Welcome to the NSPCC Learning podcast, where we share learning and expertise in child protection from inside and outside of the organisation. We aim to create debate, encourage reflection and share good practice on how we can all work together to keep babies, children and young people safe.
George Linfield (Producer):
Welcome to the NSPCC Learning Podcast. Evidence plays an important role in social work practice. Social workers are frequently making vital decisions about safety and risk. Knowledge gained from research and practical experience should be used to ensure these decisions are well-informed and ethical. In this podcast episode, recorded in September 2023, I'll be talking to a panel of experts from the NSPCC about how social workers can build and maintain an evidence base to support their work.
Hi, I'm Julian Fabian, consultant social worker in the Quality and Practice team within the NSPCC. My background is a very long time ago in residential childcare — so statutory and private. But also in expert evidence in care proceedings; therapeutic interventions with children who've been sexually abused and those showing sexually harmful behaviour. And more recently in training, quality assurance, audit and review.
My name's Holly Bentley, I'm Knowledge Manager at the NSPCC. I started out with the organisation as one of the librarians in our Library and Information Service and have more recently been with the team writing content aimed at professionals around safeguarding and child protection for our NSPCC Learning website.
Hi everyone. My name is Gurpreet Dosanjh-Bhatt. My background is in local authority social work. That's where I started as a qualified social worker, and then I moved on to the NSPCC as a children's services practitioner, and that was largely working with families and children where abuse or neglect may have already happened and undertaking therapeutic interventions. And then I moved on to becoming a team manager, and now recently I have joined the Quality and Practice team as a consultant social worker, similar to Julian, largely looking at audit and review practice standards amongst lots of other different things.
Thanks to you all for joining me. Julian, please, can you start us off by explaining what evidence-based practice, or evidence-informed practice is?
So there's quite a debate in academia about the difference between evidence-informed and evidence-based practice. Our job today is not to rehearse that or go through that, but really to point out the importance of everything we do as social workers being well thought through and leading to a positive impact and outcome for the children and families we work with. So we're looking at things that should be academically robust; should have been well scrutinised both by peers, by service users, by academics; information we use being fair and balanced and proportionate. I think as well as academically rigorous, being tried and tested in practice on the ground so we can show that it makes a real difference to children and families.
And why is it so important for social work practitioners to use evidence in their work?
There was a government report many years ago that really condemned social work assessments as nothing better than best guesses. And then it went on to say, and some of those were not very good guesses at all. And I think social work has very much moved away from that and realising there needs to be academic rigour. Everything we do needs to be tried and tested and needs to make a difference for children and families and the adults we work with, but also including service user voices within that. So informing everything we do, hearing from children of families what works for them. So not just the kind of quantitative randomised controlled trial type bits of evidence, but also the more anecdotal qualitative bits of information from service users. Making sure we join those two bits together so that everything we do is not just a best guess but actually will make a positive difference to children's lives.
I think evidence-based practice is so important because you are dealing with, most of the time, the most vulnerable members of our communities and of our society, often at times of crisis, often at very low points, difficulties. And as a social worker it's critical you're going into these situations where you’re informed as far as practically possible. So that might be about a certain subject area. It might be about a certain intervention or way of working or lens with a child or a family. The learning curve, being a social worker, it never ends. Each time you pick something up, it might challenge you, it might make you think again about your practice or your practice that's coming up and hopefully it will provide you with — certainly I found — a deeper and more meaningful understanding about the issues that the families you are working with are facing.
And it's really important to know when you're with a family, you are often going to hold very difficult conversations with people. So how are you going to go about communicating with a parent about a really sensitive or emotionally charged topic — for example, domestic abuse — in a way that's accessible, in a way that's still sensitive, in a way that's understandable. You initially need to have a good level of knowledge about what that is. What is its impact? Why is it a safeguarding issue? What is the evidence of harm in that area in order to go into that conversation with all that wealth of knowledge and hopefully achieve a positive outcome for that child or that family?
Brilliant. Thank you Gurpreet. That's a really useful primer for our discussion today. Julian, you made the point earlier that when we talk about evidence, we don't just mean written evidence and data. Research in Practice, in their knowledge briefing on the topic, outlined why it's so important that research evidence should be combined with other sources of evidence, such as local knowledge or the views and experience of the children and families you're working with.
In this podcast, however, we're going to be focusing on that written research — so policy papers, information briefings, service evaluations, case reviews, those sorts of things — and how professionals can best make use of this knowledge in their work. At the NSPCC, our Library and Information Service provides a gateway to this sort of research. Holly, please can you give us a quick overview of what the Library and Information Service is and how it can support social work professionals?
Yes. So Julian's already touched on the importance of looking at the most robust evidence available when thinking about social work practice. And here at the NSPCC, we have the largest child protection, child abuse, safeguarding collection in the UK. We make sure that we gather all the most robust evidence into one place. We're constantly updating it, scanning for new resources, so we're keeping up to date with the latest thinking on a variety of topics around safeguarding. That catalogue is available online for anyone who wants to search it and to have a look themselves at the evidence that's out there. But as there were over 45,000 items in the catalogue, we're also here as an enquiry service to really drill down into what people want to know more about and identify the resources that are most helpful for them in their practice.
And the earlier a social work student starts to immerse themselves in the research evidence, the stronger that base of knowledge will be when they begin the first placement. Gurpreet, how should a social worker in the early stages of their career start building that base of knowledge to draw from?
I would say for any social work student, the safe place is always your recommended reading list from your course by your course leaders, and here's where NSPCC Library and Information Service can also come in. Any books suggested by your colleagues and peers ahead of your placement is also great. Also, perhaps think about any pieces of information that might be specific to your placement to start building up your knowledge base in that area.
Certainly, we get a lot of inquiries from social workers that are newly qualified or in the process of studying. We can support them in a number of different ways. So obviously we have the inquiry service and if people have specific questions or things they're looking at or areas of practice they want to read more about, we can provide really tailored reading lists for people so they can really dig in and get that broader context around specific topics. Also, as was mentioned, our NSPCC Learning website has a wealth of different resources that give people a nice overview of a topic, a nice starting-off point just to get your bearings if you're new to a specific subject area. And then you can really build and dig deeper into what it is you're interested in.
An experience I had with social work students I supervised at the NSPCC is: it can be something as simple as having something called the Professional Capabilities framework. So that's something that you have to use within your social work placement in order for you to demonstrate your capabilities as a social worker. And it's a really good starting point for a student to know, well, what does a social worker do? What does that actually look like? You'll come to notice the breadth and depth of the social work role, and then you can start to think about what skills do I need, what sources of knowledge do I need to help meet these? What scenarios or opportunities do I need to maybe seek help?
And it's important to emphasise, isn't it, that this is a continual learning process we're talking about, where you keep building your knowledge?
Absolutely. And a lot of social work is about the human experience and that will always go into different seasons and chapters and different ways of thinking. Certainly I've noticed in my social work career a better or greater emphasis on things like trauma and therapeutic interventions. If you think about how the world is changing for children and young people in the current climate, we're hearing a lot more about things like their online world and, for example, social media and the impact on their self-esteem. That would not have been a potential safeguarding issue ten, 15 years ago. So it's about also moving with the social environment that you're finding yourself in because that is what is affecting children and communities today.
Holly, thinking about what Gurpreet has just said there, how can social work professionals keep up with the latest in safeguarding policy and practice? The NSPCC provides the CASPAR newsletter, for example.
Yes, I'm delighted that someone has mentioned CASPAR. That's our current awareness newsletter that goes out every Monday and provides a really helpful round-up of the latest safeguarding and child protection news. So if there's any new government guidance, for example, big research reports, any interesting events that are happening around safeguarding, we try to flag those. And obviously in order to pull that together, there is a member of the team who is scanning through all the latest safeguarding sources of news and picking up all different types of things that are coming out.
We are constantly updating all the content on NSPCC Learning based on the developments we're picking up through that scanning. We're also producing CASPAR briefings, which are more in-depth summaries of really critical pieces of research or pieces of guidance that we know our audience will need to get to grips with quickly, and to save them the time of going through 300 page reports we will produce a four or five page summary of that report or that research or that guidance just so that people can get up-to-date as quickly as possible with what's happening.
Thanks, Holly. Julian, with so much information out there, I imagine it can at times be difficult to hone in on what evidence is going to be most useful. Can you offer our listeners any advice on this?
One of the things I'd say is to think with your line manager, for example, in supervision, about some of the key learning and development points that you have. Because there's always lots of interesting information, but there's something about filtering it down to what is immediately important for you in your particular role. So thinking about that in supervision, thinking about the context in which you work and then also thinking about your own development. So proactively gathering knowledge for your own development and continuing professional development as a social worker and your particular interests.
Of course there's plenty of ways of doing that and Holly has helpfully mentioned a suite of NSPCC resources. We might use things like RIP — so Research in Practice — which provides a whole host of information around working with children, families and with adults. Much of it is free to access — other websites like Coram BAAF — particularly around adoption and fostering. Foundations' website, which is an amalgamation of the Early Intervention Foundation and What Works for Children's Social Care — they've now amalgamated. Both those websites are both still online with a back catalogue of information, as well as producing new information frequently. So they would be — and things like the British Association of Social Workers have some helpful information, for example, their Let's Talk Social Work podcast. So what I think looking at those resources in relation to your own development, what you've discussed in supervision in your own context, will be a good starting point.
I think in terms of fine tuning what evidence to use, have a look at what the case reviews are saying about what the children said, what a parent said, or what a professional might've said. That's really, really important because that voice needs to be just as powerful as the professionals within that situation.
And I would point professionals into the direction of any research that you might come across that might include certain frameworks being tested or the effectiveness of interventions being looked at and tested. You might be able to draw some fairly sound conclusions that using this assessment framework might actually bring about some really good outcomes for a family. Frameworks tend to give you some level of consistency of thought and can lead to better measured and balanced decision making.
You briefly mentioned case reviews there Gurpreet. These are conducted when a child dies or is seriously harmed as a result of abuse or neglect. Julian, please can you explain why professionals should make use of case reviews in the evidence base?
I think professionals need to be aware of case reviews in the same way they need to be aware of research and other kinds of evidence because it tells us broadly what is working in social work — so what makes children's lives and adults lives better and safer — and what actually isn't working or things we need to avoid or do differently. It's not about blame from our point of view, it is about learning and improving outcomes for children. I think what I would say there are a lot of case reviews, and there have been over many years and many decades, and I think it's probably worth reading some of the historical ones. So you've got some very old books from Reder and Duncan, like Beyond Blame, which go back many decades and actually highlight some really key practice themes that have gone on over many decades, right from the seventies up to the 2000s, I guess, or late nineties. But equally what we understood then is different to what we understand now.
We're thinking, as Gurpreet has already highlighted, the importance of being trauma-informed. We're understanding issues around sexual exploitation and criminal exploitation of children, which we weren't talking about and perhaps didn't understand many years and decades ago. So I think the key thing about reading case reviews is to learn what works for children and what things we need to avoid or do differently.
One thing that occurred to me was you sometimes might find yourself in a safeguarding meeting with other peers or professionals, and sometimes you can share your learning from a case review if you think it's relevant; not to just use it as sort of a red card to throw out, but it can be used quite powerfully if you're trying to challenge your partners in a respectful way, or decision makers. You might find that it enables you to have a solid starting point to say, "Have we thought about this? Because we know the recent case reviews have started to look at, for example, unseen men or partners or carers. We need to start thinking about this and we're not, we're not doing that in this meeting. So can we use that as a starting point?"
And Holly, how can professionals access these case reviews?
The NSPCC has the National case review collection, so we have the largest collection of case reviews. We have the actual reviews for England, Wales and Scotland — again, the language varies from nation to nation — and we have thematic analysis from all four nations dating back to 1945. So it's a big collection. There's over 2000 items within that collection. And from 2010 onwards they're all available — or most of them are available — online via our catalogue. So if you search within our collection, you'll be able to access an online version of the case review. Older ones are normally available as hard copies through our library. We are a reference library. You can get in touch if there's a specific case review you want to read and book in an appointment to come and visit us and we can provide you with some space in which to sit and read the reviews that you're interested in.
We also produce learning from case review briefings, so we look at specific themes that might be, for example, around a specific form of abuse or of specific risk factors or for a specific sector, and look at the learning that has come through case reviews and compile it all into one briefing where we look at the key issues that have come up time and time again and also the key learning for practice. The aim of all of that work is to help people both identify the learning that is relevant to them, but also to again save a lot of time and pull together that learning in an easily digestible format.
That's brilliant. Thank you. For listeners who are keen to learn more about how to apply learning from case reviews into your practice, the NSPCC also offers a face-to-face learning from case reviews training course, which you can find on the NSPCC Learning website. We're coming to the end of our discussion now. We've talked a lot today about gathering research and information. I wondered if we could conclude by considering how to apply this knowledge in practice.
Yeah, I've got five short points in terms of using research evidence, so case review information, but also research evidence in general in terms of sexual practice, based on things we often get asked about how do I use evidence in my social work practice?
I think the first thing is to keep up to date. So children's emotional and social experiences now are different to five years ago, ten years ago, to when I grew up, and our understanding is different to five or ten years ago. So what worked in terms of evidence back in the day actually is out of date or is much more limited than what we've got now. So, if you can, based on all the signposts we've given you today, think about keeping up to date with your evidence.
The second I think is know your limits. So there are limits within which social work operates. There are things we can talk to based on our knowledge and experience and our role as social workers. And there's things that maybe are outside of our limits that are the domain of other professionals, so your psychiatrists or your psychologists, etcetera. So the second bit is to know your limits and talk within those, and that's perfectly fine and good practice.
Third thing I think is to integrate rather than parachute. So think about what is the context of this bit of research I'm using? How can I use it and integrate it into an overall argument and overall assessment? Rather than parachuting in little bits of research that may or may not be relevant to my overall argument.
The fourth thing is, and we get asked about this a lot, I'd say be transparent, be courageous. So social workers are understandably anxious about, well, if I put this bit of research in, I might get scrutinised heavily, hauled over the coals when I'm in court, for example. I think sometimes that's a misplaced worry. But also I think we owe it to ourselves and our profession and to children to be brave and courageous and to be open to scrutiny. And if we've been fair and balanced, that should work out in the end. But we can't say, well, we're worried about, we'll be hauled over the coals, therefore we won't put anything in or we'll be opaque. We need to be transparent and courageous.
And finally, I think there's something fifthly about being fair and proportionate and balanced. So our use of research is led by children's needs and what will lead to the best outcome for them. It's not led by anything else.
Thanks, Julian. That's a really important point to finish with today, I think; that all of this research work has the goal of providing the best outcomes for children and families. So gathering the information evidence, you need to advocate for children and keep them safe. Thank you to Julian and Holly and Gurpreet for talking to me today. We hope you found this discussion about the importance of knowledge and evidence in social work practice useful. If you'd like to learn more, there will be a complete list of all the resources mentioned today in the shownotes for this episode. You can also visit the NSPCC Learning website where you'll be able to find information about the National case review repository and the NSPCC Library and Information Service. Thanks for listening.
Thanks for listening to this NSPCC Learning podcast. At the time of recording, this episode’s content was up to date but the world of safeguarding and child protection is ever changing – so, if you're looking for the most current safeguarding and child protection training, information or resources, please visit our website for professionals at nspcc.org.uk/learning.