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Professional Supervision in Social Work

  1. Introduction

    1. The 21st Century Review of Social Work, the various restructurings across Scottish Local Authorities and the range of different arrangements across voluntary and private providers has led to a debate about the meaning and role of Social Work supervision.

    2. The term supervision is widely interpreted and often misunderstood in its traditional context of directly monitoring, observing or training. The focus in this paper is on trying to arrive at a modern definition of supervision, or more accurately professional or clinical supervision.

    3. There is a similar lack of clarity about terms like autonomy and accountability or responsibility. These are not analysed in detail here but they link into the definition of professional supervision.

    4. No Social Worker can work with entire autonomy and professional supervision is the key process for balancing professional autonomy with responsibility to the client, professional ethics and standards along with accountability to the agency and society at large.

  2. What is professional supervision?

    1. Professional supervision is a (if not the) key element in recruitment and retention. The nature and frequency of supervision is one of the main questions asked by candidates in interviews and the lack of supervision is often quoted by professionals as their reason for changing jobs. It is highly valued by social workers.

    2. Much of the academic work describes the purpose and the process of supervision in Social Work rather than defining the term. However, where there is an attempt to define the principle, there is remarkable consistency over the years.

    3. M.K. Smith (1996) pulls together a range of models stemming from Kadushin's model of supervision which itself calls on much earlier work by John Dawson (1926). Dawson defined the purpose of supervision as Administrative, Educational and Supportive. At least these three elements recur in a range of writings on the subject.

    4. The administrative element ensures that agency policy is implemented but also enables supervisees to work to the best of their ability. From that point of view, supervision has a quality assurance function that is in the interests of the client and agency as much as the professional.

    5. The educational element encourages reflection on, and exploration of the work and of current research, evidence and policy. Supervisees are helped to understand the client better, be aware of their own responses, examine the dynamics of the relationship and evaluate their intervention. It involves exploring other ways of working through peer or agency knowledge and suggests further development though mentoring, reading or training to deliver on objectives. Smith outlines a helpful chart describing this process by Hawkins and Shohet (1989).

    6. The supportive element builds on morale and job satisfaction at its basic level. It involves understanding, identifying stress factors that may affect the professional and may impinge on the client. Part of this is ensuring that staff are carrying manageable workloads, which allow them to meet the requirements of their role. At its extreme end it involves an assessment of whether practice is safe for the professional, the client and the agency.

    7. However, as the nature of the professional Social Work task has developed, this takes on a more crucial element. Kadushin and Smith crucially identify the issue of shared decision-making and this is the element most valued by Social Workers.

  3. Shared decision-making

    1. The concept of shared decision-making is often misunderstood. How can Social Workers want autonomy but also want to be part of a process that examines decision-making and seeks to arrive at an agreed plan of action?

    2. This misunderstanding largely derives from a misunderstanding of autonomy. Autonomy is about working independently, yet often sharing that as part of a team. It is about taking responsibility for assessment and actions, yet accepting scrutiny from peers, clients, the agency and the profession. Social Workers largely understand these tensions and do not see themselves as totally independent (or perhaps isolated) rules unto themselves.

    3. Shared decision-making involves six main safeguards and benefits:-
      1. Peer review of professional decisions. This concept is widely accepted in medical circles in the context of clinical supervision.
      2. Protection of civil liberties. It ensures that no client's liberty is affected (eg coming into care) without scrutiny of that decision.
      3. Protection of clients. It ensures clients are not left in unacceptable risk situations on the basis of a single individual's assessment or actions.
      4. Protection of staff: It ensures that professionals are not put into a position where situations may exceed their knowledge, skills or experience or where they are having to manage very stressful and emotional situations. It builds and maintains morale.
      5. Protection of the Agency. Just as professionals are accountable to their agency, the reality is that agencies are accountable for the actions of their employees or staff they have otherwise engaged or contracted. Shared-decision making ensures a fail-safe element and confirms that the agency has taken the importance of scrutiny seriously.
      6. It encourages openness and collective responsibility. At its best it creates a climate where professionals are open about their decision making process, are prepared to jointly take responsibility for it and, to achieve this, are prepared to challenge each other in the interests of the client and indeed the agency.

  4. Supervision and standards and ethics

    1. There is remarkable consistency from a range of organisations about the importance and role of professional supervision.
      The British Association of Social Workers' code of ethics includes the statement ".. the supervisor's role is educational, supportive, developmental and work-focused" (BASW Code of Ethics 4.4.2)

    2. The American National Association of Social Workers state "Social workers should provide services in substantive areas or use intervention techniques or approaches that are new to them only after engaging in appropriate study, training, consultation, and supervision from people who are competent in those interventions or techniques" (NASW Code Of Ethics 1.04(b))

    3. The Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers
      Education and Training Standing Committee outlines helpful headings for the purposes of supervision

      to ensure the worker is clear about roles and responsibilities

      to encourage the worker to meet the professions objectives

      to encourage quality of service to clients

      to encourage professional development and provide personal support

      to assist in identifying and managing stress

      to consider the resources the worker has available to do theiR

      job and discuss issues arising where they are inadequate

      to provide a positive environment within which social work practice can be discussed and reviewed.

    4. The American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work defines supervision as addressing four domains: direct practice, treatment-team collaboration, continued learning, and job management. (Clinical Supervision: A Practice Specialty of Clinical Social Work - A Position Statement of the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work: 2004)

    5. The United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting (1996) produced a position statement on clinical supervision for nurses and health visitors; these principles have since been adopted by their successor, The Nursing and Midwifery Council (2000). One of the six key statements is "Clinical supervision is a practice-focused professional relationship involving a practitioner reflecting on practice guided by a skilled supervisor"

  5. Conclusions
    1. The term supervision is well understood by Social Work and other professionals, however it is often misunderstood in wider circles as an oppressive rather than supportive process geared towards quality assurance, improvement and protection.

    2. Because it is so well understood by Social Workers and forms a major role in recruitment, retention and job satisfaction, attempts to find another term to describe it should be resisted. However, more clarity could result from using the term professional supervision.

    3. While there is broad consensus about the role of professional supervision, the element of shared decision-making is often implied rather than explicit.

    4. Accordingly, a brief checklist of the importance and purpose of supervision should be adopted as follows

    5. Professional supervision is:

      Essential to maintaining and developing practice in the interests of clients, professionals and agencies which engage professionals.

      Delivered by an appropriately qualified Social Work professional with competency in supervision and who is recognised by the agency for that purpose.

    6. Professional supervision involves:-

      Quality Assurance:

      Ensuring that professional and agency objectives are understood and are met.

      Ensuring quality of service to clients within relevant codes of standards and ethics.

      Ensuring that practice is accountable and evidence based

      Assessing resources available to the worker and addressing issues arising from that.

      Learning and Development

      Developing individuals personally and professionally by encouraging professional development at a minimum to meet SSSC standards and identifying appropriate development opportunities.

      Ensuring that the Social Worker and agency maintain up to date knowledge about research, evidence and practice. Using knowledge and experience to explore new ways of working


      Providing a positive environment from which practice can be discussed and reviewed and morale and commitment can be maintained.

      Identifying and managing stress factors that may impinge on the worker, client or agency.

      Ensuring workloads are manageable and enable staff to meet the requirements of their role.

      Sharing, debriefing and identifying any further required resources to address responses to stressful situations.

      Challenging in a constructive way in the interests of client, worker and agency.

      Shared decision-making

      Ensuring peer and management review of professional decisions and to encourage mutual learning and development.

      Ensuring that clients' safety, civil liberties and other interests are protected so that decisions affecting these factors are shared and reviewed.

      Ensuring that workers are not put in a position where situations may exceed their knowledge, skills or experience or where they are managing very stressful and emotional situations.

      Ensuring safeguards to maintain agency duties and responsibilities.

      To encourage openness and collective responsibility, primarily in the interests of clients and to develop a supportive but challenging environment for managing risk.

    7. The agency and accountability issues described above must take into account individual capacity and workload. It is therefore essential that that agencies develop transparent and workable workload management systems that realistically match capacity to expected agency standards.

      Those expected standards need to be clearly articulated and professionally valid.

    8. Agencies should recognise that there is a possibility that conflicts may arise in supervision and that, for a range of reasons, the process may not function as well as it should or be as positive as it should. They should therefore develop procedures that allow for mediation, independent review and conflict resolution in addition to the normal employment policies and procedures open to practitioners.


Sept. 2006


Smith, M. K. (1996) 'The functions of supervision', the encyclopedia of informal education, Last update: January 28, 2005

British Association of Social Workers

Code of Ethics


National Association of Social Workers
Code of Ethics

Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers
Education and Training Standing Committee
Policy Statement on Supervision
Adopted at the National Council Meeting May 1998


Clinical Supervision UKCC Regulations

Clinical Supervision:

A Practice Specialty of Clinical Social Work

A Position Statement of the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work (Adopted October 8, 2004 Published October, 2004)