Theory is as important as practice for social work students

Without knowledge of theory and ethics, social workers are just service administrators, argues Professor Brian Littlechild

Without knowledge of theory and ethics, social workers are just service administrators, argues University of Hertfordshire professor Brian Littlechild

On my first home visit as a social work student, I was so nervous about my social work skills that I hoped the door would not be answered. So, I would  agree with the need for good skills training on qualifying programmes as expressed by some students on this site. Some programmes do this very well, with role-plays, etc. Some others   may not be so good, and students should take this up through programme committees to strengthen this aspect on their programmes. Such enhanced skills training in qualifying programmes is recommended by the Social Work Reform Board.

That said, we need to recognise that such skills need to be located within our learning from key theoretical perspectives and the methods, models and approaches derived from them.

Grounded in theory

Even if I had had the basic skills with my clients on my first home visit – good use of non-verbal and verbal communication techniques etc – I needed to ground these in theoretical perspectives to help me reflect on what I was doing and why I was doing it. Some things might have emerged for which formulaic assessment schedules cannot prepare us (as Lord Laming in his 2009 report on child protection warns us about, and Munro also in her 2011 reports). Examples of this include the effects of abusive power dynamics in domestic violence, or issues of violence, threats or resistance from parents of abused children which the common assessment framework does not help us with, nor do skills per se, as shown by so many reports into child abuse deaths. Equally, if we have lots of  theory and few skills, that is also counterproductive and problematic. We need both, and to know how to use the interplay between them in our practice.
What are ‘good’ actions?

So, as one example, labelling theory is crucial in understanding why some groups – people with learning disabilities or mental health problems, and abused children, for example – might be oppressed and/or disadvantaged, and therefore how we might best respond to this, otherwise we can ourselves (unintentionally) be oppressive through lack of theory/research knowledge.

One other example is that of ethics, as presented in the International Association of Schools of Social Work  and GSCC Codes. All such codes are based on theories of what is ‘good’ in  professional relationships, e.g. respect, empowerment – and therefore what are ‘good’ actions when we are confronted with dilemmas in practice.  

We need to learn how to apply these considerations in our own personal practice – there is no ‘cookbook’ to help us respond to the complex sets of causes and effects of individual needs and problems for clients, and the potential conflicts within their sets of relationships.

We need to understand and respond to these issues from our skills and knowledge base in each particular situation, with those particular clients at that particular time – and we cannot do this without sound ideas/learning from theories and research,  if we do not want to end up just technically competent administrators of services.

Professor Brian Littlechild is associate head of the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work at the University of Hertfordshire

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