‘Social workers want to engage with meaningful research that meets their priorities’

Opinion: Sally Holland explains why the new Cardiff research centre she's heading can have a positive impact on social work in Wales

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by Sally Holland, director of CASCADE at Cardiff University

The divide between social work practice and research can seem both predictable and near-impossible to shift. Practitioners are portrayed as too busy – or even too ignorant – to utilise research findings in their practice. Academics, meanwhile, are seen as idealistic, distanced from practice and unable to communicate in everyday language.

These are distorted stereotypes. But a grain of truth exists, in the barriers that can exist between the two worlds. Practitioners are indeed extremely busy, and often cannot access research findings hidden within lengthy, complex articles in journals with expensive subscriptions. Academics – myself included – have been guilty of setting questions and designing research independently, only then approaching social services providers for access to people and data regarding research they have played no part in planning for.

The divide between academia and service users can be even greater. Despite advances in participative research, risks remain that involvement is tokenistic – designed to show consultation has happened rather than genuinely seeking advice or greater involvement.
CASCADE (Children’s Social Care Research and Development Centre), our new facility at Cardiff University, aims to approach research for children’s social work differently. I’ve spent the last few months talking to practitioners, service users, policy makers, managers and third sector providers across Wales. I’ve asked them about their experiences of research, and what aspects of their everyday work or experience require more knowledge or evidence.

What people want

Care leavers would like research on how they are supported and monitored by social services when they become pregnant. Residential care workers want more attention paid to outcomes for children living in their care. Children’s services directors are keen to understand more about patterns of admission to care: why rates are of looked-after children are higher in Wales than in England and why they differ between local authorities.

I’ve also asked how people would like to learn about research findings. There is, as expected, a desire for brief, accessible, electronic reports that clearly state the implications of research for practice. Accessible electronic briefings will also be produced as our first projects come to fruition. The Care Council for Wales has agreed to distribute these to every registered social worker and social care worker in Wales, which should help maximise access to relevant findings.

There’s also a wish to attend seminars, training events and conferences to hear about research first-hand and discuss what it might mean for service providers or recipients. This is a time challenge (even for free events, staff need permission to get away from their jobs) and a geographical one (rural north, mid and west Wales tend to miss out on events). But the seminar that accompanied our launch demonstrated the rich debate that can be had when people from different sectors and job roles meet and discuss new research findings. We plan to experiment with video streams for those unable to travel.

More meaningful research

Making research available and meaningful to children and families who use services is another challenge. We have formed a group called CASCADE Voices in partnership with Voices from Care, a service-user led organisation. But I was concerned this type of consultation could be pretty meaningless unless young people involved gained understanding of the research and discovered whether their advice made any difference.

With my PhD students, and in consultation with Voices, I devised a 10-hour training course – aiming to teach some important but fairly difficult research concepts (such as the relative advantages and disadvantages of qualitative and quantitative designs and the ethics of observational research). We achieve this through a ‘learning through experience’ model, where the young people – who haven’t typically had a good experience of education, and face social and mental health challenges – try research methods and assess the quality of information they gain.

This leads to lively sessions in which we academics cannot get away with obscure language or dry lectures. There’s a squawking electronic ‘bullshit’ button that anyone can press, any time if there’s a word they don’t understand. (It’s then written up on a jargon-buster board with a simple explanation.) I’ve since been tempted to bring the bullshit button to academic seminars!

CASCADE won’t bridge the research-practice-service user divide overnight. Our initiative is relatively small and will need to be sustained and reinforced to make much difference. I’d like to involve a wider range of children and parents who use services, and it’s generally easier to reach managers than other staff when I want to consult about research ideas. But the enthusiasm around our launch suggests that, as much as there is desire on the part of researchers to engage with practice, there’s a thirst from practitioners and service users to engage with research that meets their needs and priorities.

Dr Sally Holland is the director of CASCADE at Cardiff University

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