Take it to the street

September 21, 2001

Ray Jones wants to ensure social workers share research, says Claire Sanders.

In November, Ray Jones will leave his post as director of social services at Wiltshire County Council to become chief executive of the new Social Care Institute of Excellence. For those doing research into social care, it is a crucial appointment that has had a mixed reception.

Scie (pronounced "sky") will create a knowledge base of what works in social care for use by managers, practitioners and users. "It will vigorously review research and practice to provide databases of information on methods proven to be effective in social care practice," the Department of Health said when Scie was launched in February. It will also produce guidelines on best practice.

June Thoburn, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of East Anglia, says, "Wiltshire has a good reputation as a council that draws on research to support its practice, and Professor Jones is a respected academic."

Jones is a visiting fellow at the University of Bath and visiting professor at the University of Exeter. But it is his role as a member of the steering group for the Centre for Evidence Based Social Services at Exeter that has caused concern.

Joan Orme, professor of social work at Glasgow University and chair of the joint university council social work and education committee, says: "There is a major debate at the moment within social work research circles about the nature of evidence. Basic questions about whether it is an art or a science are being asked. The CEBSS takes a very empiricist and quantitative approach."

Orme says that social work must not go the way of the probation service - probation officers now are no longer educated in social work departments.

"There is an increasingly prescriptive approach in the probation service, where officers are pushed towards strict guidelines on how to deal with clients," Orme says. "We would like to see a recognition of all forms of research, qualitative and quantitative. And a recognition that social workers need to deal with people on an individual basis."

Jones says: "Much social work research is small-scale, which means the evidence base is not so strong. We want to make sure that the lessons we are drawing from research and other forms of knowledge are strong." He says that one of the first tasks of Scie will be to network with the number of bodies already producing and disseminating social-care research (see below).

He also stresses that one of Scie's key strengths will be its engagement with the users of social care. "We want to involve users not just to the extent of asking their views, but actually asking them to help plan a research project," he says.

The appointment of Jane Campbell as chair of Scie is seen as crucial for the service-user movement. Campbell is a wheelchair user who has been prominent in the campaign to win the right for disabled people to arrange care via direct payments.

Scie is one of a number of bodies being set up this year. Its guidelines will feed into the new National Care Standards Commission and General Social Care Council. It will also work closely with the National Training Organisation for Social Care and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

The government's aim is to improve standards in social care. But Jones says: "One of the major issues is the shortage of social workers. To have good practice in line with the knowledge base, you need a stable and motivated workforce."

Getting the word out

The National Institute of Social Work
This has played a key role in developing best policy and practice in social work over the past 40 years. It will close as Scie takes off, but its research arm is out for tender to universities.

Making Research Count
Royal Holloway and East Anglia, Warwick, Keele, Luton, York, Glasgow and the Open universities formed a consortium five years ago to disseminate social work research to social workers. The consortium covers all areas of social work and social care. Each university has partnerships with about ten local authorities.

Research in Practice
This initiative, based at the Dartington Social Research Unit, was set up to disseminate research on childcare. The Department of Health is its main customer.

Centre for Evidence Based Social Services
This centre, based at Exeter, is funded by the DoH and a consortium of regional social services departments. It aims to get research findings to social workers and to commission research.

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