Why are some social work employers still failing to prioritise supervision?

High caseloads and skilled team managers quickly climbing further up the career ladder are two of the challenges employers cite when it comes to providing effective supervision, finds Judy Cooper.

Skilled managers quickly move on (Credit: Image Source/Rex Features)

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Various surveys of social workers over the years have found that one of their biggest complaints is a lack of high quality supervision. The Social Work Reform Board was supposed to turn things around in England when it created the employer standards and supervision framework in April 2011. The standards included a stipulation that all organisations employing social workers should make a positive, unambiguous commitment to a strong culture of supervision and reflective practice. “Supervision should challenge practitioners to reflect critically on their cases and should foster an inquisitive approach to social work,” they stated.

But take-up of the standards among employers has been slow. Of the 600 social workers who responded to Community Care’s supervision survey earlier this month, just over two-thirds (69%) said their supervision was still weighted towards case management and reviewing performance targets, rather than critical analysis and reflection.

High caseloads

Helga Pile, professional officer for social work at Unison, says many team managers have too many social workers to supervise and social workers, in turn, have too many cases to allow true reflective practice on each case. Mark Gurrey, interim assistant director of safeguarding and quality assurance at Kent council, agrees: “Caseloads are the big thing. You can have all the quality supervision you like, but if social workers are carrying 30 or 40 cases, it’s not going to make the slightest bit of difference.”

Kent’s safeguarding children’s services were rated inadequate in 2010, but they have managed to turn things around and were recently rated by Ofsted as adequate. Part of Kent’s reform plans involved investing a huge amount of money in reducing caseloads and increasing the skills of all its social work managers in supervision.



‘Team managers with good supervisory skills are like gold-dust’


Jane Wonnacott, director of In-Trac training which specialises in supervision, says it is a lead more councils need to follow. “The ongoing support and development of supervisors is lacking across the board, most particularly in relation to the quality of the supervision they are receiving. Supervisors need the opportunity to critically reflect on the quality of their supervision and to receive the type of supervision they are expected to give.”

The most effective supervision systems, in her opinion, are those where an observer sits in on some sessions. Gurrey agrees and in Kent supervisors sit in on social worker visits and an outside observer sits in on the supervision sessions. “Supervision is a complex job,” he says. “We’re asking them to keep on top of the case management as well as things like health and safety, but the core of supervision has to be making sure it’s reflective. And that’s an emotional task because social work is emotional. I keep telling my social workers that supervision needs to be tough. They need to come out of that one-and-a-half hours thinking it was really hard work, otherwise it hasn’t achieved the object.

“In any organisation I’ve ever been in, those team managers who have all those skills are like gold-dust and they don’t tend to stay a team manager for very long.”

While good supervision is a skilled, time-consuming and costly activity, it is far more expensive not to do it according to John Carpenter, professor of social work at Bristol University. “The most recent evidence relating to newly qualified social workers is clear that good, reflective supervision increases role clarity, protects against stress and helps in the recruitment and retention of social workers. Yet as soon as pressure is put on a system, reflective supervision is the first to go. That will only increase stress and the number of social workers quitting, which will rapidly turn into a negative spiral.”

Improving picture



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There is some evidence that employers are getting better, says Suzanne Hudson, senior adviser on workforce development at the Local Government Association, which is tasked with rolling out the employer standards and supervision framework. “There is anecdotal evidence of social workers asking in job interviews if the council has adopted the employer standards. It’s becoming a selection process for social workers to determine which council they wish to work for and that in turn is making employers put a real focus on it.”

Despite the massive cuts, councils generally are protecting supervision budgets, even if some posts have been cut, she adds. And while children’s social work may once have led the way in this area, as more council’s merge departments and create a focus on whole families, Hudson says adults social worker supervision is also improving.

Numerous respondents to the British Association of Social Worker’s (BASW) State of Social Work survey last year also reported that their supervision amounted to case management, without any real reflection on their practice. Joe Godden, professional officer for BASW, admits things may have improved over the last year since they conducted their survey. “We are aware of several local authorities who have only recently informed social workers of their commitment to the employer standards of supervision. We are also aware that some local authorities, particularly those who have had poor inspection reports, are now rolling out a workforce strategy which includes the employer standards.”

Getting the model right

John Terry, team manager for an independent fostering agency in London, Link Fostering, says the new Ofsted inspection regime, which includes a specific element on supervision, has focused people’s minds in children’s services. “Because we’re small we’ve always had a good record on supervision. We do informal peer support, as well as a more formal coaching model where we try and help social workers find the solutions themselves. But with the new employer standards and Ofsted inspection regime we did a review to see how we measured up against them.”

However, he points out that many models of supervision have been devised for larger, council structures, rather than a small independent employer. “We’ve had to adapt the employer standards into more of a monitoring format in order to suit our organisation.”

Jan Burns, a social worker and director of Safe and Settled, an organisation helping self-funders, believes true reflective supervision can only be done in small groups. “I’ve always done reflective social work myself and so right from the start of the assessment on the form we ask our social workers to put the reasoning for their decisions. Then we discuss it in supervision sessions, which we have once a month. For me, I need to feel confident in the standards of all our social workers, that they’re safe, that they’re learning from every intervention, that our clients feel they’re getting value for money. That takes time and I don’t think we could go much bigger without sacrificing that.”

But Gurrey also points out that supervision is a two-way process. “It can’t just be a chat. Social workers need to come armed with an issue where they feel its not working or they need help, otherwise it won’t work either.”

Need for inspection

While there are numerous models of supervision, Carpenter acknowledges there is more research needed on which models are the most effective and the reasons why. As result some councils are forging ahead with developing their own, unique systems.

Hudson points out that this proves there is no need for a national supervision model or further government regulation or guidance on the issue. “We need a variety of tried and tested models for councils to choose from but employers must be able to have the freedom to choose which one is right for them.” Burns agrees that all employers should retain freedom around supervision but backed up by inspection. “We need a complete culture change on this and it needs to be thought of as part of maintaining standards for our service users.”

What’s happening outside of England?



  • Scottish councils are expected to have a supervision policy that helps meet their obligations under the Scottish Social Services Council’s codes of practice. A thematic report from the Social Work Inspection Agency in 2010 found just over half of councils had supervision policies.
  • Wales has a code of practice for employers of social workers which includes a requirement to “support staff with training and development”, but it is not mandatory.
  • Northern Ireland has had mandatory supervision standards for children’s social workers since 2008 and mandatory supervision standards for adults social workers since 2010.

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