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Social Work Research Making a Difference

Social Work Research Making a Difference

UK university social work departments have now received feedback on the quality of the research they submitted to the Higher Education Funding Council REF (Research Excellence Framework) 2014, an assessment that takes place every five to six years. The REF is a process of expert review by peers and the Social Work and Social Policy Sub-Panel included academic members from the fields of social work, social policy, criminology and gerontology. This paper reports the views of social work panel members on the current state of social work research - our details are provided at the end of this paper. We are presenting our views in this journal as readers of Professional Social Work will be familiar with the importance of social work research in underpinning knowledge for policy and practice.  

The sub-panel was impressed by the vitality and robustness of the research in a wide range of areas. Since the last such assessment in 2008, there has been an increase from 16% to 27% of work assessed as world leading, and nearly two-thirds of the articles, books and reports submitted in 2014 were judged to be world leading or internationally excellent.

Social work submissions to the REF reflected increasing interdisciplinary collaborations, moving from more traditional partnerships with disciplines such as health, law or psychology, to new collaborations with disciplines such as social geography and economics. These are often linked to new cross-university research centres involving a diverse range of research users and including employers, managers, practitioners and service users. Inter-university collaborations are also developing within the UK, and these often include international partners. The numbers of PhD students in social work and related fields were found to be increasing and this is another indication of the growing strength of social work research.

Social work research is becoming increasingly sophisticated in the methods it uses. There has been an increase in large scale multi-method research studies, including longitudinal studies. There is evidence of improved understanding of approaches to evaluating long term outcomes of social work interventions.  The amount of high quality quantitative research is growing and this often involves collaboration with other disciplines. Some excellent examples were found of imaginative and insightful work that took innovative approaches to capturing the service user and carer perspectives.  This was particularly evident in relation to the involvement of groups such as children and young people and other ‘hard to reach’ groups.

The largest group of assessed research publications addressed social work with children, young people and families. There was an increase in research on social work that addressed older people; death and dying; religion and spirituality; drug and alcohol abuse and the diversity of carers and their experiences. Research in mental health included some large scale studies undertaken with health disciplines. Research on social work and criminal justice has grown, with research developing in areas such as family justice and the interface of domestic violence with criminal justice. Research on learning for professional practice has increased in volume and quality.

For the first time in a higher education research exercise of this kind, academic research was assessed on whether it had resulted in real change to policy and practice – its impact.  Here, organisations that make use of research contributed to the work of the sub-panel by leading on assessment of impact. Panel members included representatives from the NSPCC, Nuffield Foundation, National Audit Office, Treasury, National Council for Voluntary Organisations, Child Poverty Action Group, Runnymede Trust and the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Social work and social policy research performed especially well with respect to impact and, within the social sciences, achieved the highest impact scores at the level judged to be ‘world leading’. The social sciences main panel report emphasises that ‘research is making a difference outside academia’ and that it is influencing a wide range of policies and professional practices nationally and internationally, including in fields such as child protection (Main Panel C Report, p. 15).

The following three vignettes are examples of social work research assessed by the panel as world leading and having contributed to real change in different fields of policy and practice:

  • Research led by Professor Andrew Kendrick, University of Strathclyde, has focused on both historical and current abuse of children in residential care, including physical, sexual, emotional abuse and neglect, programme abuse and systems abuse. Research conclusions have informed local, national and international policy and practice developments, impacting on interventions for adults who experienced abuse in care, training and education of residential child care professionals, and current residential child care services. The research underpinned the Shaw Review (2007) set up by the Scottish government to examine historic child abuse in residential child care.
  • Research led by Professor Judith Harwin, Brunel University, and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, evaluated the first UK adaptation of an innovative American ‘Family Drug and Alcohol Court’ model for managing child care proceedings in cases of parental drug and alcohol misuse. Impacts included: improved health and welfare outcomes for families (eg reduced parental substance misuse and higher family reunification rates); enhanced interprofessional working and the delivery of more integrated practice as a result of new understandings; stimulation of political awareness and legislative debate as well as potential cost savings.
  • Research led by Professor Suzy Braye and Dr David Orr from the University of Sussex, working with Professor Michael Preston-Shoot from the University of Bedfordshire, and commissioned by the Department of Health, has significantly influenced policy and practice intended to safeguard adults. Impacts included: shaping the Care Bill 2013-14; stimulating changes to statutory multi-agency governance arrangements of Safeguarding Adults Boards; and influencing procedures, practices and workforce development strategies on self-neglect. Self-neglect has become the focus of national policy and practice development. Direct benefits to service users are emerging.

Where do we go from here? The purpose of the REF is firstly to inform governments’ funding allocations to UK universities, all of which will be anxiously awaiting the outcomes of funding decisions later this year. Secondly, the REF is a means of providing accountability for public funding of research and demonstrating its benefits. And finally, the REF provides benchmarks and reputational yardsticks for UK universities and their disciplines. The results of the REF provide evidence of the continuing quality and increasing importance of social work research in the UK. As an applied discipline, we welcome the particular emphasis on the impact of research, an aspect in which we excelled. This is in part due to a long history of forging social work research partnerships with a range of stakeholders.  We look forward to impact having an enhanced profile in the REF in 2020.

Professor Imogen Taylor, University of Sussex and Deputy Chair of the Sub-Panel.

Professor John Carpenter, University of Bristol.

Professor Geraldine Macdonald, Queens University Belfast.

Professor Roger Smith, University of Durham.

Professor Nicky Stanley, University of Central Lancashire.

Professor Sue White, University of Birmingham.

(Additional social work assessors for research publications only included Professor Marian Barnes, University of Brighton and Professor Ravi Kohli, University of Bedfordshire.)


REF 2014: Overview report by Main Panels and Sub-Panels 16-26, Jan 2015. Main Panel C Report, pp. 2-24; Social Work and Social Policy Quality Profiles, pp. 85-90.

For details of all REF submissions go to