This week we have our last guest blog from Professor Andy Kendrick of Strathclyde University. He talks about the importance of evidence and research and the work underway to support this through the Vision and Strategy for Social Services in Scotland.
I’m wrapping up this series of guest blogs for Alan, as the lead for the fourth strand of the Vision and Strategy – Improving Use of Evidence.
What has struck me in this work, and in reading the blogs of Jane, Robert and Anna, is how much overlap there is across the four strands and how we will need to take forward the Vision and Strategy as a whole. We need to build the research and evidence base for social work services in order to understand and improve service quality and performance. This can only be done through support of the workforce and, as part of this, supporting their knowledge and skills in understanding and using research in the development of policy and practice. We also need wider dissemination of the range of evidence to counter the negative assumptions about social work services, while acknowledging the ways in which policy and practice can be improved.
The past few weeks have given me more opportunity to think about these issues as I am in the lucky position of embarking on a period of research leave to focus on my writing and research. Many University management roles are only held for a fixed period and I stepped down from my role as Head of School at the end of July, having carried out this role for nine years, longer than most; first as Head of the Glasgow School of Social Work and then, following restructuring, the School of Social Work and Social Policy. I have now gone back to my role as Professor of Residential Child Care and I have been planning my time over the next year or so.
A first priority is my own research and publication. The research leave granted by Universities is an acknowledgment that teaching, management and administrative duties can get in the way of research and writing. This need for time and space also highlighted by social work services managers and practitioners, and cited as one of the main barriers to becoming involved in research and using evidence. This is why one of the actions in the Evidence strand focuses on the role of social services leadership in order to embed evidence-informed policy and practice across their organisations, and this means creating a culture that allows time for data-gathering, analysis, implementation and evaluation.
As an academic, it’s part of my job to carry out high quality research and for that research to make a difference. Early in my career, I was finishing off a research interview with a residential worker and she asked whether I thought that anything would be changed to the benefit of the young people because of the research, and I could only hope that it would. Increasingly, there has been a focus on the impact of research, the difference that it makes to society, public policy or services and the quality of life of individuals.
Universities across the UK were recently measured in relation to their research through the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The results were published at the end of last year and one of the major differences about this REF has been the assessment of research impact, alongside the assessment of research quality. Social Work research was considered alongside Social Policy research and there was also a lot of overlap with other academic disciplines. The Social Work academics who were on the REF Panel published an overview of the current state of Social Work research in Universities titled, “Social Work Research Making a Difference” (Taylor, et al., 2015). They highlighted the vitality and robustness of research in a wide range of areas, and the increasing sophistication in the methods it uses; including high quality quantitative research as well as innovative approaches to capturing service user and carer perspectives. Social work and social policy research performed especially well in terms of impact and, within the social sciences, achieved the highest impact scores at the level judged to be ‘world leading’. It was gratifying to see our work here in Scotland being seen to contribute to real change in policy and practice.
In order to take forward this work, I have committed to spending some of my research time to support the work of the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland (CELCIS) and the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice (CYCJ), both hosted by the University of Strathclyde. One of the action points of the Improving Use of Evidence strand highlights the importance of embedding best practice in knowledge exchange and research implementation models. The Centres of Excellence and other organisations such as the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services (IRISS) have a crucial role in acting as a bridge between research and practice, and in continuing to develop new approaches to the use of evidence and research.
I have also committed to continue as lead on the strand on Improving the Use of Evidence because I see this as a real opportunity for social work services research in Scotland. The work on the evidence strand has already raised some interesting discussions about the approach that should be taken and the way in which research should be used to improve social work policy and practice, for example, in terms of the appropriateness of different research methodologies. Such issues have been around for as long as I’ve been a social work academic and have taught qualitative and quantitative research methods to social work students. I am clear that while we need to have a critical understanding of the strengths and limitations of different methodologies, we must embrace the full range of quantitative and qualitative methods. In this, I follow Prof Anne Oakley, the distinguished feminist and sociologist, who wrote an excellent article, “Gender, Methodology and People’s Ways of Knowing: Some Problems with Feminism and the Paradigm Debate in Social Science”. In this paper, she argues in favour of “rehabilitating quantitative methods and integrating a range of methods in the task of creating an emancipatory social science” and that the “critical question remains the appropriateness of the method to the research question” (Oakley, 1998).
In taking forward a goal of an emancipatory social work services research agenda, we need to break down traditional barriers and develop the full participation of service users and carers, practitioners and managers, researchers, educators and knowledge brokers in identifying key research priorities and progressing evidence-informed practice.
- Oakley, A. (1998) Gender, methodology and people’s ways of knowing: Some problems with Feminism and the paradigm debate in social science, Sociology, 32(4), 707-731.
- Taylor, I., Carpenter, J., Macdonald, G., Smith, R., Stanley, N. & White, S. (2015) Social work research making a difference, Professional Social Work. Retrieved from https://www.basw.co.uk/news/article/?id=879