Newly qualified social workers: surviving the first year

Plans to increase support – and assessment

Next month, the Children’s Workforce Development Council will launch a national consultation on the shape and purpose of newly qualified social worker status pilots in children’s services, based on ideas from more than 600 NQSWs and their employers.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families has already said the pilots will test a much-needed supported induction process, approaches to providing better support for those supervising and managing NQSWs, and a boost to continuing professional development opportunities for social workers entering their second or third year of employment – and has set aside £27m for the next three years to fund this.

But it has now confirmed that the NQSW status pilots will also “pilot a set of standards”, and that “learning from other areas as teaching will be taken into account”, effectively opening the door to an NQSW year being a probationary year to be passed as well as a year of additional support – just as the NQT year is for newly qualified teachers.

Any such plans are likely to be mirrored in adult services. The Department of Health has promised more details on a newly qualified social worker status as part of its wider adult workforce strategy to be published later this year but said it will “work closely” with the DCSF in developing this.

Skills for Care chief executive Andrea Rowe adds: “It is important to link [a model looking at the development needs of the NQSW] to an assessment and development process, supported through the post-qualifying framework.”

If developed carefully, then, there is hope the introduction of a NQSW status could be about far more than just providing new recruits with the support and protection they rightfully deserve. It could also raise standards across the profession, forcing poor practitioners out and a culture of continuous professional development in.

Top tips for surviving the first year:

We asked readers of Community Care and visitors of to share the gems of advice they were given during their first 12 months as a social worker that they still remember – and live by – today.

We have compiled a list of the top tem gems that should see any NQSW through their first job:

  1. Baffle them with bullshit (submitted by Jane Naik, senior practitioner)
  2. Ignore history at your peril’ (submitted by Jo, social worker)
  3. Don’t compromise your values (submitted by Julia Black)
  4. When visiting someone in their home, always park your car in the direction in which you want to leave (submitted by Irene Cochrane, Homeless Trust)
  5. Make work your God (submitted by Gabrielle Pendlebury, courtesy of Bertrand Russell)
  6. See the child! (submitted by Debbie, children’s social worker)
  7. Values should be at the heart of what you do, regardless of care and control (submitted by Lee, social worker)
  8. Service users and their families are like dogs; they can smell fear (submitted by Jane Naik, senior practitioner)
  9. Make a careful assessment of when to accept a cup of tea on a home visit (submitted by Kristen Rumsey, social worker, whose colleague drank hers only to find a pubic hair at the bottom of the cup)
  10. The therapeutic value of one addict helping another is without parallel (submitted by a drug worker)

To add more of your gems, go to

The first year: a personal account

Jenny*, 33, finished her social work masters course in July 2006. In September 2006 she took up her first social work post on the help desk in the children’s department of a large county council in the south of England. A month later, she was offered a secondment to a pilot project aimed at improving the relationship between social services and education.

“I did my month induction on the help desk, but it was quite haphazard,” Jenny remembers. “It was about getting to know resources and policies and procedures. And there was lots of admin – such as how to claim expenses, understanding the duty rota, and who to call for problems with IT or pay.

“The idea with the pilot project was that it was headed by an experienced social worker and part of their role was to mentor me. But it became apparent very quickly that, because of the level of work we managed, she didn’t have time for mentoring. In addition, the community care worker who worked with us went off sick in December and never came back.


“Where we were based we were physically quite isolated – it was just the two of us quite a lot of the time. We did have a manager, but our first one was in a different office and managed us by telephone, only coming to our office one day a week. I was expected to travel to her for supervision – and even that didn’t happen very often. It was supposed to be once a fortnight but never was; it ended up being every four to six weeks. She left after three months and then there was another one who lasted about the same time before being promoted – and he was only part-time.

“From the start, my work involved initial assessments, and I had children on the child protection register and children in need. Six weeks after starting on the pilot project I was working on my first child protection case with a sibling group of five.

“After Christmas, the senior mentoring social worker went on a secondment and I was on my own for at least six weeks until she was replaced. At that time, I was carrying a caseload of up to 23 cases, including eight child protection cases, plus ‘case-holding’ between 15 and 18 child protection cases of my colleague’s. I was basically fire-fighting. I was leaping from one crisis, trying to patch it up, then on to the next.

No time for direct work

“The idea of doing planned casework didn’t really work. I was using a help desk style of working on cases where it wasn’t appropriate. Direct work with children wasn’t really happening at all – I would be trying to grab 15 minutes with a child alone. A lot of my work felt like I was shooting from the hip – there was no time to plan. I knew it was getting bad when I had to go out and do a review and I couldn’t picture the child in my head, even though they were supposed to be on my caseload. That isn’t how I want to work.

“After about nine months, the pilot project was disbanded following an internal restructure. The schools weren’t happy about that – by then we had established really good relationships and a good flow of information, but all that just came to an end. I went back to the help desk where I have been ever since.

“Looking back over my first year, I can say I enjoyed the work. But I needed consistency of management and a protected caseload. I needed to know that someone was watching my back and checking in with me and saying ‘have you done that’ or ‘have you done this’. When you don’t have that level of personal attention, you feel quite undervalued; it can be very disheartening.

Inconsistent management

“Within less than a year of being qualified, I had four managers. And they all worked very differently and had different thresholds for intervention, which I had to try and reconcile in my head. It was all terribly inconsistent.

“I am not a wallflower and I did stand up for myself. But you are new and are trying to prove something. You don’t know what to demand of your managers, or what to demand of your supervision. You hear everyone else moaning about the same thing and just assume you all have to put up with it.

“It would have helped to have something more formalised, such as statutory limitations on how many cases you can hold and on what kind of cases, in the same way that the newly qualified teacher status makes it clear what posts newly qualified teachers can fill. I think a newly qualified social worker status would be a good idea.


“In terms of my skills, I felt confident in my written work and in my ability to analyse, partly as a result of the social work training and partly as a result of needing to use analytical skills in jobs before. I had to adapt these skills to working with social work values, and that came from the training – I felt they were really quite solid.

“The hands-on stuff was a bit daunting – it felt like I had been let off the lead. Neither of the placements I did during my two-year masters course were quite frontline. The first was with a family centre, which gave me a good understanding of social work values and how to apply them in your work; it helped me to get to grips with things like anti-oppressive practice, for example. My second placement was with a fostering team. I was good, but we spent most of our time dealing with the foster carers and link workers, not children.

“Because of this, I asked to do a day a week during my second placement on the help desk dealing with stuff coming in and case-holding to dip my toe in the water. If I hadn’t done that for six or seven months I would have been eaten alive in the first week on the pilot project. I would have been completely unprepared for frontline social work and would have broken down in the first week.

 “I would say that, when I was on the pilot project, there were at least two points in the first nine months when I woke up and thought about quitting. Instead I got my hours reduced to four days a week – I just told them something had to change because I was being flogged into the ground.

State of chaos

“The work itself has never been the issue. The issue is the organisation I work for being in a state of chaos, chopping and changing teams and parameters of work. I constantly felt I was just keeping my head above water. Social work is social work. But it’s very clear to me now that which authority or organisation you work for can make or break you.

“When I met up with other newly qualified social workers at the same authority, each of us had a look of being a bit shell-shocked – some more than others depending what team we had joined. One of my colleagues was in court in a case within weeks of starting her first job. She was on the stand for four hours. It was like a competition to see which of us could score the most with our horror stories.

“It was like a baptism of fire. I learned an awful lot and, yes, I have come out of it. But, looking at what my newly qualified colleagues are saying, there will be very few of us left after two years. Many are using it as a training ground. That can’t be good for staff morale – or service users.”

*Not her real name

NQSW research

For more on research into what newly qualified social workers know and do on entering their first job, carried out by Plymouth and Durham Universities

Contact the author

Lauren Revans

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