by Tony Stanley
It seems that there is a lot of ‘knowledge for sale’ these days.
A decade ago, consultants were selling their skills to help local authorities prepare for inspections and then help reorganise the KPI machinery soon after in cases of failure.
Today, a new cadre of consultants are marketing practice models and practice approaches. Many of these are good people, great trainers and knowledgeable colleagues. But why do we need to buy in these expensive approaches to practice – so often packaged up as the latest solution – to improve the work?
There are quite a few of these new approaches for sale to local authorities, with costly trainers and software packages available, and yet we know little about how decisions are made in the selection and evaluation of the particular practice approaches chosen, and even less about the organisational conditions needed to make this a success.
Lack of understanding
Ofsted often references the use of a particular framework in its inspection work of children’s services, but offer little feedback about what they think this means or how to improve the utility of practice approaches or frameworks. Perhaps the real issue is we just don’t understand this area well enough.
How are decisions made to select one practice approach over another? What research, if any, is available and how much evaluation work is guiding decision making? Is competition and private, for-profit companies the best way forward here in our current financial state of affairs?
Much of what is available by consultancy is already publicly available knowledge, well publicised and hence ready for us to utilise. Some will argue that expertise in the training of a particular approach is necessary and ensures fidelity and rigour. More likely though, this highlights the challenges and gaps in practice leadership.
Many child welfare systems have utilised practice frameworks with varying degrees of success. Adults’ services are also in this debate to some degree.
There is a dearth of understanding about how particular approaches and practice frameworks can really drive excellent social work forward and help us to raise standards.
Heart surgeons understand the frameworks of their practice. Lawyers and pilots also. Nurses work within agreed frames of practice knowledge and skills, and teachers share pedagogy and scaffolding approaches to education. Head teachers are often in the classroom. Chief nurses and professors in hospitals hold practice clinics.
These professions are not buying in new frameworks or the latest approach. They know what their professional activity, knowledge base, mandate and core purpose is. Social work in England has lagged behind.
Practice frameworks are referenced in the Knowledge and Skills Statements (KSS) – children’s and adults’ – so the onus is on practice leaders to authentically lead in this area. Principal social workers and practice leaders need to be critically debating the merits of one over another, and students and beginning practitioners need to understand what we are talking about.
The West Midlands Social Work Teaching Partnership is trying to figure out how to achieve the goal of practice and leadership framework success without recourse to consultants coming in with their particular version of a specific approach. What might be in the way?
- Perhaps we are still overly focused on ‘leadership’ as an activity for the most senior people, while we invest in external consultants to come in and teach the front line teams practice models and approaches.
- Perhaps, and more likely, practice leadership is not well developed. How do we sustain and improve our knowledge and skills in introducing, supporting and evaluating practice frameworks? And, how can we make this part of our workplace, at all levels:
- Students learning about practice frameworks as they study – gaining critical skills in evaluation;
- ASYE practitioners learning and leading their learning as they work within practice frameworks and understanding their practice as they do so;
- Social workers critically reflecting on how and why they practice in particular ways;
- Managers and supervisors – teaching others, researching what works and how;
- Practice leaders/ADs/directors – evaluating the practice system from the standpoint of an established practice framework;
- Ofsted – evaluating our practice systems through a clear understanding of the practice framework that we are using and promoting.
The West Midlands Social Work Teaching Partnership – with ‘leading practice’ as our strapline – is taking a fresh approach to leadership.
One of our key areas of work is drawing on practice-informed learning to introduce a new ‘leadership practice framework’ that engages our workplaces differently.
Practice leadership in action
Our aim is for directors and senior managers to understand and lead the decided practice framework, and to evaluate their practice system against it, as they work alongside practitioners in terms of quality assuring and system redesign informed through the prism of an agreed practice framework. We think this is practice leadership in action.
We are trying to understand how this might achieve more and cost much less. Too much of the present leadership focus is on senior people and the qualities and attributes they hold. This is a good start. We strengthen this through creating an overarching leadership framework that reinforces how the organisation is set up and professional activity delivered at all levels – from the student social worker to the director.
There is a lot on offer at present, mostly for sale, proclaiming to transform practice and our workplaces. Given we are talking about public knowledge, freely available, is this the best use of ever-shrinking public money?
Some new and innovative leadership thinking and activity is needed to ensure that what we do next doesn’t become another version of ‘the emperor’s new clothes’.
Tony Stanley is the chief social worker in Birmingham and chair of the West Midlands Social Work Teaching Partnership. His paper ‘A practice framework to support the Care Act 2014’ was awarded the 2017 award for scholarship in the Emerald Scholarship awards for adult social care. It is available to download.