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What social work academics get up to at conferences

There is a common misconception that international conferences are a perk of an academic’s job. True, overseas travel can be something of an adventure at times, but it is an integral component of our work to engage with collaborators from around the globe.

I have recently been to the European Conference for Social Work Research (ECSWR) in Finland and have been reflecting about the few days I spent there. It was a very busy and productive time, but far from the holiday which some may assume it is.

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For me, the most important thing about attending international conferences is presenting and discussing my work. While there are opportunities to do this in the UK – which I make the most of – it is incredibly useful to obtain the perspective of other people working in the field but in very different contexts.

I presented two papers on the Connecting People study. The first discussed the methodology of the pilot study and presented some baseline data (abstract can be downloaded here). It was sandwiched between a paper on Kellogg’s approach to programme evaluation from Germany and one on critical realism from Finland. I received questions about how we are measuring fidelity to the Connecting People Intervention which has prompted me to re-visit our fidelity measure to ensure it is fit for purpose.

The second was part of a symposium on randomised controlled trials in social work organised by Jonathan Scourfield of Cardiff University. I spoke about the development of the Connecting People Intervention model, which is the first phase of the development, evaluation and implementation of complex social interventions. This was followed by three UK examples of intervention trials in social work and a glimpse of how they work in Australia. Although frequently problematic and pragmatic, these types of study are helping to provide rigorous evidence about the effectiveness of social work practice.

I also led a symposium focusing on a theme consistent throughout this blog – the role of the academy vis a vis social work practice (abstract can be downloaded here). Three colleagues from the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York presented papers which posed many challenging questions including the role of vocational training in social work; a perceived mismatch between university training and the needs of social work agencies; and the role of social work academics in shaping and defining social work practice. Also, colleagues from Finland presented a paper about a model of practice education and research which appeared to integrate the academy into the world of the practising social worker. I think we can usefully learn from this.

At large international conferences there are frequently many parallel sessions so it is impossible to go to everything you want to. At ECSWR I attended sessions on suicide (the only one with a mental health theme which I could find) and on evidence-based practice. If you were following my twitter stream (@mgoat73) at the time you will have seen some thoughts from these papers.

Outside the conference programme there are opportunities to meet up with collaborators to discuss on-going work and to plan new projects. For example, I spent some time with a colleague from Australia drafting a bid. Although skype is great, it cannot replace sitting down with a coffee and sketching out plans using old-fashioned pen and paper.

I also caught up with social work profs from across the UK to find out more about their latest work and to share ideas. The informal side of conferences – usually dinner – is perhaps just as important as the formal sessions. They provide the opportunity to meet people and discuss the state of social work in a way which is just not possible in a routine university environment. Keeping abreast of the latest developments is really important to ensure our research and practice remains grounded in the lived reality of the people it is intended to benefit.

A key limitation of many social work academic conferences, though, is their limited engagement with practitioners and people who use services. I met two senior practitioners, who were funded by their employer (a London local authority) to attend the conference, who agreed with me on that point. They added that they wanted academics to be more assertive about practice models and interventions which social work employers should introduce to improve the effectiveness of social work practice.

This was a refreshing perspective which prompted me to re-evaluate my role. Whilst it would be great if we had the evidence to suggest what may work in different contexts, I don’t think it is simply a case of us ‘saying’ and agencies ‘doing’. We need to co-design and co-evaluate interventions to ensure they are fit for purpose and work in the context they are intended for. This requires buy-in from managers and practitioners and it requires us to stay as close to practice as possible, which we do not always do.

Our discussion highlighted one important point, though. Social work practitioners and managers, and the people who use social work services, need to be provided with opportunities to engage with academic conferences to take part in our discussions. If they are not present when ideas are discussed and research bids are planned there is a real danger that the practice-academy gap will widen. This is not about dumbing down. It’s about the meaningful involvement of stakeholders to ensure our research remains relevant and focused on improving practice.

I believe that this can be achieved. I am currently working with a large group of UK collaborators on a grant proposal to evaluate the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of personal budgets in mental health services. We are co-producing the proposal with service users and carers who lead a lived experience advisory panel (LEAP). LEAP are writing a work stream within the programme grant which, if funded, they will lead. They are also co-authoring the other work streams with the academic researchers. I think this approach is producing an original and ambitious proposal which is close to the reality of people’s lives and draws upon the best scientific evaluation methods available. Let’s hope the funder agrees!

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