Professional capabilities: Applying theory and research to practice

Continuing our series on the Social Work Reform Board's professional capabilities framework, Kirsty McGregor looks at applying theory to practice

Continuing our series on the Social Work Reform Board’s professional capabilities framework, Kirsty McGregor looks at applying theory to practice

A young man is referred to social services for a Mental Health Act assessment by his GP, who says he is displaying signs of increasingly odd behaviour and self-neglect. The man is anxious, and the GP wants him admitted to hospital.

Enter Jamie Middleton, who has been a social worker for 10 years, an approved mental health professional (AMHP) for four. It is Middleton’s job to carry out the assessment and weigh up whether the man should be detained on the ward. To do this, he has to apply both his general knowledge of social work practice and theories, as well as an in-depth understanding of the Mental Capacity Act, the Mental Health Act and codes of practice.

“Knowledge is being applied from the moment you receive a referral because you’re asking yourself what the issues are, the risk factors, the legal obligations,” says Middleton, who is based in a hospital in Yorkshire. “It all helps to inform the nature of my response.”

Connecting the dots

One of the nine core values in the Social Work Reform Board’s professional capabilities framework sets out an expectation that all social workers in England should have relevant and up-to-date knowledge in their area of practice. “Social workers should be able to connect the dots between theory, research and legislation, and translate it into everyday practice,” says Claudia Megele, a social worker and service director of A Sense of Self, which offers support groups, psychotherapy and counselling services in London. “This in turn enhances critical analysis, reflective thinking, risk analysis and case management.”

Megele recently presented research to the reform board as part of its work to develop a framework for continuing professional development. She admits that applying in-depth knowledge can be challenging in practice, especially when social workers are dealing with complex situations and hard-to-engage families, fear of failure and emotional strain. But she argues that the knowledge capability aims to rectify this by bridging the divide between theory and practice, and promoting a culture of continuous learning.

Social workers can keep their knowledge current in many ways, including reflection and research in practice, supervision, self-directed study, knowledge development events and educational programmes. Middleton finds out about developments in his field by attending AMHP forums and training events, but he also takes charge of his own learning through reading and discussions with colleagues.

Up the career ladder

As social workers progress up the career ladder, they are expected to develop their knowledge. A newly qualified worker should be able to understand academic theory, but not necessarily apply it. However, most social workers and experts agree that knowledge is largely the practitioner’s responsibility. Taking this to the extreme, perhaps, Middleton is studying for a master’s degree in mental health law in his own time, at his own expense. “I wanted to look at the law in greater detail than I’m expected to at AMHP level,” he says.

“The mark of the professional is you take charge of your learning,” says Patricia Kearney, head of family and children’s services at the Social Care Institute for Excellence, which is leading the development of the capabilities framework. She adds that an employer can also use the knowledge capability to assess whether they’re offering social workers the best CPD opportunities.

John Nawrockyi, secretary of the Association of Directors of Adult Services’ workforce development network, agrees that employers have a duty to support their staff: “Social workers need to understand the legal framework in which they’re working, but the organisation also needs to ensure it has appropriate policies and procedures in place to support that.” Nawrockyi points out that employers have their own needs; they may see how services are changing and ask staff to develop their understanding of certain issues. And learning needs may change as, say, a practitioner decides to move into management or a different service.

Practical learning goals

The knowledge capability allows employers and social workers to agree on practical learning goals and development objectives, which can be linked to the practitioner’s career progression. “Social workers need to plan with their employers how they will develop additional knowledge,” says Hilary Burgess, senior academic adviser at the Higher Education Academy’s Subject Centre for Social Policy and Social Work. “Some of this will be through practice, some through in-house training and some through post-qualifying awards at a university.” This will require employers to match the money they spend on professional development to the needs social workers identify through their practice. Underpinning it all will be the new CPD framework, which is due to be published at the end of summer. The reform board is also looking at how to keep people with high levels of knowledge at the frontline by developing an advanced professional role.

Collective learning

Through the knowledge capability, the board is also trying to shift emphasis from individual to collective learning. This might be through identifying team training needs or through practitioners sharing knowledge with each other. “The whole has to be greater than the sum of the parts,” says Kearney. “There is a lot of reference in the capabilities framework to your responsibilities to others.”

Corinne May-Chahal, interim co-chair of the College of Social Work (pictured), adds: “We hope social workers will become more able to develop the knowledge base in time, through being supported to conduct research in their own practice environments, as doctors and nurses do.” It is hoped that this, in turn, will improve the status of social work as a knowledge-based profession.

As someone in a multi-disciplinary team, Middleton recognises the importance of developing the values, skills and knowledge unique to social work. It is this that helps him daily to make life-changing decisions, such as whether to detain the young man referred by his GP. Middleton decided not to in the end, preferring to work with the man in the community. “Under the Human Rights Act, any interference in family life has to be proportionate,” he says. “I had to take that into account.”

How to put learning into practice

The knowledge capability stipulates that social workers should understand human behaviour and development, as well as the legal framework for practice.

They should be able to:

● Apply to their practice research, theory and knowledge from sociology, social policy, psychology and health.

● Understand the legal and policy frameworks and guidance that inform social work practice, recognising the scope for professional judgement.

● Demonstrate a working knowledge of human growth and development.

● Recognise the short- and long-term impact of psychological, socio-economic, environmental and physiological factors on people’s lives, taking into account age and development.

Views from a new social worker

“As a newly qualified social worker (well, I have completed my first year in practice, but I haven’t been signed off yet), my caseload, in comparison with others, is not too bad.

“Despite that, my biggest gripe is that I just don’t have time to keep up to date with evidence-informed practice. This [feeling] is shared by my fellow NQSWs, and that is with supposed protected time to study and keep up to date with new research.

“Use of theory is a different matter, though. At times I don’t realise that I am thinking through theories unless I specifically have to write it down or discuss in supervision, unlike when I was on student placement when I constantly thought about it. Linking theory to practice feels a much more natural process now. However, again, I would like more time to reflect and to explore more theories as I find myself often applying the same few to cases.

“I am hoping that now I am settled into my role, I will have more time to continue in my personal development and keep abreast of new legislation and evidence-informed practice but, alas, I think this is one area that will always prove difficult to manage.”

Find out more about the Social Work Reform Board’s vision

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More articles on the professional capabilities framework

How social workers can shape the changes that affect them and service users

The need for more critically reflective social work

Promoting diversity in social work practice to combat oppression

Ethical dilemmas for social workers at a time of cuts

This article is published in the 21 July 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Thirst for knowledge”

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