Student- partners learn about service-user engagement in social work education in Belgium

Written by Bea van Robaeys and Natashia Muna


One of the challenges of an international project, such as CASO, is how to practically draw on the expertise of researchers that are scattered across the globe, particularly in terms of teaching students. Despite periodic technical challenges, we decided to explore the option of a Skype tutorial to connect Patient Partner Programme students, at the University of Cape Town (UCT), with experts in service-user engagement, based in Belgium. Dr. Bea van Robaeys, a CASO member, and her colleague, Prof. Dr. Kristel Driessens, are both social workers focussed on transdiciplinary, change-oriented social work research, at the Karel de Grote University College.

On the 21st of August, Kanyisa Tutshana, Nazneen Pilodia and Sipho Nderya, three students that we introduced you to here, met online with Dr. van Robaeys and Prof. Driessens for a Skype tutorial. The purpose of the tutorial was to introduce the students to some theoretical frameworks on service-users’ involvement and the experiences of collaborating with service-users in social work education in Belgium.

Bind-Kracht (Bonding/Bridging Strengths), is a Belgian collaborative partnership between lecturers, academic researchers and service users with experience of living in poverty. The explicit goal of the partnership is to improve the quality of social work practice for people in poverty. A central premise is that without integration of different sources of knowledge, empowerment of people in poverty isn’t possible. Bind-Kracht integrates scientific knowledge, practice-based knowledge of social workers and educators, and the experience-based knowledge of people in poverty.

In the online-class, Dr. van Robaeys and Prof. Driessens explained the underlying structural view on social problems, a multidimensional understanding of poverty, their view of cooperation and the strength-based view they apply to clients. In particular, they stressed the importance of social care relations that contribute to the autonomy of clients/patients. To achieve this, social professionals must be ‘caring’ (trustworthy, nearby, human). They must also know how to work in a ‘personalized’ way (demand driven, tailored to the client) and an emancipatory way (involvement and participation of clients/patients). For all of these, communication is central.

Dr. van Robaeys and Prof. Driessens told the students about an innovative project at the Karel De Grote Hogeschool involving experts by experience (another term for engaged service users or patient partners) in two courses for social work students; a training course on communication techniques in social work, and an integral course on family-centered work in socio-educational care work. Feedback from students at Karel De Grote, indicated that this approach was extremely important. The students’ made comments such as, “Reality enters the classroom.”, “You obtain a better understanding of what it means to live in poverty and the consequences of exclusion.” And, “Their stories helped me to see that there are many pitfalls in counseling clients, often due to inadequate communication.”.

The UCT students also expressed how valuable they found the workshop.  Nazneen commented that “The interactive approach and workshops assisted in…establishing a sense of culture, and understanding the significance of social and cultural dynamics in communication.”. While Sipho encouaged all future student partners to read, ‘The Meaningful Involvement of Service Users in Social Work Education: Examples from Belgium and The Netherlands.’ (Driessens et al., 2016) “…it discusses a project similar to the Patient Partner Programme and would help students to understand the purpose of the project.”

“In the last ten years, a lot of experience and knowledge has been built up in different European countries on the issue of involving service users in educational settings.” Said Dr. van Robaeys, “We were very pleased to be able to communicate our enthusiasm to these students and we are very eager to follow the building-up of the patient-partner project in UCT! We are convinced that we can learn a lot together on the organizational conditions for installing successful partnerships between service-users/patients and lecturers, students and academic researchers in the field of social care and healthcare!”

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