A blog by Professor Donald Forrester

The name “evidence based practice” is misleading. Practice cannot and should not be based on evidence – if by that we mean that the evidence tells us what we should do.

Our services should be based on our principles and values. Organisations should be clear what the point of the service is. For children’s services that means putting the rights of children and their families at the heart of everything we do. This is supported by law and policy. It was what children’s services are for.

Effective leadership in children’s services entails establishing a clear set of principles that permeate the organisation. It is these principles – such as being child and family centred, respectful and humane, supportive and authoritative – that inspire us to do the often difficult job of being a social worker.

The job of research – and the role of the What Works Centre – is not to say what the ultimate aim of children’s services is – that is a question for society as a whole, and for each local authority or charity to answer. The role of research about what works is to provide the evidence that people need to deliver on the values that they hold dear.

Sometimes that does involve providing elements of challenge. Recent and forthcoming reviews we have carried out for the WWC ask important questions about commonly used approaches such as Signs of Safety, Family Group Conferences, case conferences, intensive support services and other often used approaches.

Frequently the truth is that whether something works – whether it helps us to deliver on our principles – depends how well it is delivered. Often it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

I have seen that Signs of Safety, Family Group Conferences and Systemic Practice can all be wonderful when done well. If a study raises a question about their impact then the issue may well be that they are being delivered in ways that are unlikely to fulfil on this promise. Perhaps corners are cut or leadership is not fully committed. The contribution of research will then be to help services make sure that they are doing what they want to do in a way that makes a difference.

Sometimes we may find that even when delivered well a particular way of working does not achieve what it sets out to do. This can be painful for those who champion an approach. But the truth is modern medicine only became effective because it was found that well-loved methods did not work, and they were eventually abandoned. Progress is perhaps as much about stopping doing what does not work as inventing new approaches.

Research on what works – and therefore an initiative such as the WWC – therefore perform a vital function for children’s service. Evidence about what works, what might not and why is there to help people deliver value based services.

It is therefore misleading to talk about evidence based practice. Our practice should be based on social work values. Evidence is there to help us deliver on these principles.