Supervision and Social Work

In advance of an the SWSCmedia chat on supervision (15/11/2011 – 8pm GMT), I thought I’d share some thoughts of my own experiences of supervising and of being supervised.

I’m not a manager but I am a Practice Educator so my experience of supervising is around supervising students rather than other practitioners and I have different needs and requirements both of the supervision I give and the supervision I receive but I’m also acutely aware of the reality of supervision structures in busy statutory services.

According to, to supervise is to oversee (a process, work, workers, etc.) during execution or performance; superintend; have the oversight and direction of.

We sometimes can become beholden to the ‘fluffier’ sides of supervision as professional growth and nurturing but ultimately, it is a management function and that is crucial to remember at all times. It is important that there is a two-way flow of information but forgetting that ultimately it is a way that we are held professionally accountable for our actions is the underlying motive and purpose of being supervised.

Fpr me, the key is that supervision determines accountability.

I have worked in social care for many years and have experiences of different models of supervision but I’m not sure that ‘supervision’ is always the best way of describing the process as it confers a differentiation in status. One is ‘given’ supervision from someone else – usually someone who holds a managerial or more senior position. Power is always present in this type of supervision. It isn’t a bad thing or a good thing but it does need to be acknowledged by both parties.

So the purpose of supervision is to instil accountability. That is why regular supervision is so important. It allows responsibility and accountability to be shared upwards. If I tell my manager about difficulties, ask support and document my request and their response, it is, to put it brutally, a sharing of the responsibility to an extent.

But supervision is not only about defensive management although to deny it is, is to have an unrealistic perception of realities in the world of social care and health.

Supervision should also be a process of personal growth and reflection although in this sense, it depends very much on the relationship between the supervisor and the supervised. Ideally, it will be a time to reflect on the processes of the work and the theoretical grounding and to share and inform practice with new research but often times this is displaced by the management function.

So how can supervision be drawn back to the model of being a two-sided process rather than strictly top down management. I  have a few ideas and experiences of different models which have helped.

There are also models of group/peer supervision. I have done this in a few different ways in different teams I have worked in. One team has had regular meetings relating particularly to new research, another has had discussions around particular cases to share ideas and perspectives and others have been particularly around social work theories and practice.

Another model I’ve heard about relates to having professional and clinical supervision separately. This has happened in our team where the manager is not of the same professional ‘group’ as the supervisee. I currently have a social worker as my manager but when I had a nurse manager, I met separately with a senior social worker to discuss more general issues particularly related to social work rather than the case management discussions I would continue to have with my line manager.

As a practice educator, again, I use supervision differently with a student as we have clear boundaries and expectations regarding teaching and interactions during supervision. It is partly case management but it is partly a discussion about research/theory/law and learning.

The problem is time but we have a responsiblitity to actively engage and promote good supervision and it is possible to do that from the part of the person who is being supervised. While my manager will lead the discussion, I think it is important to move it beyond a list of cases.

While the Social Work Taskforce have concentrated on supervision as a focus of promoting good professional practice – quite rightly – it is something we cannot merely allow our managers to direct.

Social Workers need to be responsible, as professionals, for our own learning and to an extent we can marshall the quality of our own supervision by demanding the requisite type and demanding that we move beyond case discussions as a process. It is only by advocating and demanding that we can counter some of the power imbalances both in our own profession and in the fight for social justice and the improvement of the lives of the service users who rely on us being about to speak out and advocate for them.

Supervision is management – but it is a tool that we should demand is of a quality and adds to our learning.

I hope be present at the chat tonight and will be interested in the ideas and conversation that develops.

One thought on “Supervision and Social Work

  1. Pingback: Supervision in Social Work « Social Work/Social Care & Media

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