As children’s social workers, we have two main goals. The first is to accurately identify when a child is suffering, and the second, to reduce the suffering for the child, without exposing them to other types of distress through our interventions.
Everything else we try to achieve is built on these two goals. In the same way, all the tools we have – the legislation, assessment frameworks, practice models, and research knowledge – are built on our capacity to be accurate in our assessments, and effective in our interventions.
For the past 30 years at least, children’s social work in the UK has been led by policy, with practice expected to conform to an ever-increasing list of guidance and process. Usually (but not always) policy has been developed with a top-down approach. While this is always done with helpful intent, the devil is in the detail. What is missing is the complex experience of being a practitioner, working with children and families, and trying to develop a toolkit of effective, helpful practice.
A movement for evidence-based practice is a fabulous opportunity for practitioners to take a seat at the table where this practice toolkit is designed. More than that, such a movement is crucial if we are to improve outcomes for children and young people. One of the key places to learn what works in children’s social work is in the interactions between social workers and families. Individual social workers develop their skills by trying different approaches and adapting over time by reflecting on what works in their own practice, and listening to the same from colleagues.
I would argue that this ‘learning through doing’ is an essential component in developing expertise; it would be very difficult to develop expertise without it. We can read up on research and come up with a plan for working with a family, but we will never really understand what is really going on until we have visited them several times and built a trusting relationship.
The author Nassim Taleb argues that, rather than experiments in laboratories, much of scientific progress is the result of the ‘complex tinkering’ of real life – trying things out with a reflective and curious mind set. The emphasis here is on the doing – robust evidence cannot be developed without robust testing by practitioners themselves. The What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care is focused on providing practitioners with the best evidence possible to guide their ‘tinkering’. But we also believe that a great way to amplify this professional learning is by bringing social workers together to share and reflect on their experience.
This new approach to building and using evidence has worked for other professions. Huge numbers of teachers and police are now involved in shaping evidence that supports improved practice through the Evidence Based Teachers Network and the Society for Evidence Based Policing.
This is why I am excited about the potential for a Movement for Evidence-based Practice. The Centre’s vision is for a national (or international) network of practitioners discussing and testing research hypotheses in their daily practice, then sharing and critiquing their experience of testing new practice ideas. I am full of hope that participation in these conversations will be engaging and rewarding for practitioners, and instrumental in developing their skills. I’m looking forward to being one of 100 social workers coming together on 30 January in Birmingham to continue building momentum as the Movement for Evidence-Based Practice takes shape.
*The #IUseEvidence Movement event takes place on Wednesday 30 January 2019, at
Birmingham Council House, from 10.00am – 4.00pm. Download the flyer here: IUseEvidence flyer
Places are limited and filling up fast so if you would like to attend, please email
email@example.com as soon as possible.*
Stephen is Principal Child and Family Social Worker at London’s Islington Council, and Practice Development Manager for the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care