Pioneers in better supervision for social workers

The Social Work Task Force confirmed that many social workers were missing out on high-quality supervision and recommended an overhaul. Mark Hunter looks at some of the innovative solutions employers are using already

The Social Work Task Force confirmed that many social workers were missing out on high-quality supervision and recommended an overhaul. Mark Hunter looks at some of the innovative solutions employers are using already

The recent history of supervision in social work does not make pretty reading. Almost every national survey on the subject has highlighted practice that is poor, patchy or, in some cases, completely non-existent.

An extensive survey of social workers’ workloads, published by the Social Work Task Force this year, found a quarter of children’s social workers and more than a third of adult services practitioners were not receiving monthly supervision. Moreover, the emphasis had shifted from reflection, personal development and support, to a model dominated by targets, case discussion and action planning.

These findings mirror those of many previous reports. 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. Community Care’s own research carried out in 2009 found that over a quarter of social care professionals receive no supervision at all, while a further 31% receive inadequate supervision for their workload.

In a chilling echo to the conclusion of his 2003 report into the death of Victoria Climbié, Lord Laming last year claimed that the tradition of deliberate, reflective social work practice was being “put in danger because of an overemphasis on process and targets, resulting in a loss of confidence amongst social workers”.

In his national child protection review, Laming described the provision of organised supervision as “critical”. But the problems cannot be attributed to a lack of initiatives attempting to improve the situation.

The Skills for Care and the Children’s Workforce Development Council produced guidance on effective supervision in 2007, while newly qualified social workers taking part in the skills councils’ support programmes receive guaranteed supervision. Further guidance is due in April 2011 when, following recommendations in the Social Work Task Force’s final report, national standards for employers will be published, including requirements for supervision.

However, despite the abundance of guidelines, the question remains whether these ideas can be put into practice. With social care budgets under threat, will supervision ever be given the priority it deserves?

Evidence from around the country suggests that it might. Indeed, scratch beneath the surface of all the negative reports, and numerous examples of good practice emerge. Recent unannounced Ofsted inspections of children’s services have highlighted good staff supervision in many councils. Creative approaches to supervision are being used in a variety of different settings. Here, we focus on three of them.

Suitable supervision

Following recommendations by the Social Work Task Force:

  • A new standard for employers in England governing social worker supervision comes into force in April 2011.
  • The taskforce called for supervision to be weekly in the first six weeks of employment and fortnightly for the rest of the first six months.
  • After six months, at least an hour and a half of uninterrupted supervision should be provided at least once a month.
  • Where the line manager is not a social worker, professional support should be provided by an experienced supervisor. Support for the supervisors model

Support for the supervisors model

Dorset Council children’s services

Led by: Learning and development manager

Participants: Managers and assistant managers

Format and frequency: Regular meetings to discuss staff supervision

“We all understand the importance of supervision,” says Mike Henry, learning and development manager, at Dorset Council children’s services. “But how can we remove some of the barriers that prevent us from providing the kind of supervision that we know we should?”

Henry chairs regular meetings with managers and assistant managers to discuss staff supervision.

“Rather than just saying to the supervisors this is how is should be done, what we are trying to do is to look at where there may be gaps in our provision and to understand the obstacles,” he says.

Inevitably time constraints and lack of resources tend to top the list.

“The party line is that supervision should be at least monthly, that it should cover all open cases, and allow time for critical reflection. But it all depends on how many people you have.”

4x4x4 model

NSPCC Bradford

Led by: Children’s services manager

Participants: Social workers

Format and frequency: 1:1 formal supervision sessions at least once a month. Ad-hoc supervision when issues arise

Sharda Parthasarathi, children’s services manager at NSPCC Bradford, is a strong advocate of the 4x4x4 model of supervision pioneered by the late social work supervision guru Tony Morrison.

This outlines four functions of supervision: management, mediation, development, and personal support. These are integrated with four types of supervision: experience, reflection, analysis and action planning. The model then focuses on the needs of the four stakeholders: the child, the worker, the organisation and partners.

“It’s very important that we have a shared agenda for supervision,” says Parthasarathi. “So it’s not just me asking questions and ticking boxes. It needs to be a safe environment where staff are not afraid to express any anxieties.”

All social workers at Bradford NSPCC attend one-to-one supervision with their manager at least once a month, covering all open cases, analysing action plans and the social worker’s feelings and any anxieties. Ad-hoc meetings take place as and when issues arise. All decisions and action points are recorded on the child’s file.

“One of the first things I do when we have a new member of staff is to take a supervision history,” says Parthasarathi. “We sit down and discuss the kind of supervision they have had in the past – what works and what doesn’t work and what they feel they need from supervision.”

Although Parthasarathi is keen to offer as much support as possible to staff, she emphasises it is not possible to completely eliminate the performance management aspect of supervision.

“We work with difficult and stressful cases. So if someone doesn’t have the resilience they need to cope with that then we may need to find them a different kind of work. My staff matter to me very much. But my ultimate responsibility is to the child.”

Time to Think

Bath and North East Somerset Children’s Service

Led by: Children’s centre manager/Integrated working manager

Participants: Social workers, nursery staff, school nurses, youth workers, substance misuse workers, voluntary workers, youth offending team staff, education officers, police officers

Format and frequency: Two-day training course followed up by two-hour group discussion sessions every six weeks

Bath and NE Somerset children’s service is promoting the use of peer support for staff adopting the lead professional role under the Every Child Matters programme.

The project features a two-day training course followed by regular group discussions involving up to 12 practitioners. It is based on the “time to think” principles, originated by US leadership coaching specialist Nancy Kline. The system is designed to help people think out of problems and reflective solutions. The sort of issues discussed include: “I’m not the lead professional but the parent keeps coming to me”; “I need to be clear on my role”; and “I don’t know how I’m going to get everybody around the table”.

“It’s a peer support model rather than a supervision model,” says integrated working and local area partnership manager Caroline Dowson. “We wanted to make a distinction between supporting staff with issues that come up during their professional practice and the kind of performance management that would be conducted by their line manager.

“The aim is to help unblock some of the practical issues that come up during day-to-day practice. Some staff are also using their new skills to offer each other informal one-to-one support.”

The model is now being rolled out across three local area partnerships, and integrated working and local area partnership manager Jackie Deas says its value lies in enabling people to “communicate through listening and being attentive”. She says: “Practitioners involved are already reporting how good it feels to know you are not alone with challenging issues.”

See the final taskforce report

Related articles

Poor supervision continues to hinder child protection practice

Social Work Task Force: what the final report means for you

Reflective practice: luxury or necessity for social workers?

Solutions in Supervision, 15 April, Community Care

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