Why social workers need a research culture

When I worked in child protection, I never had the kind of opportunities for research I see in the NHS. Social work is missing a trick.

'Capturing the stories of people who use our services is vital' Picture: pict rider/fotolia

By Rachel Sempija

Researcher-practitioners are less common in social work than other helping professions, such as clinical psychology.

For me, social work is missing a trick here. Research by frontline practitioners can give us a platform to empower our professional voice, lead the agenda for humanitarian-orientated transformation, and make the issues we – and the people we work with – face every day much more visible to policy makers and commissioners.

I’ve worked in both local authority children’s services and the NHS. I’ve noticed a big difference in the way ‘problems’ with services were explored in the two environments.

In my current role with an NHS community team I’ve been backed to research people’s experiences of our services. I’ve used semi-structured focus groups, as part of a service evaluation project approved by an ethics committee. The findings suggest many people using our services did not fully understand some of the meetings they were attending. The findings are changing the way we work.

Child protection

I never had this kind of opportunity in my local authority work. As a child protection social worker I wanted to research the experience of children and families of receiving social work support. I felt their voices were largely invisible in policy and research.

It felt like capturing the stories of those involved in services was the most valuable tool of demonstrating people’s lived experiences. One of my frustrations was that formal assessments almost seemed like a garden path to existing common-sensical constructions of need, risk and resilience.

There’s a risk, particularly when under pressure, that we lose professional curiosity and the enthusiasm to critically challenge the assumptions we bring to our work and the way we engage. Like many of my colleagues, I experienced ‘burn out’ and noticed how this adversely impacted on the rigour of my work.

I believe a healthy research culture can support a critical mindedness to our assessment-plan-monitor-review cycle. But, in my experience at least, getting the support to carry out this social work research can be hard.


For example, there were no funding options that allowed me to continue practising in the work I loved, and also complete my PhD – which looks at how four young people, their families and the teams of professionals around them thought and felt about their experiences of early safeguarding help.

I am an applied researcher and the only way for me to combine researching with practice was to pay for university supervision myself. For me, the two forms of knowledge went hand in hand and so I started studying part-time, pausing when I had my children and when I couldn’t afford to pay my fees. I’m now crowdfunding to help finish project.

My research focuses on the lived experiences of four service users, their families and the professionals working with them in multidisciplinary early intervention teams provided by a council in the north east of England. Teams were working at a controversial (and significantly publicly scrutinised) period of social work, wider public sector reorganisation and funding cuts.

Tackling the social 

I have loved the process and it has enriched how I think about social work and the future possibilities of the work we do.  It has cemented my view that services should develop in response to how people live and what they need in an evidence-based way rather than revised from top to bottom following a backlash when a child has died or been seriously harmed.

A strong emotional response to these cases is not surprising, but change is more meaningful and effective when it arises out of a close look at what works and what doesn’t work on the safeguarding frontline.

That research can come in many shapes and sizes. It can be used to evaluate a service, increase knowledge for policy makers and create a knowledge base that normalises lived experience. This is important because social work, as the title suggests, tackles ‘the social’ – which changes and shifts.

Effective practice recognises the slippery character of relationship-based social work intervention and how research ‘tunes in’ to how services are lived by users and providers. Although social work assessments aim to capture a snapshot of a person’s life, they are (rightly) confidential.

The highly emotive and sensitive work of children’s services is heavily stigmatised.  Even for this reason alone, disseminating anonymised accounts of what we do normalises social work – emphasising that it doesn’t only happen to people ‘not like me’.

In a nutshell, without supporting academic social workers, keeping children safer is harder to do.

Rachel Sempija is a social worker and researcher. She tweets at @RachelSempija and you can read more about her PhD project on her Crowdfunder page.

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2 Responses to Why social workers need a research culture

  1. david bronn July 24, 2017 at 8:39 pm #

    Agree with this post. Though i work with adults. None the less-often significant break thro’s in cases follows research i have read etc… I think there can be a tendency to see uni as uni and work as work. For me they are not seperate. Work, theory and research should be interwoven. Research within our work sounds good to me…..

    • Rachel Sempija July 25, 2017 at 9:31 pm #

      You’re right David, we need a cultural shift in the way we see ourselves as experts with the capacity to identify research problems and explore them with our training. The fast-tracked training routes worry me because students are expected to find £2000 in some cases in order to carry on and complete a dissertation (which is the perfect grounding for further research). That you can qualify in a profession like ours, for all the reasons I’ve suggested above, is likely to have a chilling effect on innovation, public confidence and the ownership of our skilled contribution to our communities.