Facilitating questions for developing good conditions to empower service users’ participation in social work education

Reflective points for lecturers

  • Do I consider service users’ experiences as an equally important source of knowledge in comparison to other sources?
  • Am I curious and do I wish to learn from service users?
  • Can I recognize and discuss my own perceptions and prejudices?

Reflective points for service users

  • Why do I want to contribute to the education of future social workers?
  • Do I wish to share my experiences with other people, including students, lecturers and other experts by experience?

Reflective points for students to prepare for the activity

  • Am I open to learn from service users?
  • Am I curious in discovering the benefits of service users’ participation on my education and on social work practice?
  • Am I open to share my own experiences with the group?

Potential benefits and barriers for engaging service users in social work education

This is a list of potential benefits and limitations: it was collected during workshops with service users (SU), professionals, and social work teachers in the autumn of 2022 .


  • The motivation to become a social worker will increase. Although you have to take into account that it is a time-consuming process that never ends.
  • The reciprocity/equal exchange between SU and social workers/teachers/students is enhanced.
  • Better understanding of each other and of their own personality. We are aware that many questions will arise during the encounters, but that will lead to a better understanding of the goal of the social work profession.
  • Knowledge about several topics will increase for everyone. Not only about each other’s situation, but also about broader topics (e.g. poverty, disabilities, mental health, …) and the diversity of the targeted group.
  • Students are more aware of the inequality in society and social structures. It will change/influence social policies.
    • Directly: SU sharing stories/experiences with policy makers
    • Indirectly: Teachers/social workers/… sharing their experiences with SU – plant a seed to make a mindshift
    • Policy = not only governmental, but also in your own organisation
  • Way for teachers to (re)connect with the work field / real life
  • There is no hierarchy between the SU, social worker, and professional. Equity is the goal, not equality.
    • Whether you are a SU, a social worker, a researcher, a teacher, you have the same value
    • Horizontal structure: equal relationship between SU and social worker -> teammates VS social worker who helps SU. Everyone is equal. It does not matter what your position is. In the sessions you are all equal with your background, stories, … (e.g. you are not the teacher, but a woman, with 3 children who likes to read, who is in a situation of poverty, …). It emphasizes the uniqueness of every human being.
    • Different perspective, other environment to share experiences. Students will not stay in school. At the moment you leave school, you leave power and it will enhance the level of equality. It leads to more outreaching work.
  • Links stories with theory (e.g. socio-ecological model of Bronfenbrenner) and it will put individual problems into context.
    • Narrow picture of SU as seen by the students (and lecturers) will be broadened from (general) problems to people
    • Shifting focus from problem to resource
    • E.g. Good methodology: Tree of causes
  • Stimulates the authenticity of the students
    • Students often feel like they have to act ‘professionally’
    • Authenticity is important to build up relations with SU (for their further careers). Students need to act as who they really are. It impacts their minds.
  • Co-production will lead to shared solutions where all voices are heard   
    • Bottom-up approach
    • Everyone is working on the solution. ’The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’
    • This is a condition to obtain real participation
    • The presence of the SU has more impact than a teacher/textbook. The importance of the lived experience.
    • It prevents stereotypes
    • It gives a stronger motivation to some of the students. (and what will we do with them then?)
  • Students are brought into contact with SU earlier in their education.



  • The risk of smothering the service users
    • Do not be too protective of the SU – do not be a social worker/lecturer for the SU, see them as equal
    • Make sure the required roles are clear in order not to set wrong expectations
  • Finding/reaching SU can be hard
  • Available time to work with the SU (risk: lack of time)
  • For the lecturer there is a thin line between being a co-worker for the SU and being a social worker.
  • Choice of SU
    • If we do not enrol the SU – there will be less candidates
    • If we do not provide the support of the SU – there will be less candidates (e.g. accessible infrastructure etc.)
  • Money/fee to recognize the SU
    • Motivation does not pay the bills (nevertheless, people should be motivated to become a SU)
    • Salary is a manner to attribute value to the knowledge
    • E.g. a professor with theoretical knowledge will be paid more than an SU who has experiential knowledge (which is equally valuable!)
  • To get a durable relation and durable results, you need to invest time
  • Shame of the SU or the students
    • E.g. ‘I do not feel comfortable in groups’ (bc of my disability, bc of my social skills, bc of my vocabulary etc)
    • -> SU does not dare to participate in programmes…
  • Underestimate the SU
    • Easy to think that as a professional, you know best -> important to keep an open mind, to really listen to what the SU has to say
    • E.g. ‘I will do the introduction bc the SU won’t feel comfortable’ -> do not make assumptions, but have an open dialogue about this
  • Not every methodology works for every SU or for the exact goal you want to reach -> adapt, try out different things to get different results, to research different aspects, to approach different SU
  • Not everyone wants to share their ‘power’ or time with SU.
    • Often teachers/professionals feel insecure to work with SU
    • The power dynamics will change
  • Never expect that there will be an effect on every student
    • because of time limits
    • because of background of the students
    • because too closed minded
    • keep in mind that social work education is the hardest of all because it can shake up your identity
  • Keeping a closed mindset
    • E.g. hang on to clichés towards social workers / towards SU and not be open to their experiences
  • When there is no (pedagogical) follow-up for students, lecturers, and SU, there can be negative effects (you might miss your goal)


At the start : 4 key questions to develop educational activities involving service users


To improve the training of students
To promote the co-production of knowledge
To increase the quality of the social work education
To strengthen – empower the lecturers: skills, knowledge.
To become a better social worker
To better prepare future social workers for more effective and anti-oppressive practice
To increase the reputation of the institution


With WHOM?

Service users and carers
Educational institutions
Social workers
Managers and Policy makers




Course development en curriculum design
Contribution as testimonies
Co-teaching in lessons, workshops, seminars
Assessing and providing feedback on papers and projects
Involvement in supervision of internship
Developing in projects and community interventions



In the classroom
In the community
In the social work institution
Digital environment
In public and private spaces

Different levels of participation: between ladders and clouds

Literature shows that there are different kinds of participation. Participation ladders were developed to facilitate the identification of different levels of participation.

The ladders introduced by Shier, Hart, Arnstein were developed within healthcare and social welfare practice. They are hierarchically constructed. Each ascending rung represents an increasing level of participation. The ladder by Towle describes a range of roles that service users can play in education. This ladder is explicated as unhierarchical and should be understood as that each level of participation serves a different purpose. Towles ladders include a range of participation types.

In recent decades, increased attention and interest was given to service user participation in both social work practice and education. As Towel clarifies, service users’ participation can be acknowledged in many ways, depending on the educational purpose. When fostering service users’ participation in social work education, it might be unrealistic to think that all service user involvement can apply the highest level of participation. Therefore we suggest different types of service user participation to be used when involving service users in social work education.

Since we want to move away from the hierarchical view, we have visualised the different possibilities of participation in moving clouds.

All types of participation are valuable and all can be applied within the same social work programme, either all combined, or only one or a few of them.

Main references:
ARNSTEIN S.R. (1969), A ladder of citizen participation,  Journal of the American Institute of Planners , vol. 35, n. 4, pp. 216-224.
HART R.A. (1992), Children’s participation. From tokenism to citizenship, Firenze, Unicef.
HART R.A. (2008), Stepping back from  The ladder . Reflections on a model of participatory work with children. In A. Reid, B. Bruun Jensen, J. Nikel e V. Simovska, Participation and learning, Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 19-31.
SHIER H. (2001), Pathways to participation. Openings, opportunities and obligations, Children & Society , vol. 15, n. 2, pp. 107-117.
TEW J, GELL C, FOSTER S. (2004), Learning from experience. Involving service users and carers in mental health education and training. Nottingham: Higher Education Academy/National Institute for Mental Health in England/ Trent Workforce Development Confederation.
TOWLE, A., BROWN, H., HOFLEY, C., KERSTON, R. P., LYONS, H. & WALSH, C. 2014. The expert patient as teacher: an interprofessional Health Mentors programme. The clinical teacher, 11, 301-306.


When an educational institution decides to work with service users, financial matters cannot be ignored. This requires a formal and profound discussion. Depending on the institution’s policy, it is important to discuss the type of work required of service users, their status, and their roles in the programmes.

To involve service users, different aspects must be taken into account:

  • Type of agreement/contract and its financial implication
  • Salary or payment
    Will the service users receive a small gift or a real payment for their contribution? What is the economical value of their contribution? How will the service user be paid and how much? Is the preparation time included?
  • Economical compensations (e.g. transportation fee, meal, etc.)

When considering financial matters, three parties are involved: the service user, the institution, and the lecturers. There is no ‘one size fits all’ but following issues and questions can be discussed.


Service user:

There is a wide range of possible fees: from a free contribution to full employment as an equal employee in the organisation.

  • There is a difference between an individual service user and those representing an organisation. The remuneration in the latter case will depend on the organisation’s policy.
  • Service users representing an organisation will often not want an individual fee because their contribution is a part of their job. Some service users prefer a donation to the organisation they represent.
    • “Some service users do not want to be paid”, but they suggest the lecturers make a donation to the association they volunteer for. The accounting department does not appear to be equipped to do this. Some lecturers say they disagree with this approach” (participant training session, 2021)
  • Depending on the type of the contribution, and the required preparation time, etc., the fee can vary.
  • The impact on the person being paid should be considered before employing them. For instance, if the service user receives an allowance, they might lose it.
  • It must be considered that some service users do not have a bank account, or do not have the right to work (e.g. asylum seekers), or may be minors, etc.
  • Individuals may find it difficult to have their rights respected. When service users are part of a group, they are better able to take a stand when negotiating payment. A group can make a collective request.



Usually, the first thing educational institutions should consider, is their position on reimbursement. What is the institution’s position on the role of service users in the educational programmes? Is the institution willing to invest time and money in involving service users in social work education? What about the fee/salary for the service user? What about the rewarding of the preparation time for both service user and lecturer? Are the service users valued and engaged as proper employees or as volunteers?

What about insurance? Who is responsible when something happens?

“Because it needs several people, this type of programme costs more, so it requires a real institutional will.” (participant training session, 2021)



Engaging service users has financial implications strongly linked to ethical issues. This needs to be considered before engaging service users in the social work educational programme. For instance, economic and pedagogical viability needs to be discussed.

The lecturer has a crucial role here and should interact both with the organisation and with the service users individually. The lecturer has a responsibility toward the service user regarding all necessary paperwork involved and the possible financial implications.

As a lecturer, it is important to talk about the additional costs that can go with the service user’s contribution: transport, childcare, food, and ways to deal with them.

“Transport can be an obstacle and these requests are hardly ever heard”(participant training session, 2021)


This letter is written by service users that were involved during the SWEET project. In this letter, they want to convince a fictive dean or head of the department of a social work education program to involve service users in social work education. 


Dear lecturer,

We are a group of social service users and we heard that you are planning a new educational programme for future social workers. We therefor would like to share with you what we think is important for a good professional social worker.

First of all, we believe that participation is a method for social inclusion. To us, participation means that a service user is included in the whole process, from planning to evaluation.

Secondly, by letting service users participate, you give them a voice and you let them participate in society, which increases social inclusion.

Due to participation, service users and students gain different perspectives on a variety of social problems.

Another important aspect is that you can create sustainable partnerships with service users throughout the programme. This means that the service users participate on a regular basis, not only with the students but also with the teachers, researchers, and other staff.

By doing this, equity is improved between people in society. For us, this means everybody is on the same level and treated as an equal partner.

By using this participative pedagogy, all partners will gain more self-awareness and will feel empowered. By coproduction and participation, we mean that you let service users really take part in the education instead of just asking for their point of view once or twice.

And finally, by developing social work education together with service users this becomes a cocreative process. This benefits the whole society because it is part of the process of inclusion.

We expect you to respond to this and explain to our organisation how you will take this into consideration.

Kind regards

Jacques, Eva-Lena, Steven, Dorothy, & Evelyn

How to formulate the goal of the project with service users ?

This exercise can be used if a lecturer wants to involve SU in Social Work education. The aim of this exercise is to formulate the goal of the project including service users. It is important that you, as a lecturer, don’t work alone and that you can share your thoughts and confront your ideas. This exercise can be performed with colleagues, students, SU, and partners.

Sit in duo (two students, student and service user, teachers): find a discussion partner and tell them about your goal of involving service users in social work education. The discussing partner is instructed to be clearer on refining and concretizing your goal with the involvement of SU, to make the goal realistic and achievable.



Before you start, encourage your partner to be curious. They have the task to let you describe vividly (describe why you want to do it) and in detail what the new situation will look like. In this way, you will increase your own enthusiasm for the idea! This will work like a magnet : it will inject dynamism into the whole process! For this reason, it is important to devote sufficient time to the exploration of the idea and the motivation of the proposal. It can work as a powerful stimulating force.

If you ask someone what they really want, what are their objectives, there is often a risk that their initial answer will be vague and general. Try to answer in more concrete terms : what will your objectives look like in reality if you achieve what you want to achieve ? Some simple questions like: What do you really want? What would make you happy? What is behind the first answer ? Continue and your partner will have to show their interest and ask in-depth questions.

The following questions can be inspiring (Opening questions) :

What are the goal and objectives?
What would you like to see happen?
What do you want to achieve?
In which areas would you like to see some change?
What issues do you wish to tackle?
What is your dream?
Where do you hope to end up?
What would you like to be different?

Exploratory questions :

Can you describe your goal in concrete terms?
What do you imagine that things will be like when service users are involved ?
How will you know when you have achieved your goal? What will be changed?
Leaving aside what others think, what do you really want for yourself? And for the students? And for your colleagues? And for the social work education?
What are your targets in the short term? In the long term?
What is the first step?
When would you be satisfied with the result?


The involvement of service users/experts by experience in Social work education is not a technicality or a provision, it’s a human and relational process that must be managed with awareness and care.

Every relational process is not without challenges and requires an ethical perspective to avoid tokenistic, paternalistic or stigmatizing effects, as shown by previous studies (Duffy, 2006; Anghel and Ramon, 2009; Driessens et al. 20161). Service users’ participation in social work education can bring ethical problems to the surface touching the essence of the interactions and relationships among students, educators and people with lived experience.

By developing the participation of service users in the educational programs, educators can confront different questions, asking themselves, for example:

  • Is it fair to involve people without paying them? It’s appropriate to pay them?
  • which kind of payment is appropriate? (also considering that some people can still live in a vulnerable situation);
  • Is the proposed activity accessible and inclusive for the involved people?
  • Is the activity respectful of feelings and emotions of both students and experts by experience?
  • It is good involve people that are still in care?
  • Does the involvement of service users produce benefits for them and their rights?
  • What’s about confidentiality and informed consent using technologies in these activities?

At the base of these questions there are ethical issues, sometimes mixed with resources and organizational aspects that go beyond the educators’ possibilities. These ethical issues can create conflicts of values and moral tensions reproducing undesirable effects threatening the activities’ meanings.

First of all, staff has to accomplish the ethics procedures requested by each institution.

Beyond the ethics procedures, educators must hold a critical consciousness lens to identify sensitive topics and sensible related issues and be active in managing potential conflicts. Considering ethical issues is crucial to limit mechanisms and dynamics to reproduce power discourses dominated by rhetoric and injustice roots.

The involvement of service users in social work education must be coherent with the Global social work statement of ethical principles that represents a European source for reflecting and managing

1 Duffy, J. (2006). Participating and learning: Citizen involvement in social work education in a Northern Ireland context: A good practice guide.London, UK: University of Ulster Press.
Anghel, R., & Ramon, S. (2009). Service users and carers’ involvement in social work education: Lessons from an English case study. European Journal of Social Work, 12(2), 185-199. doi:10.1080/13691450802567416.
Driessens, K., McLaughlin, H. and Van Dorn, L. (2016) The meaningful involvement of service users in social work education: Examples from Belgium and The Netherlands, Social Work Education: The international Journal; 35 (7) pp739-751.