A blog by Professor Donald Forrester

In the last blog I outlined why it is important to find out whether and how social work skills make a difference for families. Here I reflect on which skills made a difference in our study.

The skills we measured were all related to motivational interviewing (MI). Some were taken directly from a way of measuring MI skill known as the MITI (empathy, collaboration, autonomy and evocation). Others we carefully developed to try to describe other elements of social work in a way that was consistent with the principles of MI (purposefulness, child focus and clarity about concerns). You can read more about how we developed these here and when a forthcoming article is published, I will write more about how to interpret them. The skills were grouped into three dimensions – care and engagement; good authority and evocation (which is a specifically MI skill focussed on obtaining from people their own motivations for change rather than telling them what to do).

We then looked at how these skills related to a set of parent-defined outcomes, using general measures (such as their rating for family life on an 11 point scale, whether they achieved their goals using something called Goal Attainment Scaling or a measure of family functioning called the Family Environment Scale). We also measured whether children came into care.

What was interesting was that the relationship between the skills we measured and the outcomes we considered was not what I would have expected; what do you think it would be?

First, care and engagement skills were correlated – and quite strongly– with parental self-evaluation of their relationship with the worker, both at the time of the interview and 20 weeks later. This is important, and a relief (thank goodness stuff like empathy and collaboration creates better relationships!) but perhaps not unexpected.

What was unexpected is that these caring skills did not seem to have much of a relationship with any other outcomes. Engaging parents may be important – but it does not have much of an impact on outcomes. Or at least these outcomes.

It was the other dimensions of skill that seemed to have a much stronger relationship to outcomes. Good authority – a combination of purposefulness, child focus and clarity about concerns – was a much better predictor of positive family change. This is really interesting: engaging parents is not enough. In child and family social work, purposeful and authoritative practice is crucial.

It was also linked to children being less likely to come into care – though the numbers were so small that we need to be very careful in placing weight on this finding (even though it was statistically significant). It is certainly worth exploring the degree to which worker skills help children remain safely at home – something we have paid little attention to until now.

A third finding was that evocation had some positive relationships with outcomes. This seems important – but is also an under-developed area of research. What other ways of talking with people help create change? And how else do social workers create change? And indeed, what skills are important when change is not the main focus of the work?

The question I started the first of these two blogs with remains the question I pursue. How can, how should and how do social workers help people? Discovering that some skills seem to make certain outcomes more likely is an important finding. And yet there is so much more for us to know. For instance: What difference can practical help make (a question we are pursuing within the What Works Centre)? What difference do different models of practice make? What difference might other skills or attributes make, such as…warmth, humour, reliability?

We have a very long way to go in better understanding some of these questions – but I hope this study at least makes a contribution.