Article Review: Strengths-based practice in social work with adults

Price A, Ahuja L, Bramwell C, Briscoe S, Shaw L, Nunns M et al. (2020) Research evidence on different strengths-based approaches within adult social work: a systematic review. Southampton: NIHR Health Services and Delivery Research Topic Report. 

Review written by Professor Jonathan Scourfield

What question does this study focus on?  

This study summarises existing published research on the effectiveness and the implementation of strengths-based approaches within adult social work in the UK. These approaches are well-known in children’s services and are supported by recent legislation for adult care but little is known about their effectiveness and they are thought to be difficult to implement.

How did they study it?

They did a systematic review – that’s the most robust approach to summarising existing research. They looked in academic journals, with no restrictions on date or language, and they did some limited searching of ‘grey’ literature such as policy reports, although they acknowledge they may have missed some of these. They were only looking for studies from the UK, which is understandable given they wanted the research to be very relevant to UK services, but they will no doubt have missed some international studies that could also be relevant and important. Fifteen studies met the criteria to be included in the review, six of which were assessed as good quality.

What did they find?

There were seven studies of Making Safeguarding Personal – an outcomes-focused and personalised approach whose aim is for safeguarding to be done with, not to,

people. The other eight studies covered a range of approaches: Local Area Coordination, Solution Focused Therapy, Family Group Conferencing, Asset-based Community Development, Strengths-based with Relationship-based Approach, Asset-based approaches, and Motivational Interviewing.  None of the studies allowed the researchers to answer the question about effectiveness.

For Making Safeguarding Personal, the implementation issues were these:

  1. It was seen as demanding on practitioners at first but as having advantages over the longer term – e.g. improved personalisation and reduction in future referrals and burden on the range of services involved in safeguarding. Significant practice change was needed. The model needed adaptation for specific localities, which sometimes caused implementation problems.
  2. The approach required cultural changes in organisations, to move away from older practices such as being risk-averse and not engaging people in conversations about what they want from safeguarding. MSP requires a shift from process-led to user-focussed social work. More outward-facing and smaller local authorities tended to be most successful in implementing MSP.
  3. The knowledge, skills, creativity and confidence of service providers were important for delivering MSP. Practitioners’ willingness to embrace the model made a difference. 
  4. Successful implementation needed strong leadership – sound planning, engagement of staff across service boundaries and the active involvement of people receiving services.

What are the implications?

We need more evidence, which is so often the conclusion of systematic reviews! For this topic, there is a real need for comparative studies, to look at whether consciously strengths-based approaches actually result in different in the positive differences they would claim to bring, when compared with usual practice. The points about how MSP was implemented are useful for services that want to bring in practice changes.


Review written by

Professor Jonathan Scourfield

Article Reviews

At ExChange we know that busy practitioners do not have the time to find and read the latest research.  Finding interesting and relevant articles, evaluating the quality of the research and making sense of the implications for practice are all time consuming activities – and most workers are busy dealing with the challenges of working with people. 

To help you we are launching a new part of our website – regular Article Reviews. In Article Reviews academics from CASCADE will identify an important recent article, summarise its findings and provide some critical thinking about the research and its implications. 

We hope that these summaries will be useful – some may answer important questions, others may challenge your thinking or offer new ways of thinking about an issue or problem. 

We also hope that the Reviews will help you decide whether or not you want to read the article itself – we are going to pick Reports and articles that are freely accessible whenever possible and provide links. 

We hope that our Reviews will provide interesting, expert introductions to important current research that will help you find out the latest evidence in adult and children’s social care. We look forward to hearing from you whether you have found it helpful and how we might improve the service.  

Article review – Child protection social work in COVID-19: Home visits and digital intimacy

By Sarah Pink, Harry Ferguson and Laura Kelly – Anthropology in Action, 27(3), 2020, pp. 27-30.  

What question does this study focus on? 

Social work is a public service, but social workers very often do their work in private (Bostock et al, 2018). In much of his most important research to date, Professor Harry Ferguson has used observational methods to explore what social workers do during home visits and how their work involves negotiated movement in intimate physical spaces. In this article, Ferguson and colleagues consider the impact of Covid-19 on this kind of work, and how social workers have adapted their practice using digital and virtual methods of communication.  

How did they study it? 

To do this, the authors spoke to social workers already involved in their studies about how their work has changed as a result of the pandemic and associated lockdowns and social distancing. As the authors note, there was no existing template for shifting social work practice online in a working-from-home context” (p. 28) and so each local authority, and to some extent each individual practitioner, had to develop their own new ways of working.  

What did they find? 

For some workers, having to work remotely from children and their families involved not being able to do the things they normally would. For example, one social worker talked about how they would engage with babies by touching them, and another described how they would use their sense of smell to help judge whether a child was being washed regularly enough. Virtual communication allows one to look and hear, but not to touch or smell. On the other hand, another worker described how some children find it easier to communicate with them digitally, either on a video-call or via text messages.  

What are the implications? 

While the disruption and ongoing harm of the pandemic could not ever be described as positive, there might nonetheless be some positive things to emerge from it. The authors of this article suggest that for some children and families, even after the pandemic, a hybrid approach combining in-person home visits with some forms of virtual communication might be more desirable and more helpful than either approach in isolation.  

Review written by Dr David Wilkins.

Article review: What the Public Think About Social Services, A Report from Scotland

Trish McCulloch and Stephen Webb, British Journal of Social Work, 50(4), 2020, pp. 1146 – 1166.  

Review written by Dr David Wilkins

What question does this study focus on?

In relation to social services, there is often expressed the view among social workers that, by and large, the public dislike them – or at least, they dislike the services they represent. But how accurate is this view?

How did they study it?

In this article, the authors report findings from a survey of 2,505 adults in Scotland, selected to represent the wider Scottish population. The survey was undertaken in 2016 / 17, and comprised of 43 questions, organised in relation to six themes – i) impressions and perceptions of social services, ii) understanding of social services, iii) issues associated with social services, iv) experience of social services, v) trust, value and confidence in social workers and vi) influences on perceptions. 

What did they find?

Half of the respondents had a positive view of social services, and one-third had a negative view. Readers of The Guardian newspaper had the most positive views, while readers of The Daily Express had the most negative views (make of that what you will). The most positive overall findings were that ‘social services play an important role in supporting the most vulnerable people’ and that ‘social services provide a valuable service to the people of Scotland’. The majority of respondents also said they had a good knowledge and understanding of social services, and generally felt that social workers support older people and work to keep children safe. Most of the respondents agreed that social work professionals could be trusted to do their jobs well. It is reasonable to ask how many of these respondents would have had personal experience of social services, particularly in relation to children’s services – yet the authors report that although first-hand contact did influence perceptions of social services, in general there was “nothing compelling in the results to suggest that access in itself is a consistent predictor of perceptions” (p. 1159). 

What are the implications?

These findings should help challenge the belief that the public primarily or even uniformly hold negative views of social work. As this survey shows, at least in Scotland, this is not the case. Perceptions can more reasonably be described as mixed, tending towards the positive.  

What a similar survey would find in Wales remains an open question.


Review written by

Dr David Wilkins