How we’re building a social work research culture that’s rooted in practice

Andrew Errington, professional lead for social work at an NHS trust, on the steps his organisation is taking to support staff to drive research

Picture: Alto/Rex

I don’t have any research background whatsoever, especially as my social work training was via a diploma rather than a master’s route. However, I have always been professionally curious, wanting to keep up-to-date with developments and best practice.

I was always the social worker who would be found reading his copy of Community Care and keeping copies of interesting articles. My role as Professional Head of Social Work at Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Partnership NHS Trust has allowed me the opportunity to try and grow this curiosity among our social workers.

‘Growing support for evidence-based practice’

You may well hear a lot of negative feedback about social work in NHS settings, but you can also find fantastic opportunities to harness some of the positive strengths in these settings. One thing I’ve really noticed is the well-established research cultures in the NHS and how this can directly benefit our profession.

I firmly believe we will start to see the growth of social work research in organisations the coming year. There is growing national support for evidence-based practice – for examples, just look at the annual report from Lyn Romeo, the chief social worker for adults, The College of Social Work’s strategy; and the recent addition of the Social Care Elf site to disseminate research findings.

Finding out where to start

In my first year as professional lead, I wanted to develop a body of social work knowledge and evidence-based practice. I see this as key if we’re to deliver against the standards for employers for social workers in England.

My first challenge was knowing where to start. I was fortunate that our trust already had a research strategy. The organisation wanted to become recognised as a research centre of excellence. This helped me to get strategic support and infrastructure.

A little bit of self-directed learning and I found a Scie knowledge review on ‘Improving the use of research in social care practice’. It had examples of developing a whole systems approach to improve the use of research and had useful tips such as ensuring research is accessible and comprehensible.

Putting the building blocks in place

For me, another priority was ensuring that it is practice that starts to ask the questions about research by building the capability and capacity to get involved. So in Staffordshire we invited practitioners to join a workshop to consider how we should develop a culture of research in the trust. This shaped the development of an action plan that includes the following building blocks:

  • Providing access to social work journals via the trust’s library services and NHS Athens;
  • Purchasing an online research resource providing regular updates on policy and best practice;
  • Supporting a trust social worker to secure a research fellowship (the first social worker on a NHS Fellowship in the West Midlands);
  • Securing funding via the National Institute for Health Research for a part-time social work research facilitator;
  • Providing evidence-based practice training;
  • Re-establishing links with local higher education institutions as research partners and encouraging practitioners to support teaching programmes;
  • Including the requirement for research and evidence based practice in our workforce planning project for social work;
  • Discussions with local partners about re-establishing a making research count regional network.

Being involved in research

We are now starting to participate in research and development activity. This includes supporting a project led by researchers at Birmingham University to facilitate better joint working between adult social work and GPs. The aim is for this to make an impact for general practice-social work relationships in general and to develop training resources. It is timely work given a recent report on the benefits of GPs and social workers partnering up.

We are also working with Staffordshire County Council, one of five local authorities participating in research regarding models of safeguarding. This research by the social care workforce research unit is investigating the potential value of different models of adult safeguarding within local authorities adult services departments. The research will provide guidance on implementation, outcomes and costs of different models of safeguarding practice.

Our trust has started our research journey and moved from research awareness and consciousness, to more participation and being active in social work research. Our profession needs to get back in touch with its evidence base. It is going to be crucial as we move into ever more integrated settings and start to see a diversifying range of social care provision. As social workers and social work employees we must recognise and support the need to promote and engage in research.

Andrew Errington @anerrington is a member of the Adults Principle Social Worker National Network and a member of The College of Social Work Adults Faculty. Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent Partnership NHS Trust provides community health services and adult social care in Staffordshire and health services in Stoke on Trent.

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One Response to How we’re building a social work research culture that’s rooted in practice

  1. Peter Durrant February 15, 2015 at 6:59 pm #

    Andrew. Really enjoyed your piece on the theory and practice of social research and development. Whilst, as a community social worker long retired it high-lighted a number of issues through which I attempt, without much success, to interest local people in community development theory and practice. If you had time you might find the short two page piece below interesting and I’d be interested to join your regional research group? Peter Durrant. 01223 415597

    Community Social Work (CSW) as a trade, in opposition to social work’s long search for professional status, has much to offer. Its skills and values are easily remembered, although charting its theory and practice can take a life-time. But as a means of clarifying what social workers do, and don’t do, it has a great deal to offer. Although social work tasks are too often, ambiguous and misdirected. (But could it be that current legislation on Social Care will begin to clarify its sense of direction?)

    Are they, when working with children, young people and families in difficulties, people with a range of physical, intellectual and emotional disadvantages as well as those of us who are ageing fast, trying to help, whatever that means? Could it be they misuse their power and potential in relation to people with low-status whilst attempting to resolve largely structural problems. Especially life-long vulnerability, class, housing, financial and lack of employment options; simply to list a few of the entrenched dilemmas which regularly arrive on social work desks.

    But the various, and often diverse, brands of community development theory and practice need to be re-though through, whilst not in itself having magical answers, provides us with a few clues on reciprocal listening skills, mutuality, political awareness, and hints of community-based solutions as an essential means of problem-solving as an art form. (Against which entre-preneurial, cultural awareness and street credibility skills are essential). Which if, in an activist sense, could work with, and not for, the statutory sectors, could help us all to re-think its theory and its practice. Enabling us, in a more collective sense, to more effectively relate to people in socio-economic pain, often in conflict with the status quo, by considering the conscious transfer of power to those on the receiving ends of not-always helpful services. (Direct Payments, Personal Budgets, Family Conference Group approaches, TED groups and many others demonstrate that the beginnings of a preventative strategy is possible).

    As well as learning pro-active networking skills, knowing how to instinctively feel, and measure, unfair life experiences which are of prime importance when supporting, key figures and natural leaders. (Unless we learn how to relate from the grass-roots upwards, equally, to people – not clients, patients, service users and other dismissive terms – we may as well not begin…). Whilst also thinking about how institutional care, of all varieties, especially penal systems, can be avoided thinking through action research long tackled by Michael Young, Illich, Alinksy, Goffman, Winnicot, Berne, Stevenage PASS,(and Jonny Benjamin, 25 in the 19/9/13 Guardian Society) Recovery Colleges, Values into Action in Scotland, preceded by CMH, UPIAS, and hundred of others). These are historical lessons which, sadly, mainstream social work, education, medicine and other would-be elites seems to lost with its obsession for instant tick boxing, top-down planning whilst massively denying, thanks you Signmund, that positively working with society as a whole is a pre-requisite

    Other important lessons to learn include committing ourselves to shared self-help peer relationships (how else did Mencap, AA and credit unions/community banking evolve?). Although the ownership implications of personal budgets across wider recipient groups have not been thought through it is, nonetheless, the best opportunity ever for social work, and other disciplines, to move on. In line with groups which enable, facilitate best practice demonstrating that welcome change is possible. (Try Greenwich Leisure, numerous Sure-Starts in the city, Restorative Justice and dozens of other not-for-profit groups on how to, co-operatively work with public bodies.)

    Along with, long ignored, examples from East London where the Bromley-by-Bow neighbourhood centre has for long been illustrating how… (through exploring common ground with medics and others working in health centre settings). On being clear how you are working with, as opposed to for people,. (Especially building on intermediate brokerage models using our often quite unique knowledge to understand ongoing clarity which mutually identifies a wide range of achievable alternatives. Try Research Solidarity NYC and CES in the States) and, of course, see ‘Restorative justice can drastically reduce need to restrain young offenders. A children’s home in Exeter is having success with a technique that facilitates communication between victims and perpetrators’ in the Guardian Professional web-site on 4th Februrary 2014.

    All of the above is action-research, albeit it not in a terribly scientific method fashion, which demonstrates that building on even fragile explanations makes it possible to achieve workable hypotheses. That social and community enterprises, social firms, co- peratives and not for profit-business – trading for a social purpose – have begun to provide work experience and even employment, working with adults previously confined to a range of day centres. Positively altering the perceptions of social workers to challenge the status quo as well as collectively opposing top-down management and dismissive bureaucratic systems of which Weber would have been proud.

    Hopefully, continuing the momentum for change will also evolve through the Social Disability Movement achieving equal standing with the medical model, re-appraising the Seebohm and Barclay Reports and positing a more generic style of intervention which includes all disadvantaged people. Including Children, families and young people…..With career-long practice essentially the order of the day and shared decision-making, internally and externally, becoming common place as well as for the common good….

    Sentiments echoed in the recent Chanan and Miller publication ‘Rethinking Community Practice which draws upon, as does this article, the historical tradition of community development that ‘the role of community groups is fundamental to the whole question of community involvement and practice.’

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