin & Isokuortti, 2016). Her experiences, along with her academic team, are described in this institutional case study, which explores the roles that service users and caregivers play in educating social work students prior to their first field placement. The analysis showcases the rich experiences to which social work students are exposed when preparing both personally and professionally for a long-standing career engaging with service users and caregivers in various community, residential (group care), hospital environments and community settings.

While schools of social work strive to provide students with educational opportunities that will enhance their transition into field-placement settings, many remain challenged at how to teach the core skills of social work practice. Educators can be removed from the day-to-day realities of practice. This makes is difficult to provide real-world examples to students. Students, however, want clarity about the realities of practice. Providing students with exemplars is critical in preparing them for competent and confident practice. Exposing students to the real-world challenges of service users' and caregivers' lived experiences is an essential component in the development of social work practitioners.

Northern Ireland Social Work Educational Context

Northern Irish social work education is a unique and, some would argue, enviable model of promoting student engagement, reflection and professional development. A particular feature in Northern Ireland is the professional regulatory body, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and Northern Ireland Social Care Council (2015), a body determines the framework for the degree. These governing bodies oversee the curriculum design and delivery of the course.

In addition to academic requirements, students are required to undertake two field placements of 85 and 100 days respectively. Prior to beginning a field placement, students must pass a course titled "Theory, Skills and Preparation for Practice Learning". The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and Northern Ireland Social Care Council (2015) determines the learning outcomes for this preparatory course. This mandate of this unique practice and educational partnership is to ensure regional consistency in the development and delivery of agreed aspects of the social work degree. Two universities provide social work degrees in Northern Ireland: Queen's University Belfast and Ulster University. These two universities must adhere to the same agreed-upon aspects of course design and delivery. The Bachelor of Social Work degree program at Queen's University Belfast is one of the largest social work training programs in the UK (Wilson & Campbell, 2013; Wilson & Kelly, 2010), offering a three-year undergraduate route (64 students), a five-year part-time route (8 students) and a two-year route for those who already have a relevant degree (e.g., in psychology or sociology; 40 students).

The "Theory, Skills and Preparation for Practice Learning" course runs for 12 weeks and incrementally encourages students to begin their professional development journey from student to social work practitioner. …

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