The following is the text of an article I first wrote for ‘Local government Lawyer’ magazine. You can find it online here:

http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7057%3Alessons-in-law&catid=52%3Aadult-social-services-articles&q=&Itemid=20

Lessons in law meme“Lessons in law      

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The right approach to training in health and social care law can make a world of difference, writes Stuart Sorensen.

The abuse of vulnerable adults at Winterbourne View Hospital was extreme, dramatic and horrific. That’s presumably why Panorama chose to investigate it and why it has received so much attention from both press and public. Many bloggers have jumped on the scandal to make a point, some moral and some procedural. I have done as much myself. Several of us have taken the opportunity to write about specific legal issues from the Mental Capacity Act and the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards to the Mental Health Act and the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s always helpful to have a topical ‘angle’ to focus upon when discussing law.

Unfortunately though this sort of blogging often becomes an exercise in futility. Those people who are interested in matters of law will most likely already be familiar with the principles discussed, or at least know how to find out about them. Those who are not, who simply want to know more about the human drama unfolding as a result of the programme will simply ignore the legal stuff in favour of more lurid pieces. For many the very thought of trying to understand legal concepts conjures up images of dusty textbooks and overly complicated jargon that might as well be written in a foreign language. There’s a perception of inaccessibility that discourages many people from even trying to understand. That’s where I come in.

I’m not a lawyer – I’m a nurse. A mental health nurse to be exact. I’m also a trainer. Oh yes – and I’m a bit of a geek with a passion for law. Well, everybody needs a hobby.

So it’s not too surprising that I regularly find myself training nurses, care workers, social workers, doctors and even police officers on health and social care law related issues. I must have trained tens of thousands of people over the years on topics such as the Mental Capacity Act, the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards, the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act and its Scottish equivalents the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Act and the Adult Support and Protection (Scotland) Act. Does that make me an international trainer? I doubt it but a nurse can dream.

During these sessions one theme is almost constant. People come into the training expecting to be bored. They also expect to be confused by a topic that they will not be able to relate to and that has little or nothing to do with their everyday experience. Not the best starting place for a jobbing trainer like me.

The problem is that many legal trainers have never taken the time to understand how health and social care workers learn. We’re different from lawyers – at least I think we are. There are many ways to think about learning styles and personality types and generalisations can be misleading but here goes anyway. In my experience health and social care staff from support workers to social workers tend to be more or less ‘top down’ learners. If the training was a jigsaw they’d like to see the picture on the box before they even start to look at the individual pieces.

Introducing care professionals to the minutiae of doctrine has its place but not until they understand the broad picture – the background and purpose of the particular act and how it relates to their work on a day to day basis. These people are not lawyers, they don’t generally think like lawyers and very often they don’t even start with the basic point that the law can help and protect them.

There is a culture of resentment in health and social care, especially regarding mental capacity, rights and safeguarding legislation. It’s not because people would prefer to be abusive – it’s because they don’t understand the law well enough to realise how positive it can be. So we begin with the basics, the purpose, the background and the scope. And we do it through story. This allows us to pull out the basic principles that we will rely upon and return to throughout the rest of the training. It sets up a basic foundation, the ‘picture on the box’ and gives participants the confidence to engage without fear of looking ‘stupid’.

Care workers tend to be ‘hands on’ people. We don’t usually ‘do’ abstract nearly so well as we ‘do’ tangible. That’s not to suggest that we’re not capable, far from it. But tangible is the ‘default’. As a rule we work with people and we get involved in the narrative of their lives. That’s what we do. It’s also how we learn.

So for Safeguarding we begin with Soham and with Miss X. For the Mental Capacity Act we tell the Bournewood story and from this month DoLS training will start with Hillingdon and the ‘Neary case’. By using narrative right from the start we draw people into a world that they’re already familiar with. By asking questions throughout the stories we begin to relate legal constructs to everyday scenarios:

What should the social worker have done?

How should the care worker react?

Is this good practice? If not, why not?

Before they realise it the participants have gone from work to law without a hiccup. This is the value of narrative. From stories and case studies to participants’ own experiences and even newspaper headlines, stories work. Stories are memorable, stories are accessible and stories help people to ‘grock’, to assimilate the true meaning of the law.

That may seem obvious. Indeed it is obvious but it’s also depressingly uncommon. I genuinely have lost count of the number of people who’ve told me how much easier to understand they found social care law after narrative based training. I won’t bore readers with their reports of previous, ‘chapter and verse’ style training but I’m sure you can imagine.

So if you’re a lawyer, a trainer or a social worker with the responsibility for delivering health and social care law training to care workers remember the rule of ‘T’:

Take The Time To Tell The Tale

 

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