What needs to change in the supervision of social workers

(pictured: Jill Hudson and Debbie Nicholson of Bradford Council, see case study)

In the first of a series of features on the Social Work Reform Board’s proposals to overhaul the profession in England, Kirsty McGregor looks at what the proposed supervision framework will mean for practitioners and managers

Supervision has been hailed as the cornerstone of good social work practice in recent reports.

Lord Laming’s 2009 review of child protection in England, Professor Eileen Munro’s interim report on safeguarding and the final report of the Social Work Task Force all championed the use of effective supervision as a means of improving decision-making, accountability, and supporting professional development among social workers.

And in the General Social Care Council’s judgment on the social workers involved in the Baby P case, team manager Gillie Christou’s failure to keep proper supervision records was a key issue in her suspension.

The Social Work Reform Board is now implementing a national framework for supervision.

A first draft is outlined in the reform board’s progress report, Building a Safe and Confident Future: One Year On, published in December. It stipulates that employers should ensure supervision sessions last for at least 90 minutes “of uninterrupted time”, which should be weekly for the first six weeks of employment for a newly qualified social worker, fortnightly for the next six months, and at least monthly after that.

The report adds that all practitioners should be supervised by another registered social worker, including those whose line managers are not social workers.

Social workers in child protection and adult safeguarding teams should be supervised by a line manager who is also a registered social worker, although their continuing professional development could be overseen by someone else. Those working in multi-professional teams could be supervised by a variety of people, as long as a written supervision statement was in place to clarify respective roles and responsibilities.

These supervision sessions should be accompanied by peer learning through formal and informal networks. Managers, trade unions, professional associations and the College of Social Work will have to promote these networks to counter trends towards more home working, dispersed teams and sole social workers in multi-professional teams, the framework says.

There should also be regular supervision training for social work supervisors, which will require more staff and resources to implement – all of which comes at a time when councils are facing 28% budget cuts over the next four years.

“The new supervision framework has major implications in terms of staffing,” says Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social work. “If supervision is non-negotiable, social workers’ caseloads will need to be reduced to accommodate it, and the number of managers will have to be boosted.”

An investigation by Community Care revealed last year that one in every 10 social worker posts in the UK was vacant. The same proportion is employed through an agency, and employers agree that recruiting more permanent staff will be a key feature of implementing the supervision framework.

Dave Hill, who represents the Association of Directors of Children’s Services on the reform board, argues that the concept of supervision is well-embedded in local authorities.

“It’s about getting everyone up to an acceptable baseline, which goes back to the reform board’s recommendations about middle management training,” he says.

Jane Wonnacott, supervision specialist and director of In-Trac Training and Consultancy, says many organisations still rely on generic corporate training for supervisors or expect a one-day course to suffice.

“Supervision training and ongoing support for supervisors is for the most part very underdeveloped and this will require an injection of resources if it is to be improved,” she points out.

“I have numerous examples of policies requiring supervision agreements to be developed between supervisors and supervisees, but when supervisors are asked about these many are not in place.

“If they do exist they have been a ‘tick box’ exercise and are rarely reviewed.”

In 2008, Unison found that a quarter of frontline children’s social workers felt that the quality of supervision had deteriorated during the previous five years.

Pile says there needs to be a “wholescale re-education” about the purpose of supervision. “For too many, it is currently focused on monitoring performance targets and timescales,” she says.

This was a sentiment reflected in Lord Laming’s 2003 report into the death of Victoria Climbié, which found that an “overemphasis on processes and targets” was ruining social workers’ confidence.

The new supervision framework, on the other hand, clearly states that supervision should be as much about stress levels and looking at the relationships formed between social workers and service users as it is about organisational accountability.


The Children’s Workforce Development Council and Skills for Care produced guidance on effective supervision in 2007. Both also run programmes of support for newly qualified social workers, which outline the importance of regular supervision sessions.

But the supervision framework will be used as a quality benchmark by the College of Social Work and may be incorporated, as part of the wider standards for employers, in Ofsted and Care Quality Commission inspections.

Despite the extra resources needed, experts agree that the supervision framework is based on sound principles.

Patricia Kearney, head of children’s services at the Social Care Institute for Excellence, says: “You need time to let people put things into words, to think. It shouldn’t be written in stone, but 90 minutes means you can’t get away from things. It’s going to mean individuals have less anxiety about doing the work.”

However, Kearney and others acknowledge that there will be transitional issues, particularly within organisations that are already struggling with capacity in their frontline teams.

Wonnacott suggests that one solution would be to link training for supervisors to ongoing mentoring schemes and for new managers and peer support activities for all managers.

The reform board has also encouraged all employers in England to carry out a workload “health check” of their social work teams by the end of this financial year, which should help to identify gaps in supervision and training and inform the employer standards.

The reform board’s supervision framework, which is under public consultation, will be further developed following the publication of Munro’s review in the spring.

Once the framework is in place, social workers and managers like Gillie Christou will have a clearer understanding of what effective supervision is and its importance to good practice.

What supervision should cover

1 Quality of decision-making and interventions

●Reflects on what work has been done, plans for future interventions and actions and improvements in practice.

●Supervised by an experienced and registered social worker.

2 Line management and organisational accountability

●Look at the quantity and quality of the work being done within the context of the wider organisation, including appraisals.

●Supervised by line manager.

3 Caseload and workload management

●Look at caseloads and capacity.

●Supervised by line manager.

4 Personal learning, career and development opportunities

●Look at continuing professional development, including what needs to be done to maintain registration.

●Supervised by line manager or professional supervisor.

Source: Proposed supervision framework, Social Work Reform Board, December 2010

Case study: Lancashire Council

Diane Cleasby, team manager of the integrated assessment and support team at Lancashire Council, has been praised by the local university for offering regular, in-depth supervision

Lancashire Council’s corporate guidelines do not favour any one model of supervision. Cleasby tends to use the “reflective cycle” approach, which encourages practitioners to describe a case and their actions in relation to it, analyse their own and other people’s views and reflect on what could be done differently if that situation arose again.

Karen Broadhurst, a social work lecturer at Lancaster University, observed some of Cleasby’s supervision sessions as part of a study of thresholds at the council.

She says: “There is a strong emphasis on gaining multi-agency perspectives and information, but also ensuring that assessment involves families and children.”

Cleasby also champions informal supervision, and operates an open-door policy. Group supervision is used to explore “stuck” cases, or cases where there is some conflict of opinion. Cleasby admits that this can demand a lot of her time. But she adds: “It gives us a solid overview of where each individual is, and of the progress of cases.”

As a result, staff retention rates have improved and the four newly qualified social workers in the team feel properly supported. “That’s reflected in the outcomes for children and families,” says Cleasby.

Case study: Bradford Council

Debbie Nicholson, children’s social worker, Springfield assessment team (right)

I’ve been here for more than a year and my supervision has changed quite a bit. I used to be very reliant on my line manager to lead the sessions and I thought it was just about going through my cases and taking direction. But now, when I discuss my cases, I’m the one putting the ideas forward, and I won’t go into every case in detail.

The most important thing for me is having a rapport with my manager. I’ve had managers in the past who were good at their jobs but didn’t have good people skills, and I felt that supervision was dictatorial as a result.

Last year I had a bereavement and my supervision was really helpful, because it allowed me to explore my feelings around that and how it’s affected me and my work. It was through supervision that I decided I wanted some counselling and my manager facilitated that for me. Even though I’m a social worker, I’m still a mum, I’m still me; supervision helps me to remember that.

Recently I had my first case where I had to remove a child, which was really difficult. I was so glad I had supervision because I could talk about it and whether I’d done the right thing. I could offload.

It’s important to have that chunk of time with your manager, but you also need informal, ongoing supervision. Sometimes, because of the deadlines we work to, I just need a quick five minutes on a case. There has to be some flexibility.

Jill Hudson, team manager  (right) 

“Good supervision is held on a very regular basis in accordance with the experience of the social worker. If it has to be cancelled, it is rescheduled. For me, the object is to ensure my social workers are competent and have the relevant skills to carry out the tasks in hand.

Because we’re an assessment team with a quick turnover, we have to make sure we don’t have stacked cases. Supervision allows me to ensure new work coming in can be allocated and completed within set timescales and performance targets. I can identify any areas where my staff may need support. It also enables me to ensure they are fully aware of the council’s objectives and procedures and that they’re clear about professional standards.

I joined the team in May 2010 as a temporary and then a permanent manager, so I used supervision to look at the impact of those changes on the team and how to put some stability within the workplace. There are two managers in the team and we do one week on and one week off duty. I try to fit in supervision, which usually lasts for about an hour and a half, when I’m not on duty. That allows time for reflection.

It’s a busy team, so it’s important that we develop good relationships, that I gain the respect of my staff and that they feel they can approach me. Effective supervision lets them feel they’re being listened to, and that in turn assists in reducing staff vacancies and creates stability within the team.”

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