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Great Britain (Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen): Systemic Principles and Practice in Scotland/UK: Policy, Practice and People Print E-mail


Steve J Hothersall

Senior Lecturer in Social Work

The Robert Gordon University

Aberdeen, Scotland, UK


The focus of inquiry here in Aberdeen relates to the extent to which systemic thinking is evident in policy development, implementation and evaluation i.e: the policy cycle (Simpson and Connor 2011) and the extent to which such thinking is manifest in social work practice and therefore ‘on the street’ (Lipsky 1980; Evans and Harris 2004; Evans 2011).  I do not intend to provide an account of the main principles of systemic thinking in this paper as these are to some extent ‘given’ (Vetere and Dallos 2003). Rather, I shall outline what I see as the current policy and practice landscape within UK social work (with a specific focus on Scotland, although there are more similarities than differences across these two Union states, and to the area of work with children and their families) highlighting areas where systemic approaches are either more or less evident.


From the policy perspective, there has been a growing awareness by policy-makers of the need to see people as part of a range of different systems and of policy itself to be more integrated and integrative. In large measure such aspirations have been fuelled by crisis situations and perceived shortcomings in service delivery that have resulted in death or serious injury (Ayre 2001; Hammond 2001; Laming 2003: 2009; O’Brien, Hammond and McKinnon 2003; Reder, Duncan and Gray 1993; Reder and Duncan 1999, 2004; Valentine 1994) and the significant role poor communications have played in all of these tragedies (Duncan and Gray 2003). These recent issues notwithstanding, the history of social work is itself the history of working with and within systems, much ‘classic’ social work theory having as its focus the concept of the system (Pincus and Minahan 1973). The writings of Bronfenbrenner (1979; 1986; 1989) and Jack (2000) have similarly been influential in the arena of social work practice and alongside thinkers like David Gil (1992), who has argued convincingly for a much more integrated and integrative approach to policy. Successive governments within the UK have attempted to utilise systemic principles within policy prescriptions, perhaps the most recent (and extant) examples being Every Child Matters (DfES 2004) and its Scottish counterpart, Getting It Right for Every Child (Scottish Executive 2005), both of which are recent attempts aimed at reconciling child protection with family support (DfES 2006; Scottish Government 2010), acting as overarching methodologies to deliver on a range of different policies, often with competing and at times contradictory messages (Hothersall and Walker 2010).


In relation to the practice arena, the explicit use of systemic approaches within practice tends to be seen as being located within specialist service provision (clinical psychologists, CAMHS teams etc) with referrals made to these services by practitioners. Such service provision tends to have as its focus the individual within the context of broad-based family [dys]functioning and often forms part of interventions where problems are seen to be spiralling out of control. An interesting (and increasingly common) phenomenon in UK social work is the tendency to refer children and their families (and adults with a range of difficulties as well) to other, external agencies deemed to hold a level of expertise in certain areas of practice. This tendency to re-refer individuals and their families or other groups to external experts has begun to raise questions about what it is that social workers themselves actually do. There is an increasing sense that social workers are feeling disempowered and de-professionalised (Ferguson 2011; Rogowski 2010), particularly as the focus in much contemporary practice is on (short-term) outcomes or outputs, a feature that singularly ignores the systemic and structural nature of many of the difficulties experienced by the people social workers work with (Mullaly 2007).


A more fundamental approach to the adoption of systemic principles at grass-roots level resides within the day-to-day practice endeavours of social workers and other professionals (teachers, health personnel etc) in relation to assessment and other forms of intervention. Recent policy reviews (Munro 2010a; 2010b; 2011) in the area of child care and protection have argued for a more explicit adoption of systemic thinking within practice and for policy-makers to be more attuned to the importance of systems in people’s lives and how these need to be seen as part of both the problem and the solution.


Within the context of this project, the Aberdeen contingent is keen to develop an increased awareness of how policy integrates systemic principles and how practitioners utilise such thinking on the streets. A necessary part of this would be to survey the current levels of knowledge practitioners have regarding systemic principles and how confident they are in implementing these (Philp 1979; Audi 2011; Almeder 2007; Hothersall forthcoming) and a content analysis of a range of extant policy documents.




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STEP: Systemic social work Throughout EuroPe

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