Social work – why we’re making a meal of it

This week we started a new short project which is being funded thanks to the Community and University Partnership Programme at the University of Brighton to help develop the way the university involves people with lived experience of using services in teaching social work students.

Another project that started with a pint of beer

social work

It seems to be a bit of a theme with our charity that projects get born through discussion over a pint of beer in The Prince Albert pub, and this one certainly did. (It is after all how the Stay Up Late campaign started in the first place).

This one started when I was chatting with Dr Jem Price, a registered social worker and principal lecturer in the School of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Brighton. He’s also the singer in a punk band, so we have quite a lot of things in common. Jem wanted to talk about bow we could get much more meaningful involvement for people with lived experience of using services in the teaching of students without exposing them to the potentially intimidating, and slightly soul-less environment of a university classroom of lecture theatre.

As we were sitting in the pub pondering this issue it occurred to me that maybe a good way to do this would be to all sit in a pub and chat over some food. So that’s what we pitched for funding for, and the university approved it.

Of course, as much as it would be lovely to just sit in a pub, eat food and chat the university will want to see something back for their money and we’ve also enlisted the services of Dee MacDonald, a research fellow, who also works at the University of Brighton to find out what we can learn from our project and apply the approach in other ways.

What’s relevant to social work students?

From the very start we’ve been really clear about what is relevant to talk about. We’re inviting people with learning disabilities to meet with students and talk about life. That means they don’t have to talk about the services that they access, or their experiences of this, they might choose too, or they may choose to talk about their favourite bands or food for all we know. The point is that it will give them the space to talk about what is important to them in their lives. As the students qualify and move in to social work practice we hope they’ll be able to take this forward and think about how they can facilitate people to live the lives they want. When I was writing the application for the funding I said that if only 20% of what gets talked about on the night was relevant to social work practice then it would be good but thinking about it everything that gets talked about will have 100% relevance because it’s real people talking about their lives.

The overall idea is really simple. 6 people with learning disabilities and 6 social work students meet for an evening meal in a pub, or restaurant, 3 times over 6 weeks and that’s it. There are no agendas, what’s important is that we create a space where everyone is equal and people can talk about what’s important to them. That might be their local darts team, Leicester City football club, a love for pizzas, Gary Numan and an absolute objection to being referred to as a ‘service user’ suggesting instead that we use terms like ‘diners’ or just ‘friends’! These are all things that came out of our planning meeting.

Capturing the conversations

We want to make this as co-produced a project as possible so while there is an overall aim (to find a more natural way to enable social work students to learn from people with lived experience of using services) we’re really interested to learn from how the conversation flows. This means there may well be periods of silence as people think about what they want to say, or decide they don’t want to say anything.

social work

Dee’s role in the project, as the researcher, is to gather all the meaty qualitative data about the project and she’ll be writing this all up at the end of the project but we also wanted to find a way to capture all the different topics of conversation that will come up over dinner. As it’s a meal we’ve come up with creating blank menus, and the diners will be able to jot down all the things they’ve spoken about over the evening.

Dee will also be observing the process of how we can best facilitate the meals too, and recording her observations about the overall process of the way in which the evenings develop.

Our contract

At the planning meeting the group decided to come up with a ‘contract’ which we’ll all work too (they didn’t like the word ‘ground rules’) so here’s our contract to each other (click on the image to download the easier to read version).

social work

We’re really looking forward to making more of a meal of social work studies and it’s a real pleasure to be working with the University of Brighton in this way. We’ll publish our first ‘menu of conversation topics’ in a week or two.

Paul @heavy_load


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