Show respect to our advanced practitioners

Today was dissertation submission day for the experienced social workers completing the MSc Mental Health Social Work with Children & Adults programme at the Institute of Psychiatry.

Uniquely amongst advanced level post-qualifying social work programmes in the UK, we require all our practitioners to undertake original quantitative research for their dissertation. While not devaluing high quality qualitative research, we have chosen this strategy to expose social workers to methods used by colleagues working in health whose work is often viewed as more ‘scientific’.

The journey began for these practitioners in September 2009 when they enrolled on the programme and started to learn about a diversity of epidemiological and evaluation methodologies, and the statistics which are used within them to explore differences, associations and outcomes. Some practitioners question the relevance of this for their practice. But when you consider that most are working in multi-disciplinary teams often alongside health colleagues, it is important for them to be able to engage in discussion about underpinning research evidence across disciplinary boundaries. In multi-disciplinary mental health teams, in particular, where psychiatrists and psychologists assume an elevated status because of the more ‘scientific’ nature of their interventions, it is important for social workers to be able to engage in discussions about the research that underpins their work.

Many of our graduates have told us that our programme has equipped them with the skills and confidence to read and appraise papers from a range of disciplines. This has helped them to question the strength of health colleagues’ evidence-base (which is particularly useful when social work is accused – often rightly, sometimes wrongly – of not being evidence-based!).

Practitioners completing the programme today told me that they still recall me talking about confidence intervals (on the online lectures which serve as revision aides), or understanding positive and negative numbers (using a simple number line analogy) during the first term of the programme almost two years ago. These may be technical details and appear to be a world away from the messy reality of social work practice, but they form some of the building blocks of understanding statistical significance, or what makes a real difference, which is at the heart of evidence-based practice.

On completion of the first research module, they moved on to design their own research projects to answer practice-based questions which have arisen in their agencies. Then, over the last year, they obtained ethical approval for their research project, collected and analysed their data, and wrote up their dissertations. After today they will begin the process of dissemination. First to their agencies, and then beyond.

Over the last few years I have supported a number of students to publish their research in respected social work peer-reviewed journals and contribute to the international evidence base for practice. Here are a few examples:

Bookle, M. & Webber, M. (2011) Ethnicity and access to an inner city home treatment service: a case-control study, Health and Social Care in the Community, 19 (3), 280-288

Dutt, K. & Webber, M. (2010) Access to social capital and social support amongst South East Asian women with severe mental health problems: a cross-sectional survey, International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 56 (6), 593-605

Kingsford, R. & Webber, M. (2010) Social deprivation and the outcomes of crisis resolution and home treatment for people with mental health problems: an historical cohort study, Health and Social Care in the Community, 18 (5), 456-464

Furminger, E. & Webber, M. (2009) The effect of crisis resolution and home treatment on assessments under the Mental Health Act 1983. An increased workload for Approved Social Workers?, British Journal of Social Work, 39 (5), 901-917

Slack, K. & Webber, M. (2008) Do we care? Adult mental health professionals’ attitudes towards supporting service users’ children, Child & Family Social Work, 13 (1), 72-79

(I haven’t mentioned the advanced case consultation group and practice viva which the practitioners also undertook as part of the MSc to demonstrate their advanced practice. That’s for another post…)

But what struck me today was the continuing lack of respect for advanced social work practitioners in the UK. I heard about intolerable case loads, an almost total absence of clinical supervision, being moved from team to team irrespective of preference, or, more worryingly, authoritarian and abusive management styles which have caused practitioners to take time off sick because of stress and depression. There is a lack of respect for the expertise and knowledge of our most experienced and highly skilled practitioners; limited opportunities for them to demonstrate their innovative practice; and a lack of vision about the role of advanced practitioners. Of course, there are exceptions. The London Borough of Hackney’s Children’s Services’ use of Consultant Social Workers has been positively evaluated and slowly being replicated in other places. But most social work employers fail to see the bigger picture.

The practitioners completing their advanced level post-qualifying awards today have mostly got there because of their own motivation and dedication. They have either paid the tuition fees themselves, used up their annual leave or have foregone their holidays to attend college, study hard and complete the coursework. It is completely unacceptable that the profession does not support their professional development or have a vision for the potential professional leadership they could provide if given the opportunity.

In numerous discussions I have had with employers and training managers about this issue, I have been repeatedly told that the advanced level awards are the ‘icing on the cake’ and in a time of fiscal crisis they are struggling to even bake the cake. I would argue that advanced social work practitioners are the ingredients of the cake.

Unless you use high quality ingredients, the cake will taste sour.

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One Response to Show respect to our advanced practitioners

  1. Thanks for this Martin, with your permission I would like to send the link on to the Reform Board and The College of Social Work. I think the gap between rhetoric and reality is widening as good work is being done to advance the quality and status of social work and social workers the pressures on public services mean even with huge individual effort the gap is widening.

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