Book review: Social Work Theory – A Straightforward Guide for Practice Educators and Placement Supervisors


This book by Siobhan Maclean and Rob Harrison from Kirwan Maclean Associates Ltd (best ordered directly from the publisher) is a book written with a specific purpose to run through the different models and theories of social work to equip those teaching and learning in placement settings to have a broad understanding of their students’ needs.


Kirwan Maclean have a reputation for producing social work textbooks and materials which are very much focussed on social work practice rather than the idea of social work which can exist in some text books which are written with a university market in mind. I have actively used this book as a practice educator and beyond that in broadening my understanding of social work models and theories as I try to link them in to the work which I undertake on a day to day basis.

I am a big fan of this publishing house and can honestly say I’ve never read anything from them that hasn’t immediately jumped to the top of my ‘most useful’ pile because the books are written to be understood and used rather than studies and the authors don’t care much for using academic language where it is not necessary. I’ve always believed that the best writers are the clearest writers and Maclean and Harrison certainly achieve this.


The book is set out into eight sections. Each section has a dedicated bibliography and includes some tasks to use with students relating to the topic covered, immediately helping the busy and maybe (I’m thinking of myself here) tired practice educator who needs new ideas.

The first section is background about practice education and the context of teaching social work in a practice setting. Teaching at work is a particular skill set and the teaching part is fundamental. Students are training in skills but they are also learning about practice. The book emphasises the importance of the education role as it includes theories of learning that were mostly familiar to me from my my practice education course. This was reassuring as it allows a refresh, especially after a few years.

The next sections look at different models, frameworks and theories, separated logically and allowing a ‘pick and mix’ approach when the student returns from university with a new theory. It starts with anti-oppressive practice (such as social and medical models, feminist and race perspectives) followed by human development and learning theories (including attachment theory with both children and adults, and models of grief and loss). Then the book covers a section on using theories in the assessment processes – this includes a section on risk assessment and models of assessment including how theories such as strength-based perspectives are used in practical contexts. The next sections are about models and theories which influence ways of intervening and they are split into ‘counselling models’ such as psychodynamic approaches. Then, those approaches and models based on social work frameworks such as systems theory, task-centred practice and crisis intervention. The models that will be very familiar to any social work student. Maclean and Harrison finish with consideration of organisational theories and leadership before covering the use of eclecticism.

Each theory or model has a roughly 4-6 pages with a brief explanation of the background, some examples of how it happens in social work settings and then some thoughts at the end of how you might ask a student to think of the theory.

The book is very accessible and easy to dip in and out of. It allows a quick refresh of concepts that may be a bit ‘rusty’ but also gives a useful bibliography where more can be explored if necessary.

There is a broad range of theories that should be a good start and cover most of what’s needed in practice but if it isn’t, it allows frameworks to talk about theories in practice settings.

There is a comprehensive presentation of a wide range of theories and models, explained clearly with pointers for further and deeper investigation.

Use in practice

The joy of this book, as with many from Kirwan and Maclean is its immediate practical value and use. From the moment I bought it, it proved its worth ensuring that I was able to catch up and refresh some of the theory and models that I had learnt years before but also allowed me to familiarise myself with the language of social work theories again. While we all know it shouldn’t, practice as a social worker can sometimes struggle, outside a student placement and practice education context, to call back to the theoretical contexts and the ‘why’ of what we do. While this book is very much aimed at practice educators, it has a use far beyond that for the practising social worker whose initial training may be a few years back and who wants to refresh understanding of the why and how we justify what we do within a professional framework.

I’m not teaching students anymore as I don’t take students on placement (I may, in the future but I’m fairly new to my job now). I was out of direct social work practice for a number of years. Picking up this book, which is genuinely a pleasure to read, allowed me to reconnect with the ‘why’. It is perfect for practice educators who like clear and concrete examples, written accessibly by knowledgeable authors who do not patronise their readers by over-complicating unnecessarily. But it also has a use far beyond that, for all who practice or who want to practice social work.


This is one of those books with a purpose, which it states on its cover and it does exactly what it says on the cover. You want a straightforward guide to social work theory and you’ve got it. My only addition would be to say that it isn’t just for practice educators. Although there is a separate version which is adapted for student social workers (which I always recommended to my students on placement), this book suits more experienced practitioners who want to refresh and revise those connections with theories and it can start a journey, with helpful links and references, back to picking up the why as well as the what we do.

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