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Strengths, Relationships and Social Work (Practice Frameworks)

Louise Haughton, Principal Social Worker, City of Wolverhampton Council

The Department of Health and Social Care give an excellent introduction to what a Practice Framework is in its publication ‘Strengths-based approach: Practice Framework and Practice Handbook’ (DoH 2019). The document starts with the introduction below.

“Practice frameworks are well regarded and understood as methods to drive forward effective professional practice in social work and human services (Connolly, 2007; Stanley 2016; 2017). They provide schematic templates for systematically improving practice analysis initially for assessment and interventions and also helping practice reform (Connolly 2007; Healy 2005; Stanley, 2016). Connolly (2007) made the point that there is a “tendency to use models, paradigms and frameworks for practice interchangeably,” thus getting the language right is important.

Practice frameworks are therefore a schematic template not based on or informed by organisational imperatives but designed through and informed by value-based practice, research and evidence. A practice framework offers a mapping out of what we do and why, offering a rationale for practice, while promoting a range of practice tools for assessments and interventions.

A practice framework ‘integrates empirical research, practice theories, ethical principles and experiential knowledge in a compact and convenient format that helps practitioners to use the knowledge and principles to inform their everyday work’ (Connolly and Healy 2009, p32)”. DoH 2019."

Over the last ten years the idea of Practice Framework has become explicitly connected with the language of relationship based practice and strength based approaches.

The profession seems to have fallen in love with the word strengths; along with assets, potential and power, the appetite for good old fashioned anti-oppressive practice is high, they are hopeful words. It could be argued that these are words that are breathing a breath of fresh air into our profession, enabling social workers to connect with the professions value base, connect with people and do the work they always wanted to do.

In the West Midlands all of our Councils have adopted relational and strength-based practice frameworks in Children Services, adopting approaches such as Restorative Practice, Sign of Safety, Systemic Family Therapy and more general relation and strength-based approaches. In Adult Social Care the picture is not dissimilar, four authorities have adopted the 3 conversations model and all areas have had a focus on personalisation and strength-based practice.

It is great that the relationship between Universities and Councils have been strengthened through the teaching partnership. This has provided a space for us to talk about the kind of curriculum that support practitioners to apply these approaches and models in an informed, skilled and effective way, given we all agree that these skills are integral to all good social work intervention.

I had the opportunity to speak at the West Midlands Teaching Partnership launch on this subject and hopefully reminded us that relational and strength-based approaches are nothing new. They have existed within the academic content of social work courses since their inception through ideas like solution focused approaches, motivational theory, empowerment, narrative approach, transactional analysis, person centred approach, strength mapping and personalisation.

Restorative Practice for example is grounded in Affect Script Psychology, (Silvan Tomkis 1962, 1963) which argues we all want to maximize positive affects like Interest, excitement and joy and minimise negative affects like shame, anger and dis-trust. By applying this to our practice on purpose we can increase positive engagement and help families repair their relationships. The approach also asks us to think about our approach to practice; are we authoritarian, authoritative, paternalistic or neglectful and when might it be right to practice in each of these ways?

The City of Wolverhampton Council began implementing Restorative Practice in Children Services in November 2015 and began implementing 3 Conversations in Adult Social Care in May 2018. We knew our workforce already worked really hard with people to help them achieve good outcomes but by equipping them with approaches, models and tools and by challenging ourselves to practice this way on purpose all of the time we have seen even better outcomes. In adults Social Care we have seen increased satisfaction from the people we work with as evidenced in our ASCOF returns and our own quality assurance activity. Within Children’s Service we have seen an increase in the evidence of strength-based approaches and direct work resulting in good outcomes for children, young people and families in our quality assurance activity.

As a result, Restorative Practice has now been adopted both in the whole Council Organisational Development Plan and by the wider partnership for Children’s Service through the Safeguarding Board. We will be providing training to our adult social care workforce in the approach and hundreds of frontline workers across the partnership.

We are excited that some of the universities are incorporating these Practice Frameworks into their curriculums and as a result more social workers will be well equipped to work within the region on completion of their social work degree’s. We also welcome the teaching of traditional relationship and strength-based approaches that help social workers develop the knowledge and skill to help them work effectively with people from diverse backgrounds and who may have experienced significant trauma and/or loss.

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