Sue Downie writes about a project to improve the research ‘mindedness’ and online searching skills of social work staff.

Sue DownieThis article represents partnership work carried out with librarians across the NHS, local authority and SSKS (Social Services Knowledge Scotland) in North Ayrshire to help social workers better access online and other sources of information to support their practice, and improve outcomes for service users.


The development of this initiative began with an email received by the Learning and Development team within North Ayrshire Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP):

‘Dear L&D team, please could you purchase the attached article for me, as this seems relevant to the family I am currently working with.’

What did this tell us? First, this social worker seemed to be a reflective practitioner who recognised the limits to her experience, and the need to gain a wider perspective and knowledge on her case. And second, that she clearly lacked the skills to research this herself!

This is not a new phenomenon. Research carried out by Gordon, Cooper and Doubleton in 2009 (How do social workers use evidence in practice?, Open University) found that lack of time was a barrier to searching out evidence, as was the validity of such exercise as a necessary part of the social work role when there are other competing pressures – e.g. ‘when reading books or reflecting on practice could be interpreted by colleagues as a luxury’.

It is however an expectation by the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC), the registration body for social workers and other care sector staff, that those registered demonstrate their post-registration training and learning. Indeed, the SSSC explicitly states that training and learning can include, ‘reading books, Scottish Government policy information, journal articles, newspapers and online publications’.


How did we respond?

North Ayrshire HSCP Learning and Development (L&D) team recognised there was a need to support the ‘research mindednesses’ of our Social Work practitioners to help them have the skills and knowledge to access relevant sources of practice information.

A number of factors propelled this learning initiative. The first was the integration of community based NHS health services and local authority Social Services within North Ayrshire in April 2015. This enabled Social Services staff to access NHS library services. Additionally the opening of Woodland View Ayrshire Central Hospital and library in Irvine (May 2016) improved access to social services staff based in North Ayrshire to access this excellent library service. This is in line with NHS Ayrshire & Arran’s corporate objectives to deliver transformational change and to deliver better value through efficient and effective use of all resources.

The second factor was the role played by North Ayrshire Council's (NAC) Education Resource Service. In particular, the move away from being a schools-based resource to one that supports and promotes the continuing professional development of staff across all local authority sectors. Operational plan objective to ‘develop CPD collection to support NAC and NAHSCP staff, and encourage library membership’ also supported this initiative.

An additional impetus was provided by Social Services Knowledge Scotland (SSKS), an online resource funded by the Scottish Government and delivered by NHS Education for Scotland (NES), enabling social work and care workers to gain access to a NHS Scotland OpenAthens account and the thousands of online articles that this facilitates. Conversations with the outreach librarian at SSKS confirmed a similarity in aims and perspectives in taking library skills training ‘out’ to practitioners.

These factors led to our unusual ‘alliance’ of an L&D advisor and three librarians, all committed to helping social workers develop their skills and knowledge in accessing relevant information, texts and journals, to ultimately improve their practice with people who use our services. A half day training course in research skills (Accessing evidence for your practice) was subsequently developed. This combined experiential exercises in using online resources, registering for SSKS membership and an Athens account, joining the NHS library and NAC Education Resource Service, as well as clear signposting to the most relevant sources of knowledge and information.


What was achieved?

A pilot course was publicised across the Partnership in 2016 and was booked up within a week. This was unexpected! Therefore a further course date was arranged for a month later.
Three courses have now been offered with all library partners contributing, and a total of 34 staff attending.

  1. The analysis of feedback from participants revealed some interesting findings. In particular, the training increased staff confidence in accessing on-line resources, by supporting participants past the first hurdle of becoming registered for these resources. As participants stated:
    • ‘I enjoyed the practice tutorial, and being supported and talked through the search process.’
    • ‘Accessing information was more straightforward than I thought. I feel more confident in accessing research.’
  2. These sessions helped staff to recognise the volume and extent of accessible information, and the support that is available to help them access this information. Comments on this include:
    • ‘First experience of SSKS and I was impressed. I am now aware of websites, databases and resources that will be valuable in my study and work.’

Running in parallel to these training courses, our L&D and library alliance group attended events to promote library membership, disseminated the SSKS publication (Finding evidence to inform your practice; a guide for social workers, February 2017), and actively encouraged all social work staff and students to access these resources for both their work and study.

So has this actually improved social work practice for those receiving our services? Some evidence supporting this has been provided by two social work practitioners who attended the training:

Case study 1

‘Moira’ (children and families social worker) had been working with a young man who sexually abused his sister. Moira only had experience of adult sexual abusers, so felt ‘out of her depth’ with this case. She recognised this gap in her knowledge, and was able to seek out a text within the local NHS library and relevant online journal articles. These helped clarify that such abuse may be driven by needs for power and control, as opposed to sexual attraction, an understanding that subsequently informed her practice with both the young abuser and his sister.

Case study 2

‘Alison’ was working with a child of dual heritage going through the adoption and fostering process. Having attended recent training and undertaking research in this area, Alison felt much more confident in undertaking life story work with this child that promoted her dual heritage identity.

Through our joint working, we also found that those involved in this alliance communicated better across our sector and service boundaries, using each other to request research help, to promote library membership, to give recommendations on the purchase of new social work texts and to discuss any queries encountered. This led to our initiative being adopted for the NES (NHS Education) and CILIPS (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland) ‘Right Decision’ campaign, as an example of ways that NHS libraries can help improve outcomes for people who use our services. A poster presentation about our partnership working was also displayed at the annual 2-day NHS Scotland Event 2017.


In conclusion

This training and work undertaken to promote each organisation’s services and supports has helped social work practitioners to find the space and time to access the library resources to support their individual learning and practice. Our initiatives have overcome perceived hurdles in registration process and access, as well as raising awareness of the wealth of material and resources ‘out there’. We have observed a growth in staff confidence in using these resources and this in turn has contributed to better outcomes for local people.

Current plans include further research sessions and the active promotion of all library services to North Ayrshire HSCP staff. With increasing numbers of social care staff required to be registered with the SSSC, the need to maintain training and learning as part of their registration will affect ever more workers. We therefore anticipate that this library access initiative will play an ongoing role in this process - as well as affording all social work practitioners the learning space needed to gain new knowledge and develop new approaches, to the benefit of those individual, families and communities we work to support.


About the authors:

Sue Downie is Learning and Development Advisor with the North Ayrshire Health and Social Care Partnership. Julie Wands is the Library Manager for NHS Ayrshire & Arran. Anne Noble is the Greenwood Conference Centre Librarian in North Ayrshire Council.

Sue Downie is a qualified Social Worker, practice teacher and L&D advisor who has a lifelong interest in supporting practitioners in their education, training and professorial development. For more information about this initiative, contact Sue at

On ScOPTbox...

Next Month...

Alison Domakin talks about grading practice skills in social work education. Keep an eye on

Leave a Reply