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‘You have free access to research when you're training, but that soon stops’

Speaking at The Social Work Show in Manchester this month, representatives from the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care highlighted the need for practising social workers to have access to the latest research and evidence to achieve the best outcomes.

17/10/22

‘You have free access to research when you're training, but that soon stops’

Social work practice needs to be evidence-based but finding and assessing that evidence can be problematic, Andrea Ferdinand and Jen Sebright told a seminar at the Social Work Show in Manchester. Both are social workers with What Works for Children’s Social Care, an initiative funded by the Department for Education.

“We seek to improve the lives of children and families through setting standards and research,” Andrea Ferdinand said.

“We aim to generate the best evidence possible for the profession to make sure that we can work to improve the lives of children and families. That’s not only for those who are in care, or who had a social worker, but also about potential preventive measures.”

“What Works acknowledges [that there are] paywalls to research,” Jen Sebright said. “You will have access to hundreds and hundreds of journal articles and research when you're in your training. But when you become a practising social worker, that stops.”

A key element of their work therefore is in generating, collating and making accessible the best evidence. This is then rated and presented in the Evidence Store on the What Works website.

“These are systematic reviews that have been summarised by the researchers at What Works and they're free to use,” said Ms Sebright.

She said that currently the two most popular subjects in their systematic reviews are achieving permanence for disabled children, and child mental health and prevention.

“Both [subjects] have within them a number of studies that are not just from the UK, but worldwide… it's about engaging with a wider picture of evidence and research. And it's about understanding at different levels how that impacts, and the different interventions which might be useful for you.”

“There's nothing that happens in social care that doesn't engage in decision-making,” said Andrea Ferdinand. “So within that, we have to think about what influences our own decision-making. That's not something that we're always privileged to have the time or sometimes the space to think about.”

In practice, she said: “How do we make sure that we're making these the best outcomes? How can we then think about this working for multiple families or children? It can also provide understanding of the impact of legislation and social policies on practice – we experienced that every time a new policy comes into play. With research, we are beginning to reframe, and focus on one particular area, [and] we can start to get a greater sense of how people are being impacted by that piece of legislation or that policy change. The same applies to us internally within organisations. A small policy change or a practice change will impact and influence us. And it's about how we evaluate or assess the impact of that change. We can also assess the needs and resources with children, families, and adults. That's important because [we are asking] whether this is still fit for the intended purpose.

“Our vision is for a world in which all children thrive,” she said. “Not only those who are in care, or who had a social worker, but also about potential preventative measures.”

“Engagement is central to what we do. And that's not only with social workers, but also with children and families. We have a young person’s advisory group, we have a stakeholders group – we just try to engage with as much as possible.”

Jan Sebright added that she was one of the organisation’s ambassadors, bringing the results of evidence into practice. All the Evidence Ambassadors are practitioners already working in local authority social work teams, who have a special interest in research evidence and using it to inform social work practice. They share information and messages about what works in practice, and discuss evidence at events within their local authorities, to create enthusiasm and curiosity about using research evidence.

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