UNISON SCOTLAND POSITION STATEMENT FOR 21st CENTURY REVIEW
Professional Supervision in Social Work
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.
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.
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.
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.
What is professional supervision?
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
- Shared decision-making
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?
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.
Shared decision-making involves
six main safeguards and benefits:-
Peer review of professional
decisions. This concept is widely accepted
in medical circles in the context of clinical
Protection of civil liberties.
It ensures that no client's liberty is affected
(eg coming into care) without scrutiny of that
Protection of clients.
It ensures clients are not left in unacceptable
risk situations on the basis of a single individual's
assessment or actions.
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.
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
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
Supervision and standards and ethics
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)
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))
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
to encourage the worker to
meet the professions objectives
to encourage quality of service
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
to provide a positive
environment within which social work
practice can be discussed and reviewed.
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
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
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.
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
While there is broad consensus about
the role of professional supervision, the element
of shared decision-making is often implied rather
Accordingly, a brief checklist of
the importance and purpose of supervision should be
adopted as follows
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.
Professional supervision involves:-
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
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
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.
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
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
- 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
Those expected standards need to be clearly articulated
and professionally valid.
- 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
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
Education and Training Standing Committee
Policy Statement on Supervision
Adopted at the National Council Meeting May 1998
Clinical Supervision UKCC Regulations
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)