A three-year pilot scheme has provided valuable mentoring for newly qualified social workers, reports Kirsty McGregor
● Funding: £600,000 from the Children’s Workforce Development Council.
● Aims: To reduce administrative burdens and facilitate more direct work with service users.
● Outcomes: More and better-trained administrative staff were appointed, and the council created a mentor position to support newly recruited team members.
For a newly qualified social worker, fresh from university, the idea of marching into a stranger’s house and asking questions about the treatment of children in their home can be terrifying. Regular supervision is designed to help less experienced staff talk through these issues, but no amount of discussion can eliminate the tension when a professional first sits down on a service user’s sofa.
At Tower Hamlets Council, east London, however, newly qualified staff have access to an experienced social worker whose role it is to sit down next to them.
The authority was one of 11 to take part in the Children’s Workforce Development Council’s (CWDC) three-year remodelling social work pilots. The scheme aimed to facilitate more effective direct work with children and families. Tower Hamlets used some of the annual £200,000 funding to employ a mentor, whose primary role it is to support newly recruited staff.
Mentor Lucy Downs has been in post for a year. It is her job to model good practice, supervise social workers in action, help them to solve problems and act as a sounding board. She also helps prepare newly qualified staff for home visits, meetings and direct work with children.
“It’s such a busy, pressured work environment, and often the line manager ends up spending more time on management issues than talking about a case in depth,” says Downs. “I have time to talk to a social worker for a whole hour about one case and really get into the child’s experience.”
Downs’ manager, Sylvie Mouret, adds: “What Lucy offers is additional space for workers to reflect on home visits. We try to do that in supervision, but we don’t always have time.”
Although Downs is on the same salary as a practice manager, she has no line management responsibilities. Instead, she acts as an advocate for social workers and brokers positive relationships between them and their managers.
“In the first year of being a social worker, learning how to deal with your manager and get the best out of supervision is a really important skill,” she says.
Another advantage of Downs’ role is the consistency it affords frontline practitioners. A recent survey by Community Care found two-thirds of social workers have had two or more line managers since April 2010. The high turnover rate was more apparent in children’s services (69%) than in adults’ services (59%).
“We’ve had phases where a particular team might have a high turnover of managers,” says Downs. “There’s so much pressure on newly qualified social workers and then they have to get to know a manager with a whole new style, which is very hard, but I’m there if they need advice.”
HOW IT’S DONE
At the start of her mentoring, Downs holds a meeting with the social worker and their practice manager to identify one or two cases to work on. Depending on the level of support needed, Downs might simply talk the social worker through a case point by point, or she might accompany them on visits, to court or to meetings. She combines regular one-to-one sessions with a monthly two-hour group session, where specialist staff are invited to share their experiences.
Sayra Bibi joined the family support and protection service after qualifying in June 2010. She says of Downs’ mentoring: “She was assigned to one of my cases and came on some of my visits. I’d take control, but afterwards she would ask if I’d noticed this or advise me to look out for that on the next visit. It was nice to have someone there.”
The CWDC expects to publish the results of a national evaluation of the pilots this summer. Earlier this year, Tower Hamlets did its own assessment of the mentoring role. It found Downs’ one-to-one sessions had “built confidence and supported casework”, adding: “The role has added a quality assurance element to joint home visits during which new staff gain an understanding of how, for example, social workers speak to families.”
The CWDC funding stopped at the end of the pilot in March, but Tower Hamlets has decided to keep Downs on in her role, particularly because the council has just recruited another wave of newly qualified staff.
(Picture: From left) Manager Sylvie Mouret; mentor Lucy Downs; newly qualified social worker Sayra Bibi
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