What is social care research (and why is it important) podcast

What is social care research and how do we get it to those who are practising in the field? How do we bridge the gap between academia and practitioner?

This lively conversation examines these questions and more.

Speaker profile(s)

Le-Ann Fenge is Professor of Social Care at the University of Bournemouth, UK.

Luke Geoghegan is Head of Policy and Research at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW)

In this episode:

  • What are the constituent features of social care/work practice?
  • What is the relationship between theory and practice?
  • How do practitioners use social care/work research?
  • What is co-production in social care/work research and how do we increase it?

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What is social care research (and why is it important)

Emerald's podcast series, research that makes a difference

Fiona Allison (FA)  0:15

Welcome to the Emerald podcast series. In this episode we are asking what is social care research and why is it important?

My guests today are Luke Geoghegan, head of Policy and Research at the British Association of Social Workers and Lee-Ann Fenge, Professor of social care and Faculty of Health and Social Sciences of Bournemouth University.

We have a great session ahead, where we're going to explore social care research, its relevance, and its relation to not only the research but practitioners and implement it into the real world. So thank you both for joining me today. I really appreciate your time. I'm just going to jump straight in and Lee-Ann I'm going to take this to you first. But do you want to explain to me what are the constituent features of social care/work practice?

Lee-Ann Fenge (LF)  1:06 

Well, social care really is an umbrella term for a wide area of practice, which covers in terms of professional status, both those that are working with professional qualifications in social work, occupational therapy, but there's also a very large workforce that have a range of not degree qualifications, or a range of qualifications that may be NVQ 's that are working out in care homes and in domiciliary care settings. So it's a large workforce, but it's also made up of people with a range of skills and knowledge and experience. And absolutely, the social care workforce is essential to the effective running of healthcare systems. We're seeing that in the moment in terms of difficulties in recruiting social care staff, into domiciliary care, and residential care posts, and the impact that has on the ability of hospitals to safely discharge people back into the community. But also in terms of the qualified workforce, we have both adults and children's social workers that come from a variety of specialisms. And of course, our occupational therapy, colleagues, as well

Luke Geoghegan (LG):

As social work is very much part of social care. And I think that building on a distinction that Fiona was making, I mean, to be a social worker, you have to be qualified and and and registered, and the title is protected in law. So there's a level of regulation and accreditation there. What's less well understood about social work and adult care is that social workers have a range of legal responsibilities. So around severe mental health issues, Adult Safeguarding, mental capacity, responsibilities under the Care Act in England, and in comparable legislation in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. And all of those legal responsibilities have been given to the profession by the state. And if they weren't done by social work, they'd either have to be allocated to another profession or indeed, the state would have to give up on them altogether. So I think it's important to say that there is a core of social care, which is around statutory responsibilities, and all that goes with that.

LF  3:40 

And I think alongside that, there's a need for post-qualification to undertake some of those roles. So for example, the approved mental health practice course that you would need to take post qualification post your degree, which is open not just to social work, but to other qualified professionals, to enable them to work within fields of mental health, but also the mental capacity and best interest assessor training alongside things like practice education, and leadership qualification. So I think there's probably a more established career pathway and specialisms available to social workers, then obviously, there would be to the not professionally qualified workers within social care. And that's also built into the registration process where we are required to complete a sort of an annual CPD portfolio to update our registration on a yearly basis.

LG  4:41 

Absolutely. And I would then, you know, go on to argue that if we think about the relationship between theory and practice, and the implications of that, Adult Social Care, I would say and I don’t know whether you agree with this Lee-Anne is that, yes, there is a place for blue sky research thinking and theoretical research thinking. Of course, there is. But certainly, you know, from my perspective as a social worker, right? Social work is an applied discipline. So, social work research around Adult Social Care, has really got to address those issues of application for the practitioner. And what Mike Fisher says, in a line, which I rather like is that what practitioners don't want is analysis that stops short that analysis, what practitioners want is, what are the implications of this? For what I do in the day job? Does that resonate with you?

LF  6:02 

Yeah, so I'd agree with that. And I think there is a gap at the moment, I think, in terms of social care research, which actually engages with the voices and experiences of practitioners, as co-researchers, and you know, the notion of research, which is rooted in practice issues that has a practitioner lens. And also and I think that goes hand in hand with the voices of citizens and service users in research. So that there's sometimes there's a disjoint, I think, between, you know, academic research, which, as you say, can sometimes fall short of, you know, the practical application, but also perhaps the need to work more in partnership with practitioners and organisations to be co-developing co-producing research, which is meaningful for practice and can have a real impact on frontline practice. And, and hopefully policy,

LG 7:00 

I would totally agree with that. The terminology varies, doesn't it with lived experience, experts by experience, but we must always remember that the purpose of Adult Social Care is to serve the end-user. So if the research doesn't meet their needs, doesn't hear their voices, doesn't incorporate them in the research process, there need to be exceptionally good reasons for that. And exceptionally good reasons do not include things like it was too difficult or it was too expensive. Or, or whatever. And, again, back to this idea of you know, social work being an applied discipline, right? How can you do social work research without involving practitioners, who were actually delivering the service on the ground? But I think we're probably already kind of anticipating some of the conversations about co-production. So maybe go back to Fiona on that one.


Thank you. That's very interesting, because this is an area that obviously, the research does genuinely and literally affects people's lives in this area. How do we bridge that gap between research and practitioners?

LF  8:31 

Well, I think part of it is for practitioners to remain research-minded when they're in practice. I mean, I think when you're studying when you're undertaking your qualification, obviously, research is something that's very much at the forefront. I think the real challenge is when you get out into practice, to continue to have opportunities, to engage with current research, to have opportunities to think critically about how research is applicable and informs your professional judgement, and understanding. And I think that also links into sometimes the culture within organisations whether the culture is one of a learning culture where there are opportunities for social workers and peers to come together to think about practice issues, to look at the latest research. I'm also thinking of the Social Care Institute of excellences research mindedness criteria, which I think came out in about 2012, which is very relevant, I think, to the importance of social work, in terms of being able to lead research because social work is in a unique position to link into one of those criteria, which is about being prepared to challenge inequality, and oppression in all aspects of the research process. And I think as Luke said, it's essential that those who are experts by experience; end-service users must be included appropriately, maybe through peer models of research, which absolutely route the research question in those lived experiences of service users, and is looking at how we can develop research which the end product is to improve services and improve the offer. And I think that's that's absolutely key. And it's also built on a commitment to sort of inclusive participatory research methodologies, both with practitioners and with service users, experts by experience.

LG  10:36 

I would certainly agree with all of that. Lee-Ann, I suppose I would also say that bridges need to be built from both ends and meet in the middle. And from the research community perspective, when I was in practice, which, you know, wasn't so long ago, I would read research pieces, and think, What do I do differently on Monday as a result of this? And to my mind, too much research didn't answer that question. It gave me no clue as to what I should do differently on Monday, so I think there needs to be that focus on social work as an applied discipline. I would also say that, and this is, you know, quote from Mike Shemmings, which I like very much, which is too much social work research is unread. Because it is unreadable. And you get this extraordinary density of text, which really, you know, I mean, I read a lot of stuff. And I'm thinking, you know, this is so hard to get through. So there's an issue, I think about ensuring that research is relevant and accessible. And I think if it were, it would be easier to be research-minded. And for organisations to become, you know, genuine learning organisations, I also have to say that I'm hugely optimistic about the future of research, because I see more and more research coming out, which is relevant, applied, well-written, clear. And I think that's a trend that looking back over the last 20 years, has got stronger and stronger. And I think that's terrific.

LF  12:37 

I agree Luke and I think, a key challenge there for for for academics, like myself is really to think about how we create impact from our research and how we make it meaningful, how we communicate it in a meaningful way. And I think in many ways, that's about moving beyond academic papers as the gold standard way of disseminating impact. And I think very much it's about how we can think about what's a meaningful way of disseminating what we found through research, in a way, which is much more usable, has a practice focus. And I'm thinking of projects that I've been involved more recently, where the end result has been the translation of research into practitioner toolkits, for example, mental capacity toolkit, or practice guidance, which may include film, it may include Talking Heads, it may include podcasts, for example, but I think we have to be far more creative in terms of how we communicate outputs from research that actually engage with the audience that we're trying to reach, and is meaningful for that audience.

LG  13:47 

It's nice, isn't it? Lee-Ann when ethical considerations become practical considerations. So the REF 21 process, which is, for those of people who are not familiar with it is a peer review system of research in universities. With Social Policy and Social Work, there is an impacts strand, and researchers are asked to kind of put forward you know, what difference their research has made and how they evidence that. So there's a very concrete incentive to do this relevant research as well.

LF  14:29 

Yeah and I think the impact argument comes back to how we make it how we disseminate outputs, which are meaningful, and obviously in terms of the REF exercise, it's looking at how we create impact, not only for our public audience, but can we exert an influence on on policy or on practice, and it's about gathering you know, gathering that evidence as we go along through the research process that so that we know we're actually doing something that is creating change, and is adding to that sort of transformation of practice.

LG  15:03 

I mean, if I can share a personal experience here, I mean, the way that my team is set up is quite unusual in that I'm responsible for our full time lobbyist in Westminster. So we're not just producing policy papers and working with researchers, we're actually also working directly with politicians and senior civil servants who are actually, you know, making the legislation. And it's kind of interesting that a lot of the issues Lee-Ann echo what we've been talking about with practitioners, politicians and senior servants want to know, what they can do, and is achievable going forward. So applied research that makes a difference, there is a real hunger for that, if you like, there's a research mindedness there, how do we do things differently? How do we move things forward? For me coming into that role, and doing that for the last three or four years. It's interesting how those debates with senior civil servants and politicians echo the frontline grassroots debates of let's get research, which is applied, relevant, you know, doable, What difference do we make on Monday morning?

LF  16:32 

Absolutely. And that, but I think it's also about persuading policymakers and governments to recognise the value added of Social Work of what social work contributes to society. And we can also achieve that, through research, and through demonstrating that through research,

LG  16:49 

I think clearly how material is packaged, but certainly in one to one conversations with politicians, I think, if the link is made with the legal responsibilities, there is an understanding of what social workers do and why they do it. Not universally. That would be too much to ask! But I've been pleasantly surprised by the openness and willingness to understand the issues. And I think one of the things that many MPs do is they run constituency surgeries. And so they're familiar with the sorts of issues that social work and Adult Social Care deal with, from the point of view of their their constituents coming in and tearing their hair out and saying, What should I do about X, Y, and Z? And thinking, yeah, what do we do about X, Y, and Z? So I think there is a circle there, which it's so important that those of us who were involved in research and policy join up, really, politicians are people to does that resonate with you, Lee-Ann?

LF  18:06 

Yeah. And I think you're absolutely right. I think it's also giving a voice to social work, particularly in debates around integrated care, and our, you know, our partnership, our collaborations with health, because I think traditionally, health has had much more of a focus, much more attention, and still does, actually. And I suppose much more understanding from government, much more commitment from government to understand. And I think part of the challenge for social work and social care is that we've always, in a way, had a much more marginalised voice. And it's important that, you know, we work towards more parity of esteem between health and social care. And I think by raising that voice by demonstrating the worth, of what social work does, and how we contribute to society in general, but it also in terms of keeping healthcare systems functioning effectively, it's important that policymakers and government recognise the value of what social work is, but also the way I think that traditionally health and social care have been treated differently. And if we think of wider social care, you know, different pay scales, definitely different public perceptions of social care, social work and health. We've got different qualification levels, different career opportunities, and different research cultures. So there's there's always been in health a far more developed culture of research. And in health services, research is viewed very much as a core function which is planned through their research and development teams and supported by organisational approaches to research capacity development, and I don't think we've had the same structures; certainly within local authorities or in the wider social care system, and I think if we're going to really get research off the ground in a meaningful way in social care, we have to have support and funding so that some of those systems research and development opportunities are equally open to social care and social work colleagues, and I think that is now becoming more recognised. So for example, the National Institute of Health Research which has traditionally had research funding available, which has mostly gone, I suppose, into the acute health sector, and particularly medical research does now promote much more research within social care and are also looking at ways of building research capacity in social care. And that includes opportunities for practitioners through local authority internship schemes where practitioners can apply for funding, which not only provides backfill for their time, but it enables them to undertake a piece of research, access some learning may be a unit of learning from a university and to be supported through that. Two sort of pre-doctoral research opportunities and indeed, fully funded PhD studentships. And I think at the moment, it's it's part of a need to create a cultural change in social care and social work, to become aware that those opportunities are available, and I think are part of the arsenal in terms of trying to develop that research capacity within social care so that the voice is heard as equally as health's voice.

LG  21:43 

Yeah, I would agree with, with all that, I would add, I mean, there's a huge amount of ballast in the medical profession. So I remember going on holiday with a couple who were both doctors. And when we got to the check in desk, they were offered an upgrade to first class and we weren't that sort of said it all really! But I kind of think that there is also a reality, which is that lots of people in our society will get to the end of life without using social work services. And it's very difficult to think of anybody who gets to the end of life without using some form of, you know, health provision, almost invariably, from the NHS. So there will always I think, need to be that funding and research around what is a universal provision of health care. But I think what there is, is a growing realisation, that adult social care is part of healthcare, and that you can't actually make those those hard and fast decisions. And as we're an ageing society, more and more people have that experience of how the two are joined together. And Peter Beresford tells this lovely story about a senior policymaker who's who's been working in health care and social care. And then his mum is very vulnerable and frail. And he realises, in a lived experience, kind of that the two services aren't actually joined up, and what should he do about it as a policymaker? So I think there's that growing realisation reflected in all sorts of ways the Department of Health and Social Care, NIHR funding by independent research organisations, such as the Health Foundation, and so on. So I think again, I am optimistic that, you know, Adult Social Care, and the research that supports that is increasingly recognised and central to the whole of that aspect of health and care.

LF  24:21 

Yeah, I agree. And I think the whole move towards integrated care systems moves that agenda along further. So not only are social workers working alongside healthcare colleagues, sometimes in quite sort of shared blurred roles in terms of supporting the wellbeing of individuals in communities. But I think that also opens up opportunities for integrated research and valuing therefore the voice and the experiences of social workers and occupational therapy and the wider social care system, to keeping communities healthy and supporting the wider wellbeing of communities,

LG  25:02 

[Laughing] Fiona, we've sort of been talking and


You've covered so much there, the real important factors that you've highlighted are you know, that between research going on in, you know, institutions and universities, and people sort of on the ground, if you will, doing the practical side, you’re right, they both do need to meet in the middle to bridge that gap of, you know making this research, as you say, accessible, useful, you know disseminating it in a way that people can make use of it, rather than just, you know, having it as quite a hefty academic article, which seems it says a lot, but doesn't say a lot either, if you know what I mean. And that's where sort of the importance of the research and in this field, can influence public policy. And having the policymakers pick up this research and that's what can change, that's what will change what you do when you go back to work on a Monday. And then that, in fact, can change people's lives for the better. It's just a very big area. And I'm happy to hear that the gaps are sort of slowly being bridged. And that has been the trend. And that's going to be the continuing trend and sort of the integration between healthcare and social care and how health, you know, seems to get a bit more attention and funding and policy and change and everything, but they're so intertwined, that they both need to be getting that same level of attention. We've covered a lot there, which was great. Thank you.

LF  26:40 

Thank you. And I think, ultimately, the end of the day, it is about visibility. And I think it's about the visibility of the voice of social work, but also the visibility of the voice of experts by experience. And I think that's the real strength that social work can bring into research, it is that focus that we have on strengths-based approaches on working with people in partnership. And certainly, I think, this focus on research in working in meaningful ways with experts by experience. So that's not just, you know, inviting someone into a consultation or having the tokenistic expert in the room. But this is really thinking about, from the get go from the essence of an idea about research, how we work collaboratively with experts by experience to develop that research in a way that's meaningful for them and their lives, but also can involve, as far as possible, those experts by experience as co researchers, as peer researchers, and as and as disseminators of research. Yeah, you know, that this should be about valuing the expertise that people bring, and I think is also, you know, we have to be mindful in universities that if we're hoping to do that, it's also a recognition that we have to provide funding to enable those experts by experience to take part to fund their time to fund any time of carers that might need to accompany them time, this isn't cheap. So we do need proper investment for research to happen that can be inclusive of all those voices that should be there around the table.

LG  28:22 

Part of that inclusivity is how we communicate. And I think that yeah, all professions have jargon, they remember somebody in property talking to me about easements, and I had no idea what he was talking about. I think once you get service users involved, they're great, because they say, well, what are you talking about? What does that mean, in terms of explaining that to me, in plain English, and it's a really good corrective for communicating clearly, and again, this approach is being sort of now worked out in you know, practical ways. So you know, if you win funding from the NIHR you have to do a plain English summary of your research proposal, which is quite often the most difficult part of the research, I think, but also, you know, once you get into that, let's you know, cut the jargon and actually talk about you know, what's really happening again, you know, the other group who really appreciate this is politicians, because they're not into the jargon of whatever terminology we use in adult social care. And so when you then explain it in plain English, why you're doing things or why the legislation is like that, you can see the light bulb going off. And I remember having a debate with a group of politicians around the mental capacity bill as it was then, and we used a real life example of mums a bit confused, when daughter goes to the shops, she's worried about mum wondering if she locks the door while she goes to the shops? Is that an imprisonment issue? Is it a human rights issue? And you could see the debate have moved on from rather a dry debate about the intricacies of human rights to this is something that's happening in people that I know. And what's the best way of dealing with this in the legislation. And those kind of light bulb moments, I think, are so powerful. And I know, you know, it is such a privilege to work with Social Work Service users, because they say something and you think you're absolutely right! I've been in this profession for 20 years. And I've never thought of that. Yes, let's involve practitioners. Yes, let's have work involves social work service users, because they have so much to offer.


Yes and I think that links in to the importance of more qualitative research approaches and I’m thinking particularly, the value of narrative based practice, where we can really engage with the stories, the lives, the lived experience of people and create those inter-meaningful outputs as I said before like short films, ways of communicating that so that the audience really connects in the heart and mind way, its about creating that emotional connection with someone’s story so we can really understand what its like to be you know living on the street as a homeless person or we can really understand what its like to be moving into residential care and I think when we curate those different ways of communicating, those ways that perhaps are based in a narrative or in a story that we can all connect with, we all connect with stories, it’s a means of a communication we’ve grown up with from a child and we make sense of the world sometimes through stories, but there is a way there for really changing people’s hearts and minds I think through that type of dissemination technique.


Thank you. Wow, we’ve covered a lot today and I do feel like we might need to do another episode further down the line to carry on this conversation!

So yeah, I really appreciate your time today, I appreciate your input, it's been absolutely fascinating you know to hear more about this area and what’s going on and what could be done and just sort of the difference it can make, it's really really great and it really aligns with Emerald’s Real Impact manifesto where we want the research that’s being done to make a difference in people’s lives and not just be behind the walls of the university as it were. So, all from me is that I want to say thank you to our listeners, and to you both for your time today, it really means a lot to me.

LG and LF

Thank you


Thank you to my guests today and thank you to the studio for editing this episode. A full transcript is available on the website.

If you want to know more, you can follow BU Seldom Voices on Twitter @BU_SeldomHeard and the National Centre for Post-Qualifying Social Work and Professional Practice at Bournemouth University @NCPQSW

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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