Strengthening practice through evidence-informed practice

Shelley Caldwell, Principal Social Worker at North Somerset Council, discusses key messages from the Link Officers’ Annual Meeting and the importance of strengthening social work through research evidence, professional practice wisdom and children, young people and families expertise.

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Link Officers’ Annual Meeting (LOAM) with Research in Practice (RiP) an organisation that champions ‘evidence-informed practice’, which aims to triangulate evidence from research, professional practice wisdom and the child’s, young person and families expertise. Several Principal Social Workers act as the linkage between their organisation and Research in Practice.

As a Principal Social Worker (PSW) it would be very easy to hand over the mantle of Link Officer to a colleague in the wider workforce development team. I haven’t because I believe that evidence-informed practice is intrinsic to good quality social work. By remaining as the Link Officer, I am afforded responsibility for promoting, delivering and evaluating the impact of evidence-informed practice. What better message could an organisation give than promoting evidence-informed practice through their PSW? We don’t have to do it all by ourselves though; by seeking out champions across teams and collaborating with workforce development leads, there is a wide network to support you.

LOAM offered some powerful presentations around the theme of collaboration. We heard from organisations such as TACT and Peterborough City Council, working innovatively and collaboratively to better serve children, young people, parents and carers. Luke Rodgers from Foster Focus spoke powerfully and passionately about how to actually achieve meaningful participation with our young people. We also heard from Nimal Jude, Programme Director for the South East London Teaching Partnership, speaking on how working across local authorities and Higher Education Institutions has brought significant benefits. This included driving a culture for learning and that early evaluation is showing clear evidence that this culture is innately enhancing social work practice.

Claire Mason, Senior Research Associate from Lancaster University, presented the findings of their research on vulnerable birth mothers and recurrent care proceedings. This research has been instrumental in assisting social workers who anecdotally for many years had spoken of their worries regarding vulnerable mothers and a lack of services that could support them. Research has been able to show the scale of issue and cost to individuals and society. Additionally, Lee Pardy-Mclaughlin and Sam Clayton, joint chairs of the National Children and Families Principal Social Worker Network (PSWN) provided an uplifting presentation and insight on the national, regional and local work that we have done to

improve and develop the practice system and conditions for children and families social work to thrive.

Overall across the two days we received a clear message – collaboration, partnerships and relationships are all central to effective and efficient practice. Motivating and inspiring others with the aim of improvement, evaluation and innovation is integral to the PSW role. Indeed a core duty as agreed by our network – ‘contributing to the analysis of how well the agency’s practice and value systems operate to ensure they provide effective, high quality and transparent services’. As Principal Social Workers it is our role to promote these messages within our organisations and LOAM offered inspiration and motivation on how to move these forward.

In North Somerset we are proud of our vision for high standards and our learning culture, one which promotes a safe place for dialogue, reflection and growth. Whilst completing my Health Check I wanted to focus on changing my language and to talk of strengthening social work, as opposed to improving practice. As we use a strengths-based approach with children, young people and families we also need to do the same with our social workers. I believe a culture of reflection, evaluation and practice development will support high standards for social work.

The role of PSW is one where you have the privilege of a ‘helicopter view’ of your organisation. This view can offer a clearer understanding of where the organisations strengths and limitations lie. This view can bring challenges, not least, ensuring that you remain connected to practice and use the role to evaluate the effectiveness and quality of practice. After some helpful dialogue with some of my PSW colleagues, I realised I needed to improve my ability to do this justly and to have a clearer understanding of what it is like for the children, young people and families we serve.

Over a four month period I have spent at least one day with every team in North Somerset to ensure I stay connected to practice. During my time in the teams I do exactly that. I shadow workers, complete visits and meetings, discuss and reflect on practitioner’s worries, decision-making and barriers for change. We also recognised the strength families demonstrate and acknowledged the achievements made by those families in moving forward. Crucially during this time I am able absorb the culture and language used within each team.

I also facilitate a social work participation group once a month and use this as a conduit for communication from those directly working with children and families to senior leadership. The group has created a value and mission statement which underpins our practice, invites innovation, offers opportunities for development and has also helped to reduce bureaucracy in areas. By staying connected to practice in this way is helping me as the PSW to have a much better understanding of social work in North Somerset and I believe I am working more collaboratively across all levels of the organisation.

I was delighted and humbled to win the title of Link Officer of the Year as part of the Link Officer Awards! I am very proud that colleagues in my organisation nominated me because it reinforces how much investment North Somerset have made towards evidence-informed

practice. This award is also tangible evidence of the difference that we as PSWs can make within our organisations. My time at the Link Officers’ Annual Meeting has also made me reflect that we must not overlook the need for us all to feel valued as individuals, teams and organisations if we are to ensure that we are emotionally resilient and reflective practitioners/supervisors who offer high standards for children, young people and families.

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