Back in January of this year, we posted details about a social work conference taking place this month that we were genuinely excited about, which was created to examine current social work practice and look to make it more humane for the many vulnerable families involved.
Hosted by King’s College London and set up by The British Association of Social Workers (BASW), Making Research Count (MRC) and the three Faculties (Children and Families, Mental Health and Adults) of the former College of Social Work, the event promised to hear from practitioners, and, service users.
Shortly after we published details of this event, a service user contacted us to tell us that they had tried to book a place but had been told it would cost them over £200 for the privilege, and they would therefore not be able to go. We offered to investigate, and more importantly to see if we could negotiate some seats for service users who wished to attend without having to pay the exorbitant fee. Furthermore, only one panel member for the conference appeared to be a service user, with the vast majority being social work and other professionals, and there was no indication on the conference’s site details as to how service users might be able to attend.
So, we wrote to the event organiser, Janet Noble, the Knowledge Manager at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit at King’s College, and asked her whether the hosts might consider offering service users seats at a much reduced rate:
My name’s Natasha, I’m a non practicing barrister running a child welfare project inside the family justice system. I’m writing to you about your upcoming conference, entitled, “Promoting Humane Social Work With Families: Listening to and Learning From Each Other”. It sounds like a wonderful event, and a positive contribution to increasing awareness of the system’s impact on children and families.
Of concern however, is the ticket charge of £245 for non social work professionals, for your event. Whilst I appreciate there are costs to cover, the charge will most certainly deter anyone with valuable feedback from coming to the conference, as most families who experience the system simply don’t have the ability to pay hundreds of pounds to attend.
I’m sure you are not trying to stop families from coming to your event, but from the outside it does look like a defensive gesture, which as you know is a stigma already associated with the social work profession, and as your event is intended to allow professionals to listen and learn from one another as well as service users, I find it hard to understand how you hope to achieve best practice without more than a couple of invited parents coming along.
If you are able to provide an appropriate number of seats for members of the public to attend at a concession, perhaps £10, not only would this show transparency on your part, but it would also increase good will amongst service users, which at this time is much needed. It would also offer your event a fantastic opportunity to hear from more people who use the system, and precious insight, too. I have organised many child welfare events inside the House of Commons over the last ten years, all open to the public, and people have always behaved civilly and, as you might imagine, contributed immeasurably.
I very much look forward to hearing from you.
And then, we received this reply:
Thank you for your email. Please be assured that the event is free to MRC and BASW members and they have been allocated unlimited free places to offer to their service users who wish to attend the conference.
We thought this was an interesting response, and so we sent a further email clarifying the process which was used to notify service users of the seats available, and whether past service users who did not currently have a social worker could also attend:
Thank you for your reply. It’s wonderful that service users are able to attend free of charge. Would it be be possible to ask how those tickets have been made available to service users and whether service users who are not currently working with MRC or BSW professionals might be able to access these free tickets?
We did not receive a reply to this email, and this then left us wondering whether Janet had been completely honest about the provision of free tickets to services users, especially in light of the fact that no mention of how service users can access tickets is made on the site. The service user who contacted us did not receive the same response we did, either – they were simply told that a fee of £245 would be due should they wish to reserve a seat and no information was provided on how service users might be able to access tickets for the event free of charge.
This event was designed to hear what service users themselves had to say, so we were concerned that the conference may have been discriminating against past service users whose experience would be invaluable, not least of all because they were far more likely to attend in a context where they were no longer worried about whether their views on their experiences might affect the outcome of their cases – who would attend such an event if their social worker was present? Only those who had had good experiences, surely, which defeats the entire purpose of the exercise. How can the sector hope to learn from its mistakes if it actively discourages constructive feedback about its practices?
We very much hope we have made a mistake in relation to attendance. Janet, wherever you are, please do tell us we’re wrong: we’d be only too happy to be.