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Does social work make a difference?

Does social work make a difference? It may come as a surprise but there are few research studies that have rigorously addressed this question, nor are there established methodologies upon which to draw. It was in this context that the Dartington Social Research Unit set out to establish a study that would determine if Frontline social workers have a different impact on the health and development of children than those trained in the traditional manner. Frontline should be applauded for being willing to put to the test its innovative Teach First-inspired approach to attracting high calibre people into the profession.

Unfortunately, the aspiration to compare three groups of social workers (Frontline trained, newly qualified and experienced) and the effect of their practice (allowing for case complexity) proved too great. The research team failed to recruit a sufficient number of social workers to the study, who in turn failed to help recruit families to participate in the research. This was despite extensive reconnaissance and preparations.

The study was re-directed and, with a mixed method approach, explored social workers’ views on their training and their experience of practice, the nature of social work contact with families and the conditions that are auspicious for an innovation like Frontline.

The findings suggest that Frontline is well thought out, soundly structured and designed to overcome some of the problems that have confounded training in the past. Challenges such as the reality shock surrounding entry to practice and the risk of training for a past rather than a future service are well tackled. In addition, the longer-term ambition of injecting clever, imaginative and well trained people into children’s services is likely to remain challenging to the wider sector.

Where the context is supportive, for example when the local authority embraces the Frontline systemic model of practice, there appears to be potential not only for Frontline social workers to deploy the skills developed in training but also for these to inspire interest from other social workers who want to learn from them. In contrast, Frontline social workers reported the shock of shifting from the supportive context of a small team to working alone in a system which can at times be unsupportive.

Even in a supportive environment, two or three social workers will typically be involved in a case with visits on average around once a month. Frontline trained workers visit more frequently than their colleagues trained through other routes (16 and 12 times on average respectively) but much of their time will be spent making calls to the family, schools and other agencies for help. They make multiple unsuccessful attempts at home visits and spend considerable time documenting their work.

Although the original methodology was unable to provide evidence on impact, there remains learning that could be applied to practice.

First, the assessment and selection of students is a critical component of the Frontline approach. Others can learn from the way Frontline has innovated in this area. Second, there are indications from Reclaiming Social Work and Frontline that placing a small group of social workers together in a team, supported by a wise, experienced professional able to offer quality supervision with shared accountability for what happens, has the potential to influence child and family outcomes. Third, social work has been subjected to much change. This study suggests that leaders can best help by promoting stability, encouraging learning and maintaining a focus on practice. Fourth, social workers need time to make a difference to families, and they are more likely to do this if one social worker holds the case and is able to visit more frequently over a period of months. Fifth, under the right system conditions it would be possible to evaluate the impact of innovation in social work on child and family outcomes. The outcome measures identified for this study should provide a useful foundation on which to build.

To read the full report by the Dartington Social Research Unit, click here.