Organisations, staff support and the dynamics and quality of social work practice: A qualitative longitudinal study of child protection work

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Sociology & Social Policy


The frequent disclosures that abused children who were known by professionals to be at serious risk have died and young people have experienced protracted sexual exploitation despite the involvement of social workers and other agencies is one of the most controversial and pressing social issues of our time. In recent times the names of children such as 'Baby Peter' Connolly, Daniel Pelka, Hamza Khan and places such as Rochdale and Rotherham, have become synonymous with poor practice and scandal in child protection. By far the most popular explanation for why child protection failures occur is that social work is governed by a 'rule of optimism', where it is argued social workers put the best interpretation on events, avoid challenging parents and lose focus on the children (Coventry LCSB, 2013). These challenges and tragedies have invariably occurred in cases that were known to social workers for long periods of years and it is remarkable that little research has been carried out into why such failures to protect children occur in everyday practice, what the (optimistic?) outlook of practitioners is and the nature and quality of social work practice in long-term child protection work and what influences it. The aim of this study is to research what occurs in face to face practice encounters between social workers and children and families over the longer term (a period of 15 months) and examine the influence of different organizational structures and office designs and staff supervision on the nature and quality of the work. It will produce original data and theoretical insights on the relationship between organisational practices, staff supervision and how social workers relate to parents and help them to change, or not; and the dynamics of how some children become 'invisible' in every day work as it unfolds in real time, while others are worked with effectively and kept safe.

A range of methods will be used within an overall qualitative longitudinal research design. Participant observation will be undertaken of social workers' office routines, planning for home visits, journeys by foot and in the car to see families, their interactions with parents and children in their homes and elsewhere, and social workers' subsequent experiences of being supervised by managers. Observations and audio-recordings of the social worker-service user encounters (where informed consent has been given) and interviews with social workers and family members afterwards about their experiences will provide the basis for investigation of practitioners' thinking and lived experience, critical analysis of practice and organisational supports. Photographs and video tours of offices will be used (while maintaining the anonymity of participants and places) to achieve even greater depth in accessing the usually 'invisible' dimensions of people's lived experiences and the atmospheres and environments that influence the work. A practice framework for staff supervision and effective work with parents and children will be produced that incorporates: (1) how to engage and work with parents over time, including those who are resistant, and effect positive change; (2) how and where best to conduct assessments and long-term work with children; and (3) how to support staff to stay child-centred. The 'rule of optimism' will be critically explored through theories that take understandings of practice beyond a simplistic focus on attitudes and 'thinking' purely in terms of the cognitive, to focus on lived experiences, the senses and emotions and how practitioners' thinking is shaped by their bodies as well as minds (Ingold, 2011). Theoretical work previously developed by research team members on child protection as an embodied mobile practice (Ferguson 2011) and social workers' resilience, use of self and supervision (Davys and Beddoe, 2010) will be tested out and refined to produce further original theoretical insights and understandings of practice.

Planned Impact

This research will contribute vital knowledge for academics, students, policy makers, managers and practitioners in child protection and social work and can have a significant impact on practice and policy in one of the most controversial areas of public policy. Given the on-going concerns about professional failures to respond to child sexual exploitation and how professional 'thinking' and the 'rule of optimism' is claimed to be a key factor in causing children to become invisible in child protection this study could barely be more timely. Research into face to face child protection work and how it is influenced by organisational systems and cultures is seriously lacking and no qualitative longitudinal study of this kind has been done before. The research will provide learning about what practitioners and managers actually do and analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of current practices, systems and processes. Such knowledge of how to go about protecting children is essential if practitioners are to relate effectively to parents and to stay child-centred and promote positive change within families to make children safer. The findings will provide theories and practical knowledge which can help resolve core practice dilemmas, such as how to stay focused on and maintain relationships with children over long periods of time, while working with their parents to enable them to become safe. It will therefore be of great value to child protection agencies and national and local policy makers. The study will provide insights into the effects of office designs and the kinds of organisational conditions, staff support and supervision that have the most impact on the quality of social workers' practice.

The research will also make an impact on learning through theoretical development and methodological innovation, by being the first longitudinal qualitative study of its kind in social work that has used a combination of ethnographic, mobile and visual methods. These methods will make visible not simply what social workers and service users do and how they interact, but the emotional dynamics and affective atmospheres that constitute practice, and the impact of particular office and domestic environments on how people think and behave. New theory will be developed out of the findings that will greatly enhance understandings of social work as an embodied 'intimate' practice (Ferguson, 2011) and the skilled improvisation, craft (Ingold, 2011) and reflexive use of self that it is anticipated the research will show characterise good practice. Being able to show how staff supervision can support such creative, resilient work will have a powerful impact on policy, training and practice.

It is intended that ultimately the impact of the research on practice will be such that the main beneficiaries will be children and parents. As the aim is to provide knowledge of how social work can promote children's safety and the capacity of parents to care for their children, the findings and outputs will contribute to improvements in practice and outcomes for children and families. Children will benefit from the improvements in practice arising from the new theoretical insights and practice framework and parents too stand to gain from the help received from practitioners whose knowledge and skills will have developed as a result of insights and training arising out of the research.

Commentary and debates played out in the media about child protection 'failures' are invariably simplistic and this research can help to improve public understanding of just how complex child protection practice is. The development of media rich digital resources based on the findings and their accessibility on smart phones and table computers while mobile as well as stationary, and innovative use on platforms such as You Tube and Twitter will greatly enhance the reach of study's impact to lay people and professionals.

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
ES/N012453/1 01/09/2016 31/07/2017 £536,196
ES/N012453/2 Transfer ES/N012453/1 01/08/2017 16/11/2018 £375,520