Are social work practice models tokenistic, or the core to facilitating change?

A social worker discusses the positive impact a practice model can have on social work practice and families

Photo: MH/Fotolia

by Ryan Wise

I work in a local authority which has adopted a systemic family therapy model to social work practice.

The models we use are embedded by family therapists and case consultations, which have links to the Reclaiming Social Work model.

The use of a defined practice models in local authorities is becoming popular, but I question if the adoption of a model is not merely tokenistic but truly the core of facilitating change.

Systemic family therapy is something I struggle to define on occasion; many theories and ideas fall under this umbrella term.

At its core, problems or difficulties in families are viewed relationally where patterns of behaviour have developed between people. The patterns are considered with families where the aim is to not identify a cause but to help families and those around them to make changes themselves by offering ideas or possibilities which offer a difference to established patterns of behaviour.

So how does this work in practice?

A genogram is first shared with the team and group with the allocated worker talking it through, including not only a family tree but any harm, abuse, diagnoses and relational strengths. Once the group has a clear understanding of the family; the practitioner would offer a dilemma.

Positive change

Dilemmas are based on the principle that we are working to create positive change in the family and explore what is stopping this from happening. If a case remains open to social care we are inevitably ‘stuck’; if we weren’t stuck the case would be closed.

The group would then be asked to generate hypotheses, which could then explain or be linked to the dilemma. The group are encouraged to think about ideas relationally and to adopt a curious position where they think about the whole family system.

The purposes of hypotheses are boundless. They encourage different perspectives, they encourage the practitioner to think about things differently and the family and problems are repositioned, we all come with our own biases and it is important to unpick those to see how they are influencing the work.

Sharing a hypothesis and thinking about how I came to this encourages me to think about how I may be ‘marrying my idea’. It also encourages practitioners to think about how they are part of the family system.

The person presenting normally sits out and then feeds back about how they may think the ideas shared fit with their perspective, what hypotheses to explain the dilemma did they like.

If the idea of culture and tradition was one that stood out, the group would then think about how the hypothesis could be explored in action. This is critical and for me the most important part of the model.


It is academic to think about ideas about what may be taking place in a family but to then think about how this idea can be offered to the family is what leads to change. The hypothesis does not have to be true to be useful; it may encourage a different perspective on the problem for the family.

To offer and discuss a different explanation with a family may be what makes the difference. It may not, but that is ok as we try again, we gather more information about the family story developing ideas and hypotheses that may be useful in helping the family change.

A systemic model is not a panacea but it is a clear structure to supporting families; this idea of hypothesising is one approach under the umbrella of systemic family therapy.

There are other ideas but for me the underpinning theme is of thinking about things differently in a non-blame, and non- problem saturated manner, which is in keeping with sound, empowering social work practice.

How the tool is used

I think our culture, for whatever reason, perhaps media or more political and philosophical reasons, often centres the problem on the individual.

For example inequality is often viewed as the fault of the person. This parallels with the idea of child abuse being the fault of the parent. Do we tend to inadvertently blame and pathologise, as it makes things easier?

A recent Twitter conversation and article about family group conferencing (FGC) discussed the evidence base for the approach.

The discussion moved on to suggest that perhaps the effectiveness of a model is not the key point but what it represents. In this case, is FGC working so well in places like Leeds because it represents prioritising the family and positioning the solution as being rooted in the family?

Perhaps it is not all in the tool but it is how the tool is used and what it means to the practitioner using it. I find this an interesting area, when we think about models like Signs of Safety, is this truly a practice model like FGC or is it more a prescriptive tool to record and assess?

I think this is important when thinking about systemic ideas in social work; to solely adopt the model does not lead to positive change to families; the intention, commitment and thinking all need to be in place for success.

Ryan Wise is an advanced social work practitioner in children’s services. He tweets @ryanwise18.

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2 Responses to Are social work practice models tokenistic, or the core to facilitating change?

  1. Sw111 March 15, 2018 at 11:22 am #

    Signs of safety model in my experience is a prescriptive tool to record and assess and to justify, validate the outcome. It is adapted to serve the purpose or agenda of social care – you would use that model to close the case if that is what has been agreed.

    • Tony Stanley March 17, 2018 at 6:25 pm #

      any practice tool, approach or model can become an office pro-forma to be used in surface or light ways. To effectively practice, and I agree with Ryan’s thesis, is to intellectually and morally engage in the practice approach or practice framework.
      we have all seen local authorities adopt a way of working, and then dump it when Ofsted say practice is weak (what does this mean for sw and for the practice they are doing?).
      Principal social workers should be the lead voice in this area, to help senior colleagues, and QA leads, understand what is needed in embedding practice. Learning, QA and practice leadership here need to coalesce.
      Signs of safety is a sound practice framework and used effectively through an ethic of care, humane attitudes and a clear non-biased approach, creative solutions that allow children to stay and thrive in family life can emerge. Australia’s rising in care numbers of indigenous children is not about ‘signs of safety’ – its about societal racism that can so easily influence practice.