The need for more critically reflective social work

The Social Work Reform Board and the interim Munro Report have spelt out the need for critically reflective social workers. How easy is it to achieve this, and is it possible to develop your own "internal supervisor"? Judy Cooper investigates

The Social Work Reform Board and the interim Munro Report have spelt out the need for critically reflective social workers. How easy is it to achieve this, and is it possible to develop your own “internal supervisor”? Judy Cooper investigates

Respective uncertainty, intuitive reasoning and critical reflection are among the theories that the Social Work Reform Board and Professor Eileen Munro, in her ongoing review of child protection in England, want practitioners to apply in day-to-day practice.

So what guidance is there for social workers trying to make use of these in their decision-making? As well as keeping a check on personal emotions and gut instinct, experts highlight the importance of scrupulously evaluating evidence and recognising the difference between analytic and intuitive reasoning.

Writing for Community Care Inform after the Baby Peter case, Professor Munro stated: “Our intuitive capacity is vast, swift, and largely unconscious. ‘Reflective practice’ is the time and effort spent to pull out one’s intuitive reasoning so that it can be reviewed and communicated.

“Analytic reasoning is not only very limited but slow and it requires a lot of effort and energy, which is why we tend to revert to intuitive reasoning when we are overloaded or exhausted. Intuitive reasoning looks for patterns and pictures and the more experienced the worker, the more patterns he is able to see. However, making the case for a child to be removed needs to be set out in a clear, logical argument leading to a logically deduced conclusion.”

There are also pitfalls to relying on gut instinct which reflective practice helps to guard against, she added – the influence of personal emotions and experiences, clinging to beliefs despite observing evidence to the contrary and collecting evidence without evaluating it in context; a boy might be angry in class and described as aggressive, yet well behaved with a different teacher.

Andrew Cooper, professor of social work at the Tavistock Clinic, one of the leading training centres for critical reflection, adds that children’s social work, in particular, will always elicit strong feelings and prompt doubt and self-examination. But the most effective practitioners are able to stay on top of such emotions and make sense of them, reflecting on the impact on their practice.

The current, heavily bureaucratised systems have instead encouraged social workers to disengage from such feelings “which are ultimately about children’s lives” he says.

Jayne Mumford, an independent trainer who is carrying out pre-Ofsted audits for councils, says she has found almost no evidence of reflective practice in the social work she sees and it is leading to poor assessments that lack analysis.

While reflective practice is about individual workers striving to improve their practice, critical reflection refers to the variety of academic theories and models that have been developed to help social workers become reflective practitioners.

It is this academic knowledge, combined with effective supervision, that creates a reflective practitioner, says Professor Keith Brown, director of the centre for post-qualifying social work at Bournemouth University. And, he claims, it is fast becoming a lost skill among social workers and supervisors.

Cooper says social workers also need protected spaces for “sense-making activity” – free from managerial anxieties about performance and targets.

Dr Hilary Lawson, who teaches supervision skills at the University of Sussex, says many frontline managers struggle to give reflective supervision because they are not receiving it from their own managers.

“Interestingly, they often say they don’t feel they can ask for it. There seems to be an unwritten rule that experienced practitioners don’t need good supervision, which of course is nonsense – the more complex the work, the more need there is to be able to really critically reflect on it, no matter what level you are at in the organisation.”

Yet, once embedded, reflective practice is not time-consuming, Lawson says.

“If a practitioner has a supervisor who acknowledges and takes an interest in the child or young person and uses good questions to enquire about what is going on both in the child’s world as well as in the interaction between the client and the practitioner, then reflection is mobilised. It becomes a habit, a way of doing practice and helps practitioners to develop their own internal supervisor, helping them make sense of difficult, emotional situations.”

But if the vision of a critically reflective children’s workforce is to become a reality Brown believes it needs to be assessed to a national standard with critical reflection skills evaluated on outcomes.

Cooper adds that a minimum practice framework needs to be in place to ensure children’s needs and timescales are kept at the centre of assessments.

 ‘I’m a perpetual student’

Philippe Mandin (pictured)  is a social worker and family therapist in a child and adolescent mental health team. He is also joint manager of the Marlborough Cultural Therapy Centre in London and teaches reflective practice at the Tavistock Centre.

“When I was a social worker working in child protection I realised that unless I engaged on a more human level with families they would never trust me or engage. But it meant I was also opening myself up more and felt I needed extra support to do this. The level of supervision I had at the time was not great so I decided to do a family therapy course.

“The theories I learned were, in some ways, a form of supervision. I started reflecting back on my cases, trying to apply the theories. Social workers are traditionally very frightened of theories and psychotherapy but it’s not just navel-gazing, it’s about how you can gain that bird’s eye view of a situation.”

The theories have also helped him to work with other agencies to resolve tensions “rather than just being very critical or getting angry about why people don’t do what I want them to do”.

“It is difficult though and I guess that’s why I’m a perpetual student because you need a lot of support and the training gives me that. But if you don’t do it you can feel very isolated and become desensitised.

“One of the most useful theories I’ve learned is about cultural genograms (a pictorial display of relationships based on the family tree model). When I did my own I realised I had a culture and could see how it affected my life. Often you will uncover where a family’s hatred of social workers stems from by doing this [with service users]. It has either come from previous generations or friends who have had difficult experiences. Once you pinpoint it you can work to change those perceptions.

“Sometimes in social work we can be risk-averse and look for quick answers, but reflective practice is about how to contain your own anxieties and still keep your curiosity about a family situation.”

Core strands

The proposed professional capabilities framework, published by the Social Work Reform Board, includes critical reflection and analysis as one of its nine core strands. It sets out expectations for social workers to:

● Apply critical thinking augmented by creativity and curiosity.

● Identify, distinguish, evaluate and integrate multiple sources of knowledge and evidence.

● Draw on practice evidence, their own practice experience, service user and carer experience, together with research-based, organisational, policy and legal knowledge.

Source: Social Work Reform Board, Building a safe and confident future: One year on, December 2010

Read more about what the Social Work Reform Board’s proposals mean for frontline social workers

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This article is published in the 14 April 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Time for reflection”


Title Guide to managing practice from a critically reflective position
Author Mary Mustoe, trainer and consultant

Title Guide to analytic and intuitive reasoning
Author Professor Eileen Munro, department of social policy, London School of Economics

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