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It is crucial that we use evidence for assessments in a way that is both substantive and without bias, but how do you know if you are collecting the right evidence? discusses Sanctuary Trainer, Gretchen Precey.


The evidence base in social work

Evidence-based practice is about substantiating why we think the way we do; it informs our assessments and, most importantly, helps to protect those at their most vulnerable. But what do we mean by evidence?

It is the information that we use to back up our position and this can be sourced from what we observe directly in our interaction with clients, what we hear from others, what we read on file as well as what research has to offer. It’s important to be able to make your argument clear and evidence based, whether you are a Best Interests Assessor, a Social Care Auditor or a Senior Practitioner.

We all know of theoretical research that strongly guides us on what we should be recommending in our assessments. Take research into special guardianship orders (SGOs), for example. The creation of SGOs was influenced by research that suggested that children who are placed with family members or ‘connected persons’ and have less involvement with statutory regulations, experience more stability and the placement is less likely to break down than with children placed in foster care. As a result, there has been a rise in the number of SGOs made by the court and an increase in SGOs that have a supervision order attached to them. But this has also led to a rise in the number of SGO placements that are breaking down, which suggests that they have perhaps been used as the placement option of choice without full consideration about whether a SGO is the right option for that particular child’s circumstances.

Relying too heavily on research from large data sets as an evidence base can impact negatively on assessments. This has led to more research into the value of direct experience; practice-based evidence. In my course, I often refer to Professor Harry Ferguson’s description of the ‘smell’ of practice. By this I mean, the social worker getting to know the family as a unique entity and using all their powers of observation and experience to gain an understanding of the family and how they see the world.

How important is instinct?

When carrying out an assessment, you have to remember why you are there and go where the family takes you, listening to their concerns, observing and getting an idea of how the family functions. Having been a practising social worker since 1977, I understand, as most social workers will, that sometimes you just ‘know’ when something feels off.
Your instincts will help point you in the right direction, but remember they are just that, until you can substantiate them with evidence.

Is evidence the truth?

One thing is clear, there are precious few facts in social work. It is based much more on subjectivity than objectivity and contains more opinion than fact. We are people dealing with people and, as such, we bring our own values, background and belief systems to the work we do.

If we’re looking at a case of child neglect, for example, we would be observing attachment, the physical environment and how the child presents in other settings to understand what impact living in the family environment has on the child. But there are so many aspects to consider. This is why two people doing a joint home visit to the same family may come away with very different impressions of the family’s situation.

How important are previous case notes?

Sometimes social workers think they should have formed their opinion on their first visit, but you need to be able to work with a lack of clarity until evidence emerges that informs your opinion and assessment. If you go in with pre-conceived ideas, even if they are from an earlier visit you’ve conducted, you could be biased in your evidence-base.

How much should I read ahead of a visit? is a question I am often asked during training. Whilst it’s important to familiarise yourself with case notes, you must remain open to accepting new information, which could either confirm or contradict earlier findings. Supervision can assist with this; talking through your findings and discussing the options available based on the evidence presented.

Keeping your research up-to-date:

It also helps to stay up-to-date with research findings. As a practitioner, this can be a challenge, so here’s some resources I would recommend:


Trainer profile

Gretchen Precey, a practising social worker since 1977 with over 18 years social work training experience, provides a range of learning programmes designed to help, train and guide children’s services professionals. She also remains closely involved with day-to-day social work practice by undertaking serious case reviews, specialist evidential interviews, risk assessment reports, mediation and supervision.

If you want to learn more from Gretchen, she will be leading an Evidence-Based Practice training course in London on 31st October. To book your place, visit or call 0333 7000 028.
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