Using knowledge exchange to bring about culture change in children and families social work departments

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Social and Political Science


Child protection systems across the English-speaking world have been subject to damning critique in recent decades, to the extent that some commentators conclude that they may be doing more harm than good. A recent UK government-sponsored review conducted by Professor Eileen Munro argues for fundamental change in child protection practice and culture. Specifically, Munro argues that 'Local authorities and their partners should start an ongoing process to review and redesign the ways in which child and family social work is delivered, drawing on evidence of effectiveness of helping methods where appropriate and supporting practice that can implement evidence based ways of working with children and families' (2011, p.13)' Munro identifies the need to 'help professionals move from a compliance culture to a learning culture' (2011, p.6).
Munro's recommendation forms the central objective in this proposal: to help children and families social workers in two local authorities review and redesign their services in line with evidence of what is known to be effective and to do so in the context of a learning culture. The project partners include social work and knowledge exchange (KE) academics at the University of Edinburgh and key managers and practitioners in two neighbouring local authorities, The City of Edinburgh and East Lothian.
The proposal builds upon a previous successful project, which involved academics and social work practitioners from six local authorities working together on small pieces of practitioner research around effective practice in working with involuntary social work service users, involuntary being understood as those whose contact with social work was mandated. The focus of three of these projects was on children and families social work. This new proposal takes the findings of this project forward, casting the spotlight across a wide spectrum of social work practice with children and families.
Historically, social work agencies have invested in training events and initiatives in the hope that learning on these might be cascaded from participants into wider organisational structures. The evidence for this sort of transfer of learning is not strong. On the contrary, it is known that very little training activity results in positive changes to practice. One of the reasons for this is that training often occurs as a free-standing activity that is not clearly linked to organisational or practice objectives. Models of knowledge exchange, through recognising the prior knowledge, skills and values that practitioners bring to a subject, are considered to be more effective than traditional training initiatives in getting knowledge into practice. In this project we will utilise specific knowledge exchange activities, derived from the literature and shown to be effective in our previous project, to help bring about cultural change in the partner local authorities.
Our proposal consists of three strands, a horizontal one that will operate across organisations to discuss key themes relating to the current discourse on child protection; a vertical strand, which will aim to support practitioners develop examples of what is known to be effective practice and a third strand, which will work with managers around effective learning transfer. Together, the various strands are in line with Nutley et al's (2007) organizational excellence model of knowledge exchange whereby organisations, working in partnership with universities, become the locus for local experimentation, evaluation and practice development.
Our project will offer pointers and models about how cultural change in child protection might be brought about more widely. As such, it will be of interest to local authorities and to Government bodies across the UK and thus holds out the potential to evidence demonstrable social policy and practice benefits.

Planned Impact

The project is of direct relevance to those involved and to their employing local authorities. Because it picks up on current policy themes, identified in the Munro Review of Child Protection, it will attract the interest of social work managers in local authorities across the UK, all of whom are grappling with how to implement Munro's recommendations. The project is also of interest to the Scottish Government, The Association of Directors of Social Work (ADSW) and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA).
The literature, (Lonne et al, 2009) identifies difficulties with child protection systems across the English-speaking world. The project, then, has international significance. It will offer pointers about what is effective practice in children and families social work. However, the difficulty is getting this knowledge into practice. This requires work to change prevailing practice and management cultures. This is perhaps where our findings are likely to achieve most impact.
We are able to draw on lessons learnt from the successful completion of our previous ESRC knowledge exchange grant 'Engaging with Involuntary Service Users in Social Work' (RES-809-19-0016), awarded under the Engaging with Scottish Local Authorities (ESLA) Scheme, to maximise impact from this project. A strength of our proposal is in bringing together the subject knowledge of social work with the knowledge exchange expertise of the Centre for Research in Families and Relationships (CRFR), which boasts a well-established and effective infrastructure to support and disseminate KE findings.
Our project will achieve impact in different, complementary, ways:
We will develop skilled people. A completing social work PhD student will be the research fellow with relevant experience in engaging with children and families and in knowledge exchange with social workers. She will be able to consolidate and develop these skills on this project. A wider role in developing skilled people is at the heart of the practitioner research projects identified in the second strand of our work plan. Practitioners will be given access to the University library and other services. This was a successful aspect to the ESLA project and led to practitioners being supported to conduct and write up small pieces of research. Outputs from this include presentations in host authorities but also seminar inputs to wider audiences and joint publications in academic and professional journals. Additionally, one of the former practitioner researchers has applied for PhD study.
We will also achieve impact through partnerships, facilitating a flow of people across different local authorities and academic partners. The developing dialogue, relationships and connections that emerge from the knowledge exchange activities proposed provide a platform for ongoing knowledge exchange collaborations. It is significant that this current bid has its origins in relationships established and messages disseminated from the previous ESLA project. Building upon these relationships will help develop the kind of research excellence model identified by Nutley et al, (2007), whereby a research minded ethos can begin to permeate organisational cultures.
Activities to achieve impact include:
events in participating local authorities to disseminate and discuss findings;
a Scottish event targeted at representatives from the Scottish Government, local authorities, COSLA and ADSW;
academic and practice partners will present papers at relevant events such as the Multi-Agency Resource Service, the Scottish Child Care and Protection Network and the Centre for excellence for looked after children in Scotland conferences;
academic partners will lead in publishing at least three articles in peer-reviewed journals;
a briefing paper on what is effective in achieving change in children and families social work, produced by our partners, CRFR, and distributed through their extensive networks.
Description This project needs to be understood as following on from a previous ESRC supported Knowledge Exchange project in the Engaging with Scottish Local Authorities (ESLA) Scheme around Working with Involuntary Social Work Clients and in the context of ongoing Knowledge Exchange activity involving the PI, the Co-I and other University colleagues with the participating local authorities. In utilising different layers of KE activity we are working towards Nutley et al's (2007) organizational excellence model of knowledge exchange whereby organizations, working in partnership with universities, become the locus for local experimentation, evaluation and practice development..

This particular project had three strands:

1) Supporting practitioner research projects

2) Facilitating Critical Reflection Groups

3) Training managers to support their staff in the preceding strands of KE activity.

I will report on findings under these three headings:

1) Five training sessions around key stages of the research process were arranged for practitioner researchers. Seven projects were supported to conclusion. Each project was presented by means of a report and a poster.

Practitioners were generally very positive about involvement in the research. At an individual level they learnt more about the topic of their research, about the research process through discussing each other's projects, about research techniques and ICT skills. They also felt that through engaging and involving their colleagues in various aspects of the research process they had helped foster a culture of learning within their teams. Most are keen to pursue further research and to write for publication. On a more negative note, capacity and time-constraints proved a significant challenge for the successful completion of research projects. The practitioners had mixed feelings about the amount of work they had to do in their own time. They felt the project overall was too condensed and that if it had run over a longer period it would have allowed them to better space and pace the work within the context of pressing practice contexts and possibly enabled them to produce higher quality outputs.

2) We organised a series of five critical reflection workshops over a period of three months between April and June 2013, led by two social work academics (VC and MS). Each workshop lasted for four hours. We began with coffee and a general review and catch-up, as well as a discussion of research literature provided in advance. We then moved onto the critical incident or incidents, before leaving time for individual reflection and review. Twelve social workers took part: four participants returned to meet us in October 2013 for a follow-up session to look back on the workshops and discuss plans for dissemination.The critical reflection workshops demonstrated that practice with children and families' social work in Scotland is highly procedural, risk-averse and remains focused more on the assessment of problems than on prevention or support. Nevertheless, social workers continue to practise as best they can in difficult circumstances, often able to acknowledge strong emotional bonds to clients and to the profession. Many participants observed changes in their own practice and even in their lives.The advantages were expressed 'Being part of that process gave me a bit of a breathing space, a chance to take stock of my own values as a practitioner and an opportunity to fill up, not as a technician (as someone who follows the rules, though they are important too) but to fill up as a professional' (13th November 2013).

3) Around 15 managers attended two training sessions. The sessions themselves were well received. However, the intention of the sessions to ensure that managers could then support practitioners in either the practitioner researcher or critical reflection groups met with mixed success. While some practitioners did acknowledge the support of their manager(s) this was not universal - 'I know that my own manager never mentioned KE once when I was on the course unless I brought it up There was very little interest when we tried to feed back. I think what I`m trying to say is that it seemed to me that the participants in the critical reflection workshops seemed, in the main, to take a great deal from them. Also, to be able to see how much of an enhancement critical reflection incorporated into weekly working would be for the confidence of the profession and a way to build it up furthering the Munro report etc. It seems to me that unless the culture of the profession is changed at organisational level then useful 'add-ons' like critical reflection will always only be a luxury.'
Exploitation Route Several social work practice teams have instituted critical reflection groups.

The experience of knowledge exchange from this and our previous project is allowing us to build a solid understanding of 'what works' in knowledge exchange, which has resonance across a broad swathe of public sector reform. Specifically, the PI and Co-I on this project are involved in a bid from the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow for an ESRC 'What Works, Scotland' project The project concluded with an event held in the University's Playfair Library, for those involved, their managers, colleagues, senior managers in the Councils and representatives from e.g Scottish Government. Around 60 people attended. Table top discussions focused on how the lessons and the momentum of the project could be continued.

During the project, the PI and managers from the two local authorities presented to the child protection sub-committee of the Association of Directors of Social Work. Since then:

Mark Smith and one of the Critical Reflectors have presented on the project to the Scottish Organisation for Practice Teaching (Scopt) Conference (3rd Dec, 2013)

One of the regular social work seminars organised by the University will be devoted to disseminating findings

A session of the City of Edinburgh Practice Panel (24th March, 2014) will present findings and consider 'what next?'

A paper was presented at BASPCAN, a major international child protection conference to be held in Edinburgh, April 2015.

Practitioner researchers have agreed to teach social work students at the University on theory to practice links.

One of the East Lothian practitioner researchers has been awarded a Practitioner in Residence Post at the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services (IRISS).

Four articles for academic journals have been published in Child and Family Social Work, Practice,: Social Work in Action and Research into Practice. Another is with British Journal of Social Work following response to reviewer comments. All of the articles will be jointly authored by academics and practitioners.

Mark Smith and Andy Jeffries (City of Edinburgh manager) have met with the Scottish Social Services Council to discuss becoming 'champions' in national projects working towards asset based leadership in line with current policy directions in the public services.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy

Description This project needs to be understood in terms of what it follows on from and also in the wider context of developments within social work and public service delivery more generally in Scotland. The award follows from a previous one, 'Engaging with Involuntary Service Users in Social Work' (RES-809-19-0016), awarded under the Engaging with Scottish Local Authorities (ESLA) Scheme, undertaken in 2009-2010. This established links between the university and the two local authority partners in this project, including the involvement of the PI on a Practice Panel set up by the City of Edinburgh. Since completion of the project the University of Edinburgh has been successful in winning the ESRC/Scottish Government 'What Works' Centre and work undertaken within the 'Changing Children and Families Social Work' project is being continued under the auspices of this centre. The project fulfilled its objectives in training a group of managers (around 18) to support practitioners taking part in the different strands of the project. Mark Smith and Viv Cree facilitated a Critical Reflection Group for 12 practitioners. Seven practitioner research projects were supported to completion. The project website contains abstracts and full reports of the practitioner research projects. The project has reported at various events • A launch/dissemination event held in the University's Playfair Library attended by around 80 people including senior officers from the participating local authorities and representatives from the Scottish Government (Nov 2013) - see project website • A presentation from senior officers of the participating Councils and the PI at an Association of Directors of Social Work/With Scotland event The poster presentations completed by the practitioner researchers were displayed at a major social work Expo The City of Edinburgh held an event where the practitioner research projects were presented to an audience of managers and practitioners. A symposium which includes four papers relating to the different strands of the project has been accepted for the BASPAN Congress, a major international event on child protection to be held in Edinburgh April 2015 One academic article, co-authored by academics and participants on the Critical Reflection Groups, has been published in the journal Child and Family Social Work;jsessionid=6B49C0A03910B7A27036B3656D0B9A3A.f02t04 Another journal article is currently under review with the journal Practice: Social Work in Action A third article, for submission to the British Journal of Social Work is nearing completion One of the practitioner researchers has had an article supported for peer review in a special edition of the journal Research, Policy and Practice Another of the practitioner researchers was successful in obtaining a position as Practitioner in Residence at the Institute for Research in Social Services. The PI is a member of the Advisory Group for this project Several of the practitioner researchers have contributed to teaching in the University on the importance of research to practice One of the practitioner researchers is considering writing a book based on the theme of her project. Several of the those who participated in the Critical Reflection workshops report that they are using the critical reflection method in their own workplaces An Edinburgh Practice Panel event is scheduled for March 2015. This will be addressed by Prof James Mitchell, PI on the ESRC/Scottish Government What Works Centre and will consider the implications of public service reform for children s services Mark Smith, the PI on this project and Prof Mitchell are in discussion with the Scottish Social Services Council about changing cultures in children and families social work in light of the public services reform agenda. Prof Cree (as PI) and Dr Smith (as Co-I) have recently been awarded an ESRC Knowledge Exchange Impact Accelerator grant to take forward activities to re-imagine child protection social work Links made over the project were developed in subsequent work leading to Grootegoed and Smith article. Mark Smith has since taken up a new post at the University of Dundee and is seeking to roll out similar ideas with local authorities there
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description City of Edinburgh Practice Panel
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Ongoing involvement in City of Edinburgh Children and Families Practice Panel, leading to changes in practitioner attitudes and practices towards families they work with. Impact is spreading to national (Scottish) through partnership arrangements entered into for Impact Accelerator grant
Description Influenced deliberations in Scottish Review of Social Work Education
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
Impact Model of working with local authorities to bring together ideas for research, knowledge exchange and practice learning in social work education has been picked up by Review of Social Work Education and Scottish Social Services Council
Description Involvement in regulatory body working group of post qualifying education
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Impact Working group of which I am part will develop skills/practice indicators for experienced social workers - my influence has contributed towards a less competency and more 'wisdom' based approach to practice
Description ESRC Impact Acceleration Account
Amount £20,000 (GBP)
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2016 
End 04/2017
Description Academic Advisor to City of Edinburgh Practice Panel 
Organisation City of Edinburgh Council
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Attend and advise Panel of children and families managers and practitioners around practice developments Identify theme for practitioner events and offer academic input at these
Start Year 2012
Description Advisory Borad for IRISS Practitioner in Residence Scheme 
Organisation East Lothian Council
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Advisory support to practitioner in residence scheme entered into following practitioner research project
Collaborator Contribution Host organisations for scheme
Impact Ongoing
Start Year 2014
Description Advisory Borad for IRISS Practitioner in Residence Scheme 
Organisation Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Advisory support to practitioner in residence scheme entered into following practitioner research project
Collaborator Contribution Host organisations for scheme
Impact Ongoing
Start Year 2014
Description planned further event (City of Edinburgh Council) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Brokered meeting with City of Edinburgh Council Practice Panel and Prof James Mitchell PI ESRC What Works project to set up event to explore future of public service delivery for social work

Date for large event set for March 2015
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014