How one council put supervision at the heart of social work practice

Alex Turner meets the social workers investing time and energy into ensuring their work revolves around supervision.

Boosting social worker morale in South Gloucestershire (Credit: Kieran McManus)

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Attempting to hook up with South Gloucestershire children’s services to talk social work supervision neatly illustrates how hard maintaining regular sessions with time for reflection can be. Work pressures mean staff have to cancel and interviews are hastily rearranged with a different team across town.

The new venue is Patchway Hub, a sterile modern office block opposite a slightly tatty parade of shops on the northern fringes of Bristol. It contains a library, NHS and council services along with an abundance of blond wood, shiny lifts and hallways that echo to the sound of team members’ voices as they discuss, with a hint of nerves, speaking to a journalist.

But while the Hub may be nondescript, it’s an appropriately named site for the purposes of this article. South Gloucestershire’s stated approach to supervision – two years in the evolution – is to position it as the axis that social work practice turns around.

“We’ve all done training on getting the most out of supervision,” explains social worker Mark Skeet, who’s been with the team since 2011 and is about to become a senior practitioner. “There’s a level of expectation to bring something to the table and make the most of your role in that – not just rely on the supervisor to harness exactly what you need. It’s about having some responsibility.”

Greater responsibility for supervisees

The start of the process was South Gloucestershire’s decision to commission training offered by the now closed Children’s Workforce Development Council to supervisors of newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) for all its supervisory staff. A rolling programme of mandatory four-day sessions was started.

A supervisee scheme was subsequently established, with the intention of promoting a more reciprocal arrangement. A framework, incorporating tools used for completing assessments and decision-making that can be brought to supervisions, scanned in and captured, has been in place for the last three months. The cost of training and materials to date has been around £10,000.

“We spend a lot of time putting together the plans for supervision,” says Skeet. “It becomes an inherent part of the process, making preparation a part of casework. You become so familiar with it that it becomes a normal part of leading up to supervision.”

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Practice manager Joy Watterson has helped implement the set-up. She joined South Gloucestershire four years ago as a social worker and believes the supervision toolkit and a greater emphasis on the supervisee’s role encourages practitioners to advance cases confidently and develop their professional expertise, meaning they’re likely to be happier in their work and less inclined to seek a move.

“I’ve found it really helpful in picking apart complex child protection cases and getting down to the detail of where issues are,” she says. “It takes you through the process of working out long-term prospects for families and making a decision about what the next step is.”

Conversation moves on to a recent, complex case involving the potential risk of some children being sexually abused by a man relatively new to their family – with their mother struggling to acknowledge that her partner’s past posed any problem. “The journey we’ve been on is trying to engage her and work out whether there’s a risk or not,” Watterson continues. “I sat down with the social worker and spent half an hour going through the tools we use.

“That tipped me into being able to make a decision: ‘No, we have hit the child protection threshold and we’re going to take this to conference’. It felt like we’d gone through the process in the right way; we were clear about the decisions we’d made. The social worker was feeling lots of anxiety and then felt much more in control.”

Boosting morale

Decisions taken in this way – with input from the supervisee – are recorded to show that a manager has helped review the case. Sarah Lally, who’s recently joined the team as a social worker, agrees that the approach has helped her morale.

“It’s positive being linked in and connected, and my supervisor knowing what’s going on and following my work,” she says. “In the past, I’ve had supervisors out of touch; it can lead to bad decisions both by them and me.”

Even so, tough choices inevitably have to be taken outside of the two hours’ core supervision. Group discussion is promoted, including drop-in sessions for social workers struggling to get to grips with aspects of their training. More senior practitioners are expected to share experience and provide ad-hoc guidance to less seasoned members of staff.

“As a team, and as a management group, they have a handle on what our skills are,” says Skeet. “I’m sure my supervisor will have knowledge of my strengths and difficulties – once you’ve got that you can have a sense of what role you play. That comes from the top down – it’s ingrained in the team culture that support, guidance and developing practitioners has always been the main thing we’re about.”

Skeet and Lally freely admit that having to think and work hard in order to adjust to their team’s methodology has taken some getting used to. And while insisting that other social work employers should be capable of evolving similar models, South Gloucestershire safeguarding development manager Vicki Green (pictured left) acknowledges that it isn’t always plain sailing.

“Change takes energy – when managers are exhausted to do things in a different way means stopping and thinking,” she says. “The biggest challenge is getting people to understand that time invested at the right point is time saved. If you’re making good assessments and decisions in a timely fashion, the outcomes for the children are better and you’ll be able to do it quicker by doing it more accurately.”

Moving from reflection to action

Timeframes are something that Green raises more than once. While she’s keen for her team to promote reflective practice, she stresses that though performance management shouldn’t be “a big stick to beat people with”, nor is it something to be shied away from.

“Reflection alone isn’t going to make any difference to a child,” says Green. “You have to move from reflection and analysis to action: ‘What are we going to do?’
“It’s about identifying what type of person you are – you can also get into just going straight from story to action. The risk of social work supervision in the past has been too much about talking about feelings. It’s necessary, but you need to move on into action.”

Action is something that Green admits may still be needed in terms of the supervision framework itself. Despite the anecdotal evidence of staff feeling empowered, and recording processes being in place, there aren’t yet conclusive figures to display improved social work practice, better outcomes for children or long-term retention of staff. It’s still a work in progress.

“I could talk about this for Ireland,” she concludes, digressing into the ongoing social work improvement plan for the area and the merging of South Gloucestershire’ children and adults’ assessed and supported year in employment or ASYE streams in order to promote uniformity of experience. “I want to emphasise that we don’t have the perfect model, but we’re working on getting there.”

Main picture, left to right: Joy Watterson, Vicki Green, Sarah Lally. Pictured in supervision with Joy Watterson is social worker Scott Nichols.

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