Poor supervision continues to hinder child protection practice

It was a key plank in Lord Laming’s report into the death of Victoria Climbié, but frontline children’s social workers still complain about the lack of supervision, writes Mark Hunter

Recommendation 45 of Lord Laming’s 2003 report into the death of Victoria Climbié stated that all staff working with children should undergo regular supervision. Six years and another child death later, Laming had to make almost the same recommendation in his report after the death of Baby P. So what happened to staff supervision in the interim?

The answer is nothing much, if the results of a Unison survey of frontline children’s social workers are anything to go by.

More than 50% of those polled by the union last December said their access to adequate professional supervision was the same now as it had been in 2003. More than a quarter said the situation was worse.

Previously unpublished research carried out by Community Care and Community Care Inform last September supports these findings. Of 422 social care professionals polled, 28% said they received no supervision at all, and 31% said the supervision they received was not adequate for their caseload.

Poor supervision has also featured in General Social Care Council disciplinary hearings. Essex and Rotherham Councils were criticised last year for their poor supervision of social workers who subsequently received cautions for misconduct.

There is also ample anecdotal evidence of the sporadic nature of professional supervision on Community Care’s CareSpace forum. While some contributors complain of being “supervised to death”, dubbing the practice “snoopervision”, others tell of unstructured, ad hoc arrangements and supervision conducted over the phone or during car journeys.

“Supervision varies considerably across the country,” says Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social care workers. “This is not always the supervisor’s fault. Often, it is due to the general pressures on the team and the team managers, who are under a great deal of stress themselves. If supervision is to be done properly it’s important that the team managers have the time, the training and the skills to do it.”

Bureaucratic goals

Pile adds that it is not only the amount of supervision that varies, but the form that it takes. “The emphasis of supervision is too often on the bureaucratic goals – whether you have met your targets, filled in all the right forms,” she says. “This can skew priorities away from what good practice is about. Supervision needs to help you to reflect on your practice. That’s not to say it shouldn’t be challenging, but managers need to be sensitive enough to get the balance right. Supervision shouldn’t be confused with performance management.”

There is no statutory requirement on how often social workers in children’s services should receive supervision, or on what that supervision should look like. This may change this year when the Social Work Task Force will produce guidelines on guaranteed supervision time.

Laming’s Protection of Children in England: a progress report emphasises that this supervision should be actively supportive of social workers’ practical and emotional needs during their frontline dealings with at-risk children and their families. It should not be used simply to check the ticking of boxes.

“Not enough time is dedicated to this and individuals are carrying too much personal responsibility with no outlet for the sometimes severe emotional and psychological stresses that staff involved in child protection often face,” the report states. “Supervision should be open and supportive, focusing on the quality of decisions, good risk analysis, and improving outcomes for children, rather than meeting targets.”

Laming also recommends that meeting the GSCC’s code of practice for employers becomes a statutory requirement for all employers of social workers.

Code of practice

“The role of the employer in keeping standards high is fundamental,” says GSCC chair Rosie Varley. “We are delighted that Lord Laming agrees that compliance with our code of practice for employers, which sets out their responsibilities on providing training opportunities and supervising staff, should be mandatory. This is something we have urged for some time.”

The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass) and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) have previously rejected the idea of making the GSCC code mandatory. However, Eleni Ioannides, vice chair of the ADCS’s workforce development policy committee, emphasises that the association backs the concept of supervision.

“We support the notion of supervision to assist social workers with their decision-making and risk assessment as well as holding them to account professionally,” she says. “Good supervision should provide for shared decision-making, an overview of cases, quality control, assessment of risk and accountability.”

Support for supervision

Wes Cuell, the NSPCC’s acting chief executive and director of services for children and young people, is also pleased that Laming placed such strong emphasis on the importance of supervision.

“As an agency, we were pleased to see it because it has been a big part of our argument that social workers’ decision-making should receive better support,” he says.

“We would see the frontline social worker and their line manager as a decision-making unit. It is the social worker’s job to go out and gather the information. But these big decisions about a child’s safety should be made dispassionately, away from often highly charged emotional frontline situations.

“It’s not always easy when you are on a visit to keep a clear head. It can be chaotic, with people shouting at you and so on. Supervision should allow a time for more clear reflection in a calmer environment.”

What to discuss

Cuell, a former head of children and family services at Luton Council, has strong views on what should and shouldn’t be discussed during supervision sessions.

“Together, the line manager and the social worker need to be able to discuss what is going on with any particular case. What else is happening in the family situation? How are they holding up emotionally? Are there any other potentially dangerous situations? Did you ask this question? Did you see any injuries? So the process should be challenging and probing, not in an adversarial or judgemental way, but you need to know that all the questions have been asked.”

Cuell emphasises that supervision sessions should also be properly scheduled and recorded in the files along with any decisions. “Supervision should be planned and regular, so that both parties can prepare for it,” he says. “That’s not to say that informal meetings shouldn’t take place as well.”

Finally, supervision needs to address the welfare of the frontline social worker carrying the caseload too, says Cuell.

“How are you bearing up? What’s your workload like? Are you dealing with it all OK,” are all questions that social workers should be automatically asked by their line manager during supervision, Cuell argues. “It shouldn’t be up to the social worker to have to complain about their workload. It’s the line manager’s job to ensure that it doesn’t get too much.”


For more on ways to improve practice in child protection, book your place on Community Care’s Strengthening Practice in Child Protection conference. This one-day conference in central London on 12 June will look at lessons from frontline projects, understanding inter-agency working and empowering professionals.

To book, call 020 7347 3574 or go to www.conferencesandtraining.com/child-protection


The Victoria Climbié Inquiry report

The Protection of Children in England: A Progress Report

● Unison survey, Still Slipping through the Net? Front-line Staff Assess Children’s Safeguarding Progress

CC Inform

CareSpace Forum

Key to good supervision

● Regular and scheduled: both parties need an opportunity to prepare for it.

● Documented: there needs to be a clear audit trail.

● Supportive: issues such as workload, stress, safety in dangerous situations and the emotional effect of difficult cases should be addressed.

● Probing and challenging: cases should be discussed in detail to ensure all issues have been covered.

● Non-adversarial: a blame culture will lead to defensive behaviour and the cover-up of omissions.

● Skilled: line managers need to be fully trained in supervision skills.

This article is published in the 23 April issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Whatever happened to supervision?


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