‘Head and hands’ – valuing knowledge created by the children’s social care sector

11 September 2018

What should the relationship be between research and practice? This is something that we have been thinking a lot about as we set up the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care.

‘Head and hands’

As Professor Ian Shaw of York University said in his address to the recent JSWEC conference in Canterbury, sometimes the relationship between practice and research is wrongly characterised as researchers being the ‘head’ – having the ideas and creating theories – and practitioners being the ‘hands’ – putting that theory in to practice.

Similarly, in our presentation, myself and Stephen Rice, Principal Social Worker and Practice Development Manager for the What Works Centre, talked about some of the unhelpful stereotypes that researchers and practitioners can have of each other. Practitioners may see researchers as being in an ‘ivory tower’, away from the complexities and challenges of frontline practice. In turn, researchers may worry that practitioners don’t ‘listen’ to their findings and put them in to practice.

Clearly, both of these descriptions are caricatures, and don’t reflect the close working relationships between research and practice that exist in many places. But they do suggest a risk that practitioners and managers can be seen as simply the ‘doers’ who will put research into practice – without considering the knowledge that the sector itself can and does generate. Seeing the sector only as ‘research users’ misses out on the huge wealth of learning and knowledge that is held within the sector, at all levels.

The What Works Centre’s role in encouraging sector-generated knowledge

Recognising and valuing the sector’s role in being ‘knowledge generators’ has been fundamental to the work we are doing at the What Works Centre, including with the 21 Wave One local partners with whom we are collaborating on a range of projects.

One example is the project we are undertaking at the Centre in partnership with Wigan Council on a self-evaluation toolkit. This project aims to co-design materials that will help to build capacity within local services to generate and record knowledge about the impact of local innovations on practice, and on outcomes for children and families.

The sector’s role in generating knowledge will also feature in the evidence masterclasses we are developing in partnership with Bristol City Council, Buckinghamshire County Council and Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council. These will help practitioners to employ research evidence alongside the various other forms of evidence they have access to, and generate through their work. These training sessions, which we hope to roll out in 2019, will also look at how research skills such as formulating and testing hypotheses are relevant to social work tasks.

It’s with projects such as this, and through a wide-ranging programme of engagement with the sector, that the Centre hopes to encourage a nuanced and equal relationship between research and practice. In this way, researchers and practitioners can become both the head and the hands, striving to deliver better children’s social care.

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