Social work must embrace theory if Munro ideas are to succeed

A tendency to disregard theory could damage implementation of Professor Munro's report, argues Claudia Megele

A tendency to disregard theory could damage implementation of Professor Munro’s report, argues Claudia Megele

The greatest challenge in implementing Professor Eileen Munro’s recommendations for child protection in England may come from within the social work profession.

As Munro has herself stated, there has never been a golden age in children’s social work. This, many argue, is largely because of the role of social work and a long-standing divide between theory and practice.

Historically, social work had a bad start academically. The first course in social work was offered in 1903 by Urwick’s School of Sociology. After the collapse of this project in 1912, the London School of Economics (LSE) took on the initiative to offer social work education. However, the sociologists at LSE saw themselves as the scientists of sociology and social workers as technicians. This thinking in turn influenced the amount of investment and research in social work. Though this image has improved in recent years, the difference in status and misconceived perceptions still persists today.

Theoretical underpinning

Consequently, the theoretical underpinnings of social work have depended on other academic disciplines. Therefore research into social work is often carried out in areas such as sociology, social policy, and psychology. This has hindered a greater appreciation and development of the specific foundations of social work. It has also made it difficult to combine high level research with practice, hence the tenuous relationship between academia and practice.

Unfortunately, this has also fuelled anti-intellectualism discourses of theories “not belonging to the real world of practice” or “being less important in practice”. As found by various researchers, social workers’ analysis and decision-making is more often informed by practical and procedural knowledge than research and theory.

This tendency is more pronounced following exposure of major failings or a widely publicised serious case reviews, which provoke a reactionary attitude among the public, politicians and some in the profession. An even greater focus on practice and less reference to theory and its importance is the result.

Quality

These factors have significant implications for identifying quality practice outside academia, for the quality of teaching, and for the quality of supervision in practice and practice placements. It also has implications for the type of social work we do and the interventions we decide on.

For example, in the 1970s the perceived failure of social work led to a departure from therapeutic and relationship-based approaches and a shift toward short-term solutions and “solution-focused approaches”. While such approaches, in many instances, can obtain relatively immediate results and provide relief, they have also led to a crisis management approach and attitude on the part of many practitioners, employers and policy makers. This has reduced the amount of preventative work that is done, and instead focused on assessing and dealing with problems as and when they arise.

Courageous Munro

The Munro review took the courageous step, both in its conduct and recommendations, of departing from this attitude. However, it has been met with varying reactions, with the voice of opposition ranging from scepticism about its implementation and sustainability of its outcomes, to its outright dismissal as an academic exercise detached from practice.

But if social work is truly to enhance its professional identity, image and status it must overcome the anti-intellectualism in its practice and reconcile the divide between theory and professional day-to-day practice. This is the case in every other profession such as medicine, nursing and psychology. Social work must resort to the Greek notion of praxis where theories are applied, enacted and embodied in everyday practice.

Until we do, we have little hope of living up to Professor Munro’s vision of social workers as trusted and independent professionals. The stars of social work seem to be aligned for a major change. The question is whether the practitioners, managers, academics and policy makers are ready to rise to that challenge so that this can be a truly empowering and positive change.

The Munro report

In summer 2011, the government published their formal response to Eileen Munro’s review of child protection, commissioned the previous year.

Following the ministerial statement, Munro told Community Care: “I am very pleased to get such a positive response from the government.

This is the start of a long process of shifting from a compliance to a learning culture and the government response rightly emphasises that this needs to be a matter of the government working in partnership with the sector to make such fundamental changes.”

Find out more about the Munro reforms

Claudia Megele (pictured) is a psychotherapist and service director of A Sense Of Self. She is also a qualified social worker and an associate lecturer in applied social work practice at the Open University.

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