A new body of evidence looking at the effectiveness of practice models and interventions in children’s social care has been launched to help social workers make better decisions.
The ‘evidence store’, from the government-funded What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care, so far contains systematic reviews of 11 programmes including family drug and alcohol courts, solution focused brief therapy and kinship care.
The database was launched at an event for social workers in Birmingham yesterday, where the What Works Centre’s executive director, Michael Sanders, told Community Care that it “allows us to look at a few of the different things which are already pretty widely practised, like family group conferences, like Signs of Safety, and be able to say … are those backed up by evidence?”
“If they are, then great, and we should be continuing to do them. And if not then maybe we should ask a few more questions of those, and start to really create a demand in the sector for new evidence.”
The centre published a systematic review on the Signs of Safety practice model in November 2018. It found “no evidence” either way on whether the model reduces the numbers of children entering care. But the consultancy behind implementing Signs of Safety in 10 English local authorities stated they were “already actively encouraging and supporting research projects in the UK and Ireland that address many of the issues the review has identified”.
Speaking to both senior leaders and the front line
Sanders said the evidence store, the result of nine months work by the centre and its research partners at Cardiff University, is focused on both frontline social work and senior leadership audiences, and that a challenge could be how to speak to both at the same time “because they have very different concerns”.
He said that for individual social workers, the store aimed to answer questions around “what can I do in my practice … and if I’m a social worker who wants to a get a family some help and refer them onto something else, what things can I refer them to that work or have been shown to be effective?”
“Because otherwise you’re a bit reliant on a combination of expert judgement, which obviously social workers have a lot of, and intuition.”
Louise Bazalgette, evidence lead at the What Works Centre, said the store could help senior decision makers assess whether to use a particular practice model, with the aim, alongside an evidence base, to provide “practical, contextual information about how it works and who it benefits, to help you get the best use out of it”.
Overall effectiveness and evidence strength
The centre worked with West Sussex and Coventry councils and practitioners to understand the information social workers, managers and senior decision makers would want, and the questions they would have about the evidence. Bazalgette said “we really wanted to make sure that it was driven by the people who are actually going to use it and not us making assumptions”.
The store provides ratings for interventions across two metrics: overall effectiveness and strength of evidence. Effectiveness looks at how what different research studies found about the effect, and how consistent this is. Strength covers the quantity of research and how it was designed and carried out. There are four ratings for each metric.
A review could find that an intervention seems to have a positive effect on outcomes – but that this was based on low-strength evidence. This means you can be less confident in the intervention than if there was more good quality evidence consistently showing that the intervention works.
Alongside the ratings are summaries on issues including the evaluated evidence, who the intervention works for and how it is implemented.
An evidence base in children’s social work
Bazalgette said social work lacks a strong evidence base of robust, experimental studies that compare interventions with business as usual, to show whether it is the programme that is making a difference.
She added that her hope was that the centre “can increase people’s appetite and interest in that type of evidence, and also do that research ourselves, and enable others to do that research,”. Another desired benefit, she said, was that more funding was made available for research “so that we can be more confident in the evidence base for social work”.