Helping social workers to access research
Sue Downie, Julie Wands and Anne Noble describe how the learning and development team at a health and social care
partnership in Scotland introduced an initiative which aims to
support social work practitioners in their research.
What did this email received by Learning and Development team at North Ayrshire Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP) tell us? First, this social worker seemed to be a reflective practitioner who recognised the limits to her experience, and the need to gain a wider perspective and knowledge on her case. And second, that she lacked the skills to research this herself.
This is not a new phenomenon. Research has found that lack of time is a barrier to searching out evidence, as is the validity of such an exercise as a necessary part of the social work role when there are other competing pressures, e.g. “when reading books or reflecting on practice could be interpreted by colleagues as a luxury”.1
It is however an expectation by the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC), the registration body for social workers and other care sector staff, that those registered demonstrate their post-registration training and learning. Indeed, the SSSC explicitly states that training and learning can include “Reading – books, Scottish Government policy information, journal articles, newspapers and online publications”.2
A learning initiative
North Ayrshire HSCP Learning and Development (L&D) team recognised there was a need to support the “research mindedness” of our Social Work practitioners to help them have the skills and knowledge to access relevant sources of practice information.
A number of factors propelled this learning initiative. The first was, in line with national agreements, the integration of community-based NHS health services and local authority Social Services within North Ayrshire in April 2015. This enabled social services staff to access NHS library services. Additionally, the opening of Woodland View Library, Ayrshire Central Hospital, Irvine in May 2016 improved library access for social services staff based in North Ayrshire. This is in line with NHS Ayrshire & Arran’s corporate objectives to deliver transformational change and to deliver better value through efficient and effective use of all resources. The Library Manager is keen to encourage all HSCP staff to access the new facilities at Woodland View Library and to increase social workers’ use of online resources.
The second factor was the role played by North Ayrshire Council’s (NAC) Education Resource Service. In particular, the move away from being a schools-based library to one that supports and promotes the continuing professional development of staff across all local authority sectors. The operational plan objective to “develop the CPD collection to support NAC and NAHSCP staff, and encourage library membership” also supported this initiative.
An additional impetus was provided by Social Services Knowledge Scotland (SSKS), an online resource funded by the Scottish Government and delivered by NHS Education for Scotland (NES), enabling social work and care workers to gain access to a NHS Scotland OpenAthens account and the thousands of online articles that this facilitates. Conversations with the outreach librarian at SSKS confirmed a similarity in aims and perspectives in taking library skills training out to practitioners.
An unusual alliance
These factors led to our unusual alliance of an L&D advisor and three librarians, all committed to helping social workers develop their skills and knowledge in accessing relevant information, texts and journals, to ultimately improve their practice with people who use our services. A half-day training course in research skills, Accessing Evidence for Your Practice, was developed. This combined exercises in using online resources, registering for SSKS membership and an Athens account, joining the NHS library and NAC Education Resource Service, as well as clear signposting to the most relevant sources of knowledge and information.
The training course
A pilot course was publicised across the Partnership in 2016 and was booked up within a week. This was unexpected! A further course date was arranged for a month later.
Three courses have now been offered with all library partners contributing, and 34 staff have attended.
Feedback from participants revealed some interesting findings. In particular:
1 The training increased staff confidence in accessing online resources, by supporting participants past the first hurdle of becoming registered for these resources. Participants said:
“I enjoyed the practice tutorial, and being supported and talked through the search process.”
“Accessing information was more straightforward than I thought. I feel more confident in accessing research.”
2 These sessions helped staff to recognise the volume and extent of accessible information, and the support that is available to help them access this information. “First experience of SSKS and I was impressed. I am now aware of websites, databases and resources that will be valuable in my study and work.”
Running in parallel to these training courses, our L&D and library alliance group attended events to promote library membership, disseminated the SSKS publication Finding Evidence to Inform Your Practice: a guide for social workers,3 and actively encouraged all social work staff and students to access these resources for both their work and study.
Improving social work practice
So has this actually improved social work practice for those receiving our services? Some evidence supporting this has been provided by two social work practitioners who attended the training: