Theoretical grasp of practice frameworks needed to ensure children benefit, study finds

Researchers report 'shifting definitions, diversity of practice and dilution' of frameworks like Signs of Safety, and stress need for organisational buy-in

Image of the words 'theory' and 'practice' written on a blackboard (credit: raywoo / Adobe Stock)
(credit: raywoo / Adobe Stock)

The consistency that practice frameworks can bring to local authority social work needs to be supported by theoretical knowledge if children and families are to reap the benefits, academics have warned.

Research recently published in the Practice: Social Work in Action journal found that at least four out of five (81%) English local authorities use a practice framework.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) reported using the popular strengths-based Signs of Safety on its own (30%) or in conjunction with another approach (33%).

But within that picture, researchers found, “definitions shift between practice frameworks, theories and models and there is considerable diversity of practice across England, sometimes alongside a dilution of the essence of specific frameworks”.

Unless frameworks’ implementation were underpinned by an understanding of supporting theoretical knowledge and perspectives, “increased uniformity [of practice] will not necessarily lead to improved outcomes for children and families”, researchers wrote.

The success of any practice framework was also strongly influenced by leadership buy-in, resourcing and how it integrated with an organisation’s values, said Jill Manthorpe, a professor of social work at King’s College London (KCL) who co-authored the journal article.

Local authorities may wish to take a step back and weigh up whether their practice framework achieves what they want it to, or if not already using one, whether they need to, the study concluded.

The findings echo those of a systematic review published in 2018 by What Works for Children’s Social Care. That report concluded that “robust evaluations based on a clearly specified intervention theory” were needed to assess whether Signs of Safety delivered on its stated aims of reducing the numbers of children entering care.

Local context

Speaking to Community Care, Manthorpe said local authorities inevitably had to “fit pieces of jigsaws together and make local adaptations [reflecting] the local context”.

“We know that through relationship-based work there will be models that are adapted to the circumstances you are in, and the changes you hope to make,” added Manthorpe, who along with co-author and fellow KCL profession Mary Baginsky is evaluating the progress of DfE-funded Signs of Safety pilots at 10 English local authorities.

Regarding the high numbers of local authorities reporting that they used a practice framework, while not necessarily doing the same things, Manthorpe said it was important to remember the environment within which local authorities were operating.

“People have been responding to a lot of pressure,” she said. “When [chief social worker] Isabelle Trowler said [in 2014] that ‘good’ Ofsted ratings are linked to clear theoretical models for working – also known as practice frameworks – that gave a clear steer that this is what they should call their model of working.”

‘Variety of theories and models’

Manthorpe and her academic partners surveyed all English local authorities with statutory children’s social care responsibilities in late 2017, receiving responses from 128 of them.

Of those respondents, 45 said they were using Signs of Safety on its own, while 49 described using it in tandem with something else and 26 said they used another practice framework. Eight reported using no framework.

Follow-up interviews with 14 of the councils that said they used Signs of Safety exclusively revealed that in many cases practitioners had simply adopted some of the framework’s tools, usually in conjunction with others.

“Informants said their social workers were using a variety of theories and models and introduced their own perspectives and interpretations, which also were applied variously in different services and teams,” researchers wrote.

More research was required to explore what separated members of this group from authorities who reported using Signs of Safety alongside other models, they concluded.

Echoing the findings of an earlier review, some respondents using a hybrid approach said they struggled to deploy Signs of Safety as a “freestanding” practice framework.

“It was frequently suggested… that Signs of Safety lacked sufficient theoretical underpinnings,” the study found.

Organisational culture and leadership

For individual local authorities, practice frameworks continued to offer a solution to the lack of consensus on social work’s theoretical basis, and “a route by which they can endeavour to achieve some consistency”, researchers said.

But councils’ habitual practice of “welding together” different approaches may make it harder to draw firm conclusions about the relative impact of different frameworks on outcomes for children and families, they cautioned.

Professionals who participated in a group discussion of the study findings also pointed out that no matter how clear a practice framework was, it would not provide a recipe for success without strong leadership implementation and deep integration into an organisation’s culture.

“Achieving a shift in the culture so the workforce behaves differently may take many years but timescales for judging success are often measured in just one to two,” researchers wrote.

“Further exploration of the theories that underpin the most frequently used frameworks, and of social workers’ understanding of how they relate to practice, is needed.”

‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’

Commenting on the published findings, Claudia Megele, chair of the Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW) Network, said that good practice was “the science of drawing on theory and research, combined with the art of critically and reflectively examining and applying that research and theory in the unique context of each case”.

“Hence, it is essential that practice frameworks, or any practice tool for that matter, are underpinned by theory and research,” she said.

Megele added that while practice frameworks offered a conceptual map, how practitioners and organisations navigated this would vary. “As always, culture eats strategy for breakfast and therefore, interpretation, implementation and practical application of any practice framework or theory will be coloured by the practitioner and organisational culture and context of the case,” she said.

Much confusion remained in the sector between practice frameworks, which offer an overarching structure, and approaches to practice, which offer specific skills and detailed ways of working with people, Megele pointed out.

“Practice frameworks are not a silver bullet and many of the building blocks of good practice such as manageable caseloads, early intervention and adequate funding for services, good leadership, good understanding of quality and effective quality assurance, and a supportive culture of learning rather than a culture of blame require deliberate action and might not change with a practice framework,” she said. “Therefore, it is important to ensure that the organisational, professional and cultural elements of good practice are in place before thinking about implementing a practice framework.”

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