Across the divide

There have been hundreds of books on social work theory but few on the methods of working with clients. Mark Doel and Peter Marsh look at how task-centred social work can overcome the division between theory and practice

Over the past 20 years there has been an increasing and significant gap at the centre of social work: practice method. In other words, the what and the how of social work interventions, and the way in which the different methodologies might be measured and compared to build a systematic research base. It seems astounding that descriptions of social work practice are rare in published literature; conceptualisations of practice that deliberately, and systematically, build practice are even rarer. Over 14 years ago we wrote about this, using task-centred practice as an exemplary model and method.(1)

Task-centred social work is a way of working with people that emphasises partnership and, though the term is in danger of becoming a clich, we see it as a careful negotiation between people to agree what should be done and how it can be done. Part of this negotiation is an openness about how different people see the situation, about the different power and status in the relationships, and a commitment to balancing that power as far as practical and desirable.

But since we wrote our first book, difficulties still remain with the ways that students and practitioners approach social work theory and methods. A 1996 study of social work education and how ready social workers were to practise found more than 80 theorists and theoretical approaches but understanding of practice theory was muddled.(2) A study of 13 journals published in the US specifically for social workers from 1993 to 1997, found “relatively little research on interventions”.(3) In the past decade, research on task-centred practice has also been minimal with less than one task-centred study a year being reported in US/UK literature.

Task-centred work has a solid pedigree of more than 40 years of research development. It fits so many of the developments in social work in recent times that it has come of age. Its long-standing commitment to involving service users at its core now chimes with current thinking in social work.

Here is a quote from a practitioner using the model: “I asked Diana [the service user] what she thought of this way of working. She said she had not had any involvement with social services before, and didn’t really know what to expect. She said she didn’t expect to be involved in the work, rather that we were going to tell her what was wrong. Diana said that when she contacted social services the only thing she had thought of was [her son] Mat’s behaviour towards her and his stepfather and she wanted this to stop. Working in this way had given her an opportunity to understand why Mat behaved in this way.”

Practice is even more central in the light of developments such as the General Social Care Council’s focus on standards and registration of social workers, and the new graduate base for the profession. But alongside these developments are the concerns expressed by many social workers that direct work with service users and carers is even further removed from a theory and research base, and that the skills of social work are being reduced to the application of administrative procedures drawn from bulky manuals.

Over the past two decades we have jointly taught and developed task-centred work. Our research and development work has demonstrated that task-centred practice is very relevant to current priorities in social work, but that knowledge of the model is not sufficient to ensure that it is actually used. Implementing and supporting task-centred practice is complex, especially if the learning is to be transferred to regular and sustained practice. We wanted to “plough back” the experience of working with social workers to develop professional practice. Hence our new book The Task-Centred Book.(4)

Though we make use of the traditional literature and wider research base, the book’s main reference point is the testimony of practitioners, service users and carers, as evidenced through portfolios compiled alongside the task-centred work. Practitioners, service users and carers are, therefore, central to the development of professional practice. We hope this approach will become mainstream to the development of social work practice over the coming years.

A well-tested programme of workshops and consultations is included to help develop practice. In addition, practitioners and students who are learning about task-centred work sometimes make associations between the task-centred model as a professional model of practice, and the problem-solving methods which they use in their own lives, thus blurring the distinction between service user and service provider.

Finally, the book helps practitioners to grapple with the context for professional practice.

Service users and carers will receive the best service only if there is sustained and concentrated attention paid to the development and support of direct social work practice. The knowledge for this practice should be explicitly and clearly based on three pillars:

  • The experiences and wishes of service users and carers.
  • The experiences of practitioners, conceptualised and systematised as much as possible (practice wisdom).
  • The evidence from research.

    Our studies show how task-centred practice connects with all three of these pillars in a systematic way. They also demonstrate very clearly that movement from knowledge to understanding and on to delivery is far from simple. The progression from “knowing” to “doing” is complex , requiring sophisticated models of learning, and a commitment to support and development at personal, team, and agency levels.

    The studies also show the importance of shattering the myth that “doing tasks” is the same thing as doing task-centred practice, and to stress that, despite its name, task-centred work is highly person-focused.

    It is 14 years since we wrote Task-Centred Social Work. In another 14 years, in 2020, the uncertainty of practice will still exist. However, we have a 2020 vision that the search for a risk-free practice will, at last, be recognised as an illusion. Indeed, it will be seen, ironically, as a dangerous search that generated a proliferation of procedures and heavy-handed documentation, all of which had taken social workers away from their direct work with people. It is in this direct practice where uncertainty can best be worked with. The need to articulate a professional practice which meets these challenges -task-centred or not -is urgent.

    Mark Doel is research professor of social work at Sheffield Hallam University. Peter Marsh is professor of child and family welfare, and dean of social sciences, at the University of Sheffield.

    Training and learning
    The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

    This article focuses on the urgent need to develop social work practice, specifically to systematise the learning which is available from professional interventions with service users and carers. It outlines the value of the task-centred model and method as described in The Task-Centred Book which articulates the experiences of practitioners and service users in a systematic way.

    (1) P Marsh, M Doel, Task-Centred Social Work, Ashgate 1992
    (2) P Marsh, J Triseliotis, Ready to Practice? Social Workers and Probation Officers: Their Training and First Year in Work, Avebury, 1996
    (3) A Rosen, E K Proctor, M M Staudt, “Social work research and the quest for effective practice”, Social Work Research vol 23, pp4-14, 1999
    (4) P Marsh, M Doel, The Task-Centred Book, Routledge/Community Care, 2005

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