By Emily Twinch
Anyone coming out of a three-year social work degree will struggle to make the transition from the classroom to frontline practice.
Some employers ease them in gently giving them lighter case loads and partnering them with more experienced workers. Others are pitched straight in at the deep end.
Bridget Robb, professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers, says employers can get “lost in all the issues of management and bureaucracy and the pressure of performance indicators”.
“If teams are stretched for resources newly qualified social workers are pushed to take on a level of responsibility on their own too quickly. They are perhaps set up to fail, or manage the best they can with high stress levels. That burns people out very quickly and they don’t stay in the job very long,” she adds.
In October 2006, the Options for Excellence Review of Social Care identified supporting social workers, particularly newly qualified workers, as a priority. It found a lack of reflection and supervision time could lead to “work overload, stress, sickness absence and workers leaving the sector”.
Subsequent to the review the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) started in September 2008 a three-year programme to improve the support for newly qualified staff. Already 85 local authorities and one voluntary organisation are working towards 11 ‘outcome statements’, which sets out what social workers working with children should know and be able to do after their first year.
This requires employers to better support new social workers including giving them adequate supervision, time for reflection, and 10% time for training and development.
Rebecca Leete, national programme manager for CWDC in social work, says: “For the first time it brings together a set of national outcome statements. There’s a shared expectation for every employer taking part.”
Owen Davies, head of policy development at the General Social Care Council, hopes the programme will lead to “the best practices happening across the country in a uniform way”. Davies says there is currently huge variation in the way social workers are supported – some have guaranteed supervision with their line manager, time for reflection, a mentor, peer group support and fewer case loads in the first few months. Others have only some or none of this.
He adds that employers needed to be “intelligent” when they allocate cases and not give an NQSW “a complicated child protection case until they have had adequate training”.
Hackney is one authority that has changed the way it works in an effort to provide NQSWs in children’s services with more support. Mary Jackson, project manager for Hackney’s Reclaim Social Work campaign, says under its new team-based model the unit co-ordinator takes the pressure of administration work off the other workers. New recruits are given as much supervision as possible – from the whole team, not just one person – and manageable workloads. The different professionals also do visits together.
Jackson’s experience at Hackney also seems to confirm NQSWs do not feel ready for the job – more social work graduates applied for the children’s practitioner roles in the units rather than the social worker jobs, she explained. “You do not have to be a qualified social worker for this [to be a children’s practitioner],” she says. “I think the bottom line is a lot of people when they finish their qualification don’t feel prepared.”
Five top tips
John Nawrockyi, director of adults and older people’s services at Greenwich Council, gives five tips on how to give newly qualified social workers a good grounding in the first few months of their career.
1. Limit the case load for around three to six months – depending on the social worker’s progress – to half the case load of an experienced worker.
2. Partner the new recruit with an experienced worker for more complicated cases.
3. Do a comprehensive induction programme into how the department works.
4. Run through the council’s training programme thoroughly so new workers can take advantage of personal development opportunities.
5. Ensure a newly qualified social worker has additional supervision – at least two to three hours a month minimum with their manager, to talk about issues such as cases, any personnel problems and their progress.
Last year, in a bid to identify what works in terms of making the transition from qualification through induction to compentent social work practitioner, Plymouth and Durham Universities joined forces to investigate what newly qualified social workers know and do on entering their first job, write Helen Donnellan and Gordon Jack.
The results of questionnaires completed by 25 NQSWs, line managers and staff development officers at three statutory agencies in the south-west of England, plus in-depth interviews six- and 12-months into the NQSWs’ first year of employment, show initial confidence is higher among NQSWs where final placements are similar to first jobs. However, most NQSWs appear to struggle with the duality of their role: balancing personal involvement with the ability to stand back and make difficult decisions. They also often lack the analytical skills the job requires.
NQSWs need help and support to establish coping mechanisms and an appropriate work-life balance. The recent announcement of a pilot probationary year for social work has resonance here – particularly if developed along similar lines to the formal newly-qualified status and protection enjoyed by new teachers.
Support drawn from a range of sources is important in helping NQSWs to enjoy some measure of job satisfaction while also dealing with oscillating levels of stress and emotional exhaustion. Mentors and professional and social networks, as well as formal and informal peer support, are all highly valued in addition to supervision.
The findings suggest it is not uncommon for NQSWs to face considerable organisational turbulence in their first posts thanks to the prevalence in the sector of workforce remodelling, high volumes and rapid turnovers of workloads, and team vacancies. While service users provoke anxiety in NQSWs, this does not translate into the same feelings of frustration as those produced by an employing organisation’s demands.
Against the background of the General Social Care Council’s review of the roles and tasks of social work, it is interesting to note that NQSWs still consider their main task to be direct, hands-on work with service users. Anything which takes them away from this results in some level of resentment.
The burden of recording, in particular, is an important issue, and opinions of IT systems are low. While there is recognition that performance indicators are necessary to monitor case progression, NQSWs tend to view prescribed forms and the seven-day report deadlines as unacceptable, bureaucratic constraints on their professional decision-making. As a result, none of those interviewed see their longterm future in local authority employment.
Supervision is flagged up as an area key to learning and support yet still in need of improvement. While managers consider that they make space for new social workers to reflect on their practice, NQSWs feel they either do not or cannot use these opportunities to meet their needs, and often leave supervision sessions feeling dissatisfied and unsupported because they have been too case-focused.
Only a small minority of managers seem to attach importance to the integration of social work theories, methods and values into supervision discussions. This reluctance could, at least in part, be explained by a paucity of up-to-date knowledge about social work training and the post-qualifying framework among frontline managers.
Personal development plans, which are produced at the point of qualification by each graduate social worker, should provide a ready tool both to link national occupational standards with the workplace and to track individual progress and performance against. However, at present they are largely ignored.
The introduction of a standardised induction package geared to the specific needs of NQSWs in their first year in post is identified as a key issue, and clearly resonates with plans to pilot a national ‘probationary year’ for social workers.
Suggestions for specific elements of any such induction package include a case-free introductory period with opportunities for shadowing and co-working, and a clear focus from day one on continued professional development and preparation for post-qualifying learning. A clear definition of caseload and protection is also key, together with enhanced and more frequent supervision sessions that include time for reflection.
Helen Donnellan is project manager at the School of Applied Psychosocial Studies at the University of Plymouth and Gordon Jack is reader in social work at the School of Applied Social Studies at Durham University.