Social work reform: Improving intervention skills

The Social Work Reform Board has set out what is expected of social workers. In the latest instalment in our series, Daniel Lombard looks at how one practitioner decided to improve her intervention skills

The Social Work Reform Board has set out what is expected of social workers. In the latest instalment in our series, Daniel Lombard looks at how one practitioner decided to improve her intervention skills

When Kelly Hicks (pictured above, with forum members) first read the Social Work Reform Board’s definition of “intervention and skills”, she couldn’t help smiling at the idealistic tone.

“Social workers engage with individuals, families, groups and communities, working alongside people to assess and intervene,” reads the professional capabilities framework (see box).

“It sounded like something I would have written at university when I was still full of romantic ideology of what a social worker is,” says Hicks, a social worker from Doncaster.

This was the kind of social work she had always wanted to do, but the target-driven culture of bureaucracy within councils, she says, had prevented her from doing this. So she made a bold decision. Last summer Hicks left her post as a manager of a learning disability social work team at Doncaster Council and set up a community interest company, Personalisation Plus.

After becoming aware of numerous barriers to people with mental health problems gaining access to direct payments, she formed the Personalisation Forum Group to bring these service users together. The weekly meetings at a community centre now attract 30 regulars, providing support and regular socialising opportunities.

“I utilise my social work skills to help the group solve the problems that they face; this involves reducing dependency on professionals by highlighting people’s strengths, and encouraging them to think through solutions on their own and with other group members. People describe feeling part of something, like they have some power over their own future and many for the first time can see something positive,” Hicks says.

The group’s value was underlined by an incident earlier this year involving a female member who was threatening to take her own life. She had been seeing the same community psychiatric nurse for 19 years, but Hicks was the first person she called.

“She was asking me ‘what do I do?’ so I encouraged her to remember all the positives in her life and asked her to trust me. I said the other members of the group cared about her and she would be missed. I managed to get her to the police.”

The woman was admitted to a mental health hospital. Group members pooled enough money to cover the bus fare for one person to visit her every day, and three weeks later, she was discharged.

“She said, ‘that was what got me through’. It was really quite powerful,” says Hicks.

Michelle Lefevre, senior lecturer in social work at the University of Sussex, says it is a “sad indictment” that Hicks felt she had to leave local authority social work to build such meaningful relationships with users.

Not only is local government overly focused on administration rather than spending time with children and families, she says, but problems in social work degree programmes and supervision mean practitioners are not equipped to deal with the emotional dimensions of the job.

Model of practice

Lefevre recommends a particular model of practice which she has developed through her own research, the Knowing-Being-Doing model.

Firstly, social workers need to develop a good awareness of their client group and evidence-informed approaches to intervention.

Secondly, practitioners “should recognise that they are their own best resource”.

“To be able to be warm, caring, authoritative and make sound judgements they need to know themselves well, so self-reflectiveness, supported by thorough supervision, is crucial,” she says.

Lefevre supports the inclusion of relationship-building as a key aspect of ‘intervention and skills’ within the capabilities framework, but adds: “I am concerned that there is insufficient attention overall to the emotional dimension of the work. Donald Forrester [an academic at the University of Bedfordshire], for example, found a real lack of empathy in social workers’ approaches to parents.”

For Hicks, the decision to move into community social work may not have been financially lucrative, but it has paid for itself many times over in job satisfaction.

“The whole experience has been immensely rewarding – it’s the first time in my 10-year career I’ve felt proud to say I’m a social worker.”

Capabilities framework

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

● Promote independence, provide support and protection, take preventative action and ensure safety through their relationship-building skills.

● Understand and take account of differentials in power, and use authority appropriately.

● Evaluate their own practice and the outcomes for those they work with.

Source: Social Work Reform Board, Building a Safe and Confident Future: One Year On, December 2010.

More coverage of what the Social Work Reform Board’s proposals mean for frontline practitioners

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