By David Wilkins, senior research fellow, Tilda Goldberg Centre, University of Bedfordshire
Almost everyone agrees that high quality supervision is important for social work. Children’s social workers need supervision that provides support, reflection, analysis and that is focused on the best interests of the child. Without this kind of supportive space, the difficult task of child and family social work becomes even more challenging and stressful.
However, we know that many child and family social workers do not receive high quality supervision. Community Care surveys have indicated that a significant minority do not have regular supervision at all. As social workers gain more experience, they may receive (even) less frequent supervision than in their early years post-qualified.
Share your experience
David Wilkins is engaged in a number of research projects into supervision and its impact. You can take part and help improve the evidence base by sharing your experience in this brief survey. The questionnaire is anonymous.
Adults’ social workers
David’s research is focused on children and family social workers. Community Care is also interested in the supervision experiences of social workers practising with adults. You can complete our survey here, or get in touch by email.
The current inspection context does not inspire a sense that high quality supervision should be routine. In Ofsted’s current framework, a document of more than 16,000 words, the word ‘supervision’ appears a mere four times.
Only two of those relate to the supervision of social workers and both are references to policy documents (one – the Standards for employers and supervision framework – has now been archived from the Department for Education’s website, perhaps a testament to its perceived importance).
Ofsted reports tend to address only whether social workers receive regular supervision (or not) and whether managers have ‘oversight’ (or not). Inspectors appear far less interested in whether the supervision provided is of good quality.
Managers themselves say they want to provide good supervision but many report finding it hard to provide the kind of high-quality supervision they aspire to. And even when social workers do receive regular supervision, that is no guarantee of a uniformly good experience.
Given how important supervision evidently is for social workers, it is baffling how little we know about it. The evidence base for it is surprisingly weak. Researchers (including my colleagues at the Tilda Goldberg Centre for Social Work and Social Care) have only recently started to look directly at what happens in supervision.
There is no clear evidence about how it relates to and shapes practice or how different types of supervision might support different types of practice. There is some evidence to suggest that more regular supervision helps improve staff retention and that group supervision may promote improved critical thinking.
Nevertheless, we are only at the start of a proper exploration of what happens in supervision, how different processes support different outcomes, how reflective supervision can be reliably and regularly provided within local authority structures and how supervision can help improve outcomes for children and families.
In a recent study in a south London borough, I observed 21 first-line managers in simulated supervision sessions. An actor played the part of the supervisee, a student social worker. The managers were asked to provide support to the student after a difficult incident, involving an allegation of domestic violence, a frightened mother and a very young baby. The student presented as anxious and unsure of what to do next. She was also worried that the mother may have been concealing information regarding her relationship with the baby’s father.
Advice and direction
All the managers immediately grasped the seriousness of the situation and understood that the student needed help. They mainly provided this help in the form of asking closed questions to gather more information and then offering advice and direction on what to do next.
Given the acute nature of the simulated scenario and the relative inexperience of the supervisee, this was perhaps entirely predictable. However, it is also worth considering what the majority of the managers did not do – they did not explicitly explore the student’s emotional response; they did not seek to challenge or explore her hypothesis that the mother had been lying to her; they did not seek to challenge the view that the mother was to blame for failing to protect her baby from domestic violence; they did not seek to explore with the student how she might talk to the mother in order to start making things better (instead, they focused on what she needed to do – contact the police, visit the baby, inform the health visitor and so on.).
As part of the same study, we also surveyed 26 social workers. Most received supervision every month for between 60 and 90 minutes. More interestingly, the survey asked for their views about the quality of this supervision – whether it helped provide clarity about risk, improved the quality of their practice, helped develop empathy for the family, focused on the child, improved their decision-making, enabled analysis and critical thinking and supported them with the emotional demands of the work.
Across all these areas, the social workers were broadly positive, particularly regarding clarity about risk (they were less sure whether supervision helped with analysis and critical thinking or emotional support).
Support outside supervision?
These results present something of a dilemma – according to the social workers’ subjective experiences, their supervision was helpful in a variety of high-quality ways. And yet in the simulated supervision sessions, their managers tended not to do these kinds of things. This suggests at least two possibilities. Firstly, the managers behaviour in actual supervision is different to that in the simulated sessions. This is entirely possible, especially given the acute nature of the simulation. Secondly, it may suggest that the manager’s general approach to supporting practitioners is as important or even more important than what they do in formal supervision meetings.
That high-quality supervision and support is important for social work practice to flourish is probably undeniable. But what this study (and others like it) show is that we are only just beginning to explore this relationship. As Gillian Ruch notes “front line managers [are] in the unenviable position of having to find a way of responding to the ostensibly rational demands of…their organization, whilst being directly exposed to the emotionally charged experiences [of] practitioners”.
Equally, practitioners are often in the unenviable position of being directly exposed to the emotionally charged experiences of children and families with many either not receiving regular supervision or receiving supervision of questionable quality – overly focused on administration and management oversight and not focused enough on reflection, analysis and emotional support.
Share your experiences
We would like to find out more about social workers’ experience of supervision by asking you to take part in a brief survey. It’s completely anonymous and contains no personal questions. It takes around eight minutes to complete.
This research is being carried out by Dr David Wilkins (University of Bedfordshire). If you have any questions, you can contact David directly: firstname.lastname@example.org or @david82wilkins. The findings from this survey will be shared via Community Care and in other ways in due course.