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Sustaining Social Work: Practitioner experiences of Contextual Safeguarding 

What are social workers ‘doing’ when they are doing Contextual Safeguarding?  How do they feel about their work? How is it viewed by others around them? Working closely with social workers and related professionals, especially youth workers, we set out trying to find the answer to these questions. With a small, dedicated team of Practitioner Co-Researchers (experts in the implementation of Contextual Safeguarding), we held four whole day workshops, attended by over 60 practitioners from around the UK. We invited them to reflect together on their day-to-day experiences of creating safety for young people impacted by harm outside the home.   

Questions about the role of social workers have been central to the development of Contextual Safeguarding. Contextual Safeguarding asks practitioners to try new things and work in new ways. So, it’s high time we turn the spotlight on what that’s like. The study focused on three things:  


What are Contextual Safeguarding practitioners ‘doing’?  Are they working directly with young people, overseeing neighbourhood assessments, chairing multi-agency meetings? Do they work alone or in partnerships?       


How do Contextual Safeguarding practitioners feel about their work? Social work is driven by values and involves strong feelings - like passion, love, frustration and pain. We wanted to know how values, ethics and feelings are enlivened by Contextual Safeguarding work and why people are drawn to it.  


What do social workers think about the Contextual Safeguarding work they are doing? What helps and what makes it harder? What questions and problems does it raise? Are there aspects of Contextual Safeguarding social work practice that social workers think could be extended beyond extra-familial harm?    

Professional practice is at the heart Contextual Safeguarding. At the same time, social work and related professions are being reshaped at the policy level. This study contributes to these debates by setting out the conditions that Contextual Safeguarding needs to flourish. Contextual Safeguarding sets out a vision for professional safeguarding practice that is driven by children’s-rights, honours young people’s strengths and perspectives and is rooted in respect and care. But this could reach beyond extra-familial harm, into other aspects of children’s social care and professional practice. That’s why we’ve called this project ‘Sustaining Social Work’ because we wanted to know how doing Contextual Safeguarding can be sustained and how Contextual Safeguarding could help sustain the wider profession by sharing what we are learning and growing in the area of adolescent safety and harm, into other areas of practice.  

  • Practitioners are very enthusiastic about Contextual Safeguarding and the possibilities it opens up – they love it and want to do more of it. It helps them to practice in ways that feel exciting and energising. They shared examples of practice which are ecological, justice-oriented and relationship-based.
  • Practitioners feel like they must battle on many fronts to be able to do their work. They do not have the support from partners or within their own organisations to work in the way they want to and experience ethical conflicts around the parameters of their roles, especially when it comes to working with the police. 
  • Practitioners experience a tension at the heart of their work. This tension is between what they see is possible through Contextual Safeguarding and what is achievable in their current systems. Coming close to young people through direct work, and caring deeply about them, this tension is increased. Practitioners try to bridge the shortfall within their systems, hoping to mitigate its failings. They gain support through solidarity with peers. Inevitably however, trying to individually mitigate system failings can create a sense of personal failure and isolation.
Report: Sustaining Social Work: Practitioner experiences of Contextual Safeguarding

Sustaining social work was an enquiry into the experiences of professionals doing Contextual Safeguarding. The project involved running four workshops with over 60 practitioners, engaging them in creative and reflective methods to think about their work. We found that:  

  • Contextual safeguarding provides new possibilities for practice, via a new lens to see the world; 
  • But there are considerable barriers to realising these possibilities: practitioners are engaged in daily system battles, whilst also building relationships with young people facing harm; 
  • Creating a core tension in the experiences of practitioners doing Contextual Safeguarding, who try to bridge the gap between young people and the system, leaving them feeling isolated, overwhelmed and self-blaming. 

The report sets out three recommendations for policymakers and explains how a shift in the current system conditions can be achieved through the collective action of practitioners, researchers and policymakers. 

Sustaining Social Work: Practitioner experiences of Contextual Safeguarding

March 2024

Rachael Owens