‘We know bafflingly little about what actually happens in supervision’

Ensuring supervision is regular is vital but we need much more research into experiences of supervision and its impact, says David Wilkins

Image used on article We know bafflingly little about what happens in supervision showing supervision meeting_john Birdsall Rex
Photo: John Birdsall/Rex

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and both are references to policy documents (one – the Standards for employers and supervision framework – has now been archived from the Department for Education’s website, perhaps a testament to its perceived importance).

‘Management oversight’

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.

Share your experiences in the survey here.

This research is being carried out by Dr David Wilkins (University of Bedfordshire). If you have any questions, you can contact David directly: david.wilkins@beds.ac.uk or @david82wilkins. The findings from this survey will be shared via Community Care and in other ways in due course.

7 Responses to ‘We know bafflingly little about what actually happens in supervision’

  1. David Steare January 4, 2017 at 1:37 pm #

    What if supervision was effectively harmful in a case – how would we know?

    What if supervision was not as effective as counselling or coaching – how would we know?

    What if supervision harmed supervisees – how would we know?

    What if supervision records were grossly inaccurate or misleading – how would we know?

    • Anita Singh January 5, 2017 at 10:36 pm #

      No, we definitely wouldn’t know!

  2. Roisin Toolan January 5, 2017 at 2:56 pm #

    Why does this article not reference supervision provided to Social Workers working within the Adult social care sector? Supervision is important to ALL social workers who work in emotionally charged environments (adults and childrens), and your article seems to focus particularly on children’s, when looking at social work as a whole would be very useful.

    • Nikki January 5, 2017 at 11:39 pm #

      This was my thought. I work with adults and thankfully receive excellent supervision, but without it I would not be able to do my job. Supervision is just as vital for social workers outside of children and families services.

  3. SW 111 January 6, 2017 at 5:56 am #

    Supervision in some local authority is an exercise to control, demoralise, undermine and make the social worker a “dumb” worker. In this particular local authority it is simply an exercise for the managers to demonstrate their accountability by logging tasks that need completing, dismissing of what the social worker’s position is.
    In this particular instance, the supervisee was harmed by such supervision model.

    • Maharg January 11, 2017 at 4:10 pm #

      Sometimes you have a tick box process needs a tick box. And it may be too some evaluation of completion. However, sometimes despite all the rhetoric regarding maintaining the client Centre, process and work practices. Points mean prizes

  4. Beverly Turner-Daly @SparkySW January 6, 2017 at 8:17 am #

    Community Care carried out a survey like this in 2013 and followed it up with a live debate ( I was on the panel). Supervision surveys have for years been painting the same picture – insufficient and inconsistent – but not sure these ever result in any change? We need somehow to move supervision research beyond ‘state of the nation’ surveys and dig deeper ( push through the methodological challenges) AND ensure research findings are linked to action.

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