By Teresa Cleary
As every final year social work student knows, research and literature must be viewed critically to scrutinise the strength of evidence. Only then can you establish the quality and credibility of the findings.
In the course of my own doctoral study I have been reviewing literature on initial social work education at higher education establishments in England. At the start of this year I was handed not one but two gifts in the form of two government commissioned reports exploring my very topic.
Comparing the evidence
In the course of that examination I was struck by the potential to sit both documents side by side and consider their respective quality as pieces of literature, using the basic principles I would expect of any undergraduate in their final year of study: to look at methodology, validity, scope and strength of evidence as well as objectivity and coherence of argument and conclusions.
It is immediately apparent that there are issues regarding the partiality of both documents. Professor Croisdale-Appleby’s review was commissioned by Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb in the Department of Health, with the intention of upgrading the quality and professionalism of social work through education. Croisdale-Appleby recognises the practitioner, the professional and the social scientist as part of the role.
A scientific approach
Using his scientific background and independence as chair of Skills for Care he approaches the task using explicit methodology, moving from open-ended interviews to focused questionnaires, widening his scope to include information from service users and stakeholders at all levels. Croisdale-Appleby asserts that social work education in this country is ‘no longer world leading’ and concludes with clear recommendations for improvement.
‘Emotive and sensationalist’?
Sir Martin Narey, previously associated with his work in the prison service and at Barnardos, produces his own ‘report’ rather than an enquiry, about a third shorter in length and definitely the more accessible of the two documents.
Narey’s report, parallel to Croisdale-Appleby’s, was commissioned by Michael Gove in the Department for Education and Narey was appointed ministerial adviser to the former education secretary after its publication.
The report is based on undisclosed interviews and consultations, citing anecdotes from interested parties who are largely unnamed. It is written with the sometimes emotive and sensationalist language Mr Gove has been quick to use.
Narey’s data is accepted on reputation as authentic. But its presentation is selective, introducing new topics such as pre-degree level training for social work assistants as an idea rather than being guided by data that has been systematically collected.
A clear winner
Narey’s emphasis is on producing technically competent workers and his report is more based on opinion and judgement than generalisable fact.
By objectively reviewing the merits of these reviews, a basic evidence-based analysis points firmly to Croisdale-Appleby as the stronger of the two.
Indeed, a critically minded undergraduate might also be inclined to ask one more question: Why did Michael Gove call for a second review within weeks of Croisdale-Appleby being appointed to carry out this task?
Teresa Cleary is a senior lecturer in social work at Anglia Ruskin University. She will publish a full literature review later this year. @ARUCleary