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Within the social work profession, supervision is highly valued. Yet it is not clear how supervision supports good practice or how supervision makes a difference for children and families. In this study, using paired observations of group supervision and family meetings alongside interviews with parents, we explored the link between supervision, practice, and engagement. Considering each data set separately, we found a range of skill levels within the supervision discussions and in the meetings with families. Parents reported generally high levels of satisfaction with the service and in relation to their individual worker. But more importantly, we found a “golden thread” between certain elements of supervision, more skilful practice, and improved parental engagement. We discuss these key elements in detail and consider what these findings tell us about good supervision and what difference it can make for families and children.
A golden thread? The relationship between supervision, practice and parental
engagement in child and family social work.
Within the social work profession, supervision is highly valued. Yet it is not clear how
supervision supports good practice or how supervision makes a difference for children and
families. In this study, using paired observations of group supervision and family meetings
alongside interviews with parents, we explored the link between supervision, practice and
engagement. Considering each data set separately, we found a range of skill levels within the
supervision discussions and in the meetings with families. Parents reported generally high
levels of satisfaction with the service and in relation to their individual worker. But more
importantly, we found a ‘golden thread’ between certain elements of supervision, more
skilful practice and improved parental engagement. We discuss these key elements in detail
and consider what these findings tell us about good supervision and what difference it can
make for families and children.
Every child and family social worker is expected to receive regular supervision (Local
Government Association, 2014) despite the paucity of empirical evidence that it helps
improve practice or outcomes for children and families (Carpenter, Webb and Bostock,
2013). There is some data, mainly from the US, to suggest that ‘good supervision’ improves
worker satisfaction and retention (Ellet, 2008; Mor Barak et al., 2009). No doubt these are
useful outcomes. Yet they are not the stated aims of UK social work supervision. Instead,
supervision is intended to “ensure quality of service for people who use [them]” (British
Association of Social Workers, 2011, p.7) and to generate better outcomes for children and
families (Department for Education, 2015, p.6). Despite a growing interest in the field, a
recent international Delphi study concluded that the focus of supervision research needs to
change from self-report to empirical observation and analysis (Beddoe et al., 2016). This
refocused effort should, in our view, ask not ‘how does supervision make a difference for
workers?’ but ‘how does supervision make a difference for children and families?’. To aid
these efforts, the study presented in this paper reports a direct association between what
happens in supervision and parental engagement and goal-agreement within the context of
child protection services in England.
In 1991, Harkness and Hensley reported the findings from an experimental study of
supervision in the field of adult mental health. They organised for the provision of
supervision to four social workers over a 16-week period and measured three dimensions of
client satisfaction. 161 clients took part and answered questions about their mental health
(using the Generalized Contentment Scale; Hudson, 1982) and their satisfaction with the
service (using Client Satisfaction Scales; Poertner, 1986). In the first 8-weeks of the study,
the workers were provided with two hours of supervision per week with a ‘mixed-focus’. In
the second 8-weeks of the study, the supervision was provided with a ‘client-focus’. Mixed-
focus supervision included “administration, training and clinical consultation” (Harkness
and Hensley, 1991, p.507). Client-focused supervision considered instead the client’s
conceptualizations of the presenting problem, helping and outcomes”, with the aim of
helping workers to evaluate their practice in light of [these] conceptualizations, predictions
and outcomes” (ibid, p.507). To illustrate, Harkness and Hensley provide examples of the
kinds of questions discussed within client-focused supervision What does the client want
help with? How will you and the client know you are helping? How does the client describe a
successful outcome? What are you doing to help the client? How will that work? Does the
client say that will help?” (ibid, p.507). Following the change from mixed-focus to client-
focused supervision, Harkness and Hensley found a 10 per cent improvement in client
satisfaction with goal attainment, a 20 per cent improvement in satisfaction with worker
helpfulness and a 30 per cent improvement in satisfaction with the partnership between client
and practitioner (ibid, p.510). Although these are moderate effect sizes (Cohen, 1977), given
the simplicity of the intervention, they are nevertheless very significant. To our knowledge,
and despite the promising findings, the study has never been repeated and certainly not in the
context of child protection social work.
In 2017, Bostock et al. published an evaluation of a Department for Education-funded
programme to ‘scale and deepen’ the use of the ‘Reclaiming Model of Social Work’ in five
very different local authorities” (Bostock et al., 2017, p.8). As part of the evaluation, regular
observations were made of social workers in direct practice with families, usually during
home visits (ibid, p.79). These were “recorded and coded for key social work skills using a…
framework with established reliability (Whittaker et al., 2016, p.18)”. Twenty-two of the
workers observed during home visits were also observed during group supervision
discussions. These supervision sessions were coded independently from the practice
observations using a “systemic observation framework” (ibid, p.6). (Further details about
these frameworks and the coding process can be found in the report; Bostock et al., 2017,
p.80-81). Based on this framework, each supervision session was rated as ‘not systemic’ (n =
4, 18 per cent), as showing the ‘green shoots’ of systemic practice (n = 9, 41 per cent) or as
‘fully systemic’ (n = 9, 41 per cent; p. 46). The study found a “strong relationship between
the quality of systemic case discussion and the quality of practice (r=0.456, p=0.04).” (ibid,
p.46). The average practice score associated with non-systemic group supervision was 2.35.
The average practice score associated with ‘green shoots’ or ‘fully systemic’ group
supervision was 3.43. While these effect sizes are moderate, this ground-breaking study was
the first to report a positive relationship between ‘good supervision’ and improved practice
within the specific context of child and family social work in England.
In this paper, we investigate the same relationship between group supervision case
discussions and practice skill, albeit applying a different analytical framework for
supervision. That we arrive at similar findings adds weight to the conclusions drawn by
Bostock et al. (2017). In addition, we investigate the association between what happens in
group supervision and how parents experience and evaluate the service they receive. Thus,
we draw a ‘golden thread’ between supervision, practice and (a form of) outcomes.
Research design
The current study took place in early 2017 in a south east local authority. Following a
series of ‘inadequate’ Ofsted judgements, the children’s services department has been
significantly reconfigured. Previously, practitioners and managers operated in ‘traditional’
teams, with around six social workers individually responsible for a case load and supervised
by a team manager. Now, social workers have been reorganised into small units (or hubs),
alongside family therapists or other clinicians, business support officers and child and family
practitioners (Goodman and Trowler, 2011). These units between them share elements of
case responsibility and seek to work more collectively with families. One key component of
the unit model is a regular group supervision meeting, in which families and case work are
discussed communally. At the outset of our study, 12 hubs had been set up and all staff had
attended at least a two-day introductory training course on systemic social work practice. The
authority, wanting to know more about how this new approach was working, asked the Tilda
Goldberg Centre for Social Work and Social Care (TGC) to undertake a small exploratory
Data collection took place over a 4-month period. During this time, each social
worker taking part was asked to select one family for the research. If the family consented,
they were included in the sample. If the family did not consent, they were not included and
the practitioner was asked to identify another family (Figure 1).
The primary aim of the project was to explore how the new hub model was working.
Our three research questions were:
What happens in group supervision case discussions?
How does group supervision relate to what happens in family visits?
How does group supervision relate to families’ experience of the service?
To address these questions, we used a mixed-methods design combining observations
and audio-recordings of practice and supervision and interviews with social workers and
family members. The main purpose of using a mixed-methods design was to avoid the
limitations of self-report methods for evaluation. Typically, when researching social work
supervision, supervisors and practitioners are asked about their experiences of supervision.
While valuable, such approaches cannot tell us about the relationship between different
approaches to supervision, practice skill and outcomes for families (Whittaker et al., 2016,
Twenty-one families participated in observations of family visits. Of these, nineteen
gave consent for their family visit to be audio-recorded as well as observed. Two families
agreed to being observed but not audio-recorded. Nineteen family interviews were also
completed fourteen with mothers, three with mothers and fathers, and two with young
people. In addition, thirty-three professionals took part in twenty-two observed group
supervision discussions. This included one senior manager, three Consultant Social Workers,
two senior social workers, 8 social workers, 2 student social workers, 7 child and family
workers, two clinicians and three administrators. In addition, twenty-two case questionnaires
were completed by social workers about each family (Table 1).
Sampling took place in two ways. First, information about the project was circulated
to all members of staff and all twelve hubs were asked if they wanted to take part. Six hubs
volunteered and three of these were selected to participate by the Head of Operations based
on longevity. (The more established hubs were thought more likely to have embedded
systemic ways of working than the newer hubs.) Two of these hubs worked with children
subject to child protection plans and the third was an ‘early help’ hub.
Second, each hub was asked to identify up to eight families for the research. Hubs
were asked to consider criteria such as the length of time since referral, reasons for
involvement and the age of the child/ren, to obtain a relatively mixed sample.
Data collection
For each family, the intention was to collect four types of data using three different
methods (observations, questionnaires and interviews). First, a group supervision case
discussion about the family was observed and audio-recorded by a researcher. Second, the
lead worker for the family was asked to complete a case questionnaire, providing background
information such as length of time since referral, reasons for involvement and the severity
and nature of perceived risk or need. Third, the worker’s subsequent visit to the family was
observed and audio-recorded by a researcher. Finally, one or more family members were
interviewed about their experiences of the service, their relationship with the worker in the
family visit and their understanding about the goals for the work.
Audio recordings of supervision and family visits were analysed by a team of
researchers using two bespoke coding frameworks. These analyses were conducted
independently by researchers not otherwise involved with the project. The coding team were
‘blind’ to other information about the family, apart from what they heard on the recording.
Recordings of supervision and family visits were analysed independently (not by the same
Coding framework for group supervision discussions
The supervision coding framework supervision was developed by researchers at TGC
in consultation with practitioners and managers from a central London local authority
(Wilkins et al., forthcoming). The framework includes five dimensions - analysis and critical
thinking; clarity about risk or need; collaboration; focus on the child and family and support
for practice. Each dimension is coded on a three-point scale (1, 3 or 5). ‘1’ indicates the
dimension is ‘not present’ in the discussion, ‘3’ indicates the dimension is ‘somewhat
present’ and ‘5’ indicates the dimension is ‘significantly present’. The framework is currently
unpublished but an overview is provided in Table 2.
Coding framework for family visits
Family visits were analysed using a more established coding framework for social
work practice (Whittaker et al., 2016). This framework was initially developed based on the
Motivational Interviewing Treatment Integrity (MITI) manual (Moyers et al., 2010), adapted
for use in an English statutory child and family social work context. Studies across different
local authorities found that although the MITI captured some key elements of good practice
(e.g. empathy and collaboration), it needed to be extended in order to capture and reflect the
specific context of child and family social work. Further dimensions were then developed and
added to the MITI. These dimensions emerged from a consideration of the relevant literature
and from a series of seminars with leading academics, practitioners and senior managers from
the sector (Whittaker et al., p.50-54). This led to the current version of the framework
containing seven practice skills autonomy, collaboration, empathy, purposefulness, clarity
about risk, child focus and evocation. Each skill is coded on a five-point scale (1, 2, 3, 4 or
5), where 1 indicates a low level of skill and 5 a high level of skill. Six of the skills are
aggregated into two categories (Forrester and Killian, forthcoming) ‘care and engagement’,
a combination of autonomy, collaboration and empathy, and ‘good authority’ (Ferguson,
2011), a combination of purposefulness, clarity about risk and child focus. Evocation is only
coded for when there is a clear discussion about behaviour change issue (Bundy, 2004). This
results in each audio recording being assigned two category ratings for care and
engagement and good authority and, if applicable, a rating for evocation. Previous studies
have found a significant but moderate association between higher practice skills (measured
using this framework) and parental engagement (Forrester et al., forthcoming).
The relationship between the different methods
Observations of supervision and practice were compared using the two coding
frameworks outlined above. The application of these frameworks allowed us to explore the
relationship between different approaches to supervision and practice. Interviews with family
members provided data for the third link in this chain of supervision to practice to parental
engagement. Interviews with social workers were not used to inform our exploration of this
three-link chain but to inform our analysis of the supervision and practice sessions by
providing background and contextual information.
The study received approval from the Faculty of Health and Social Sciences’ ethics
committee of the authors’ university. Verbal consent was obtained from each parent prior to
the observations of group supervision. Written consent was obtained prior to the family visit
observation. Families were informed of their right to withdraw at any point up to the end of
data collection and to have all materials collected up to that point deleted. In agreement with
the authority, any serious concerns of malpractice were to be reported to the Chief Executive
Officer of the organisation and, if necessary, to the Health and Care Professions Council.
This did not occur.
Strengths and limitations
Our study has two key strengths and two key limitations. First, the study is based on
actual observations of supervision, rather than self-report measures. Second, data from
different methods were analysed independently, making our conclusions more reliable.
However, our sample size is small and based entirely within one local authority. This
may limit the applicability of our findings to other areas. Furthermore, the sampling of both
professionals and families was selective and those who took part may not represent the
broader population. We do not know, for example, how many families were approached by
social workers and declined to take part. Finally, we used a developing measure for assessing
the quality of supervision and although the results presented here may suggest it has a degree
of validity, it has yet to be properly tested and examined.
Description of supervision and family visit observations
Twenty-two group supervision discussions were observed. Attendance ranged from
five to fourteen people. Case discussions ranged from 11 to 59 minutes, with a mean of 33
minutes. The session structure was reasonably consistent across the three hubs and from one
case discussion to the next. Typically, the allocated worker provided background information
about the family and an update on recent activity. Other attendees would then ask questions,
make comments and suggest ideas. Many of the discussions included a review of previous
actions and agreement of future actions.
We also observed twenty-one family visits. Nineteen took place in the family home,
one in the office and one in a local Children’s Centre. There were no other professionals
involved apart from the allocated worker, all of whom were female. The majority involved
just one parent. In four of the meetings, the mother and father were present but no fathers
were observed alone. In two of the meetings, a child was present and another two involved a
young person alone. None of the meetings used an interpreter.
Group supervision discussions coding analysis
Using the supervision framework outlined above, we rated the quality of each case
discussion (Table 3). The size of the sample is too small to explore whether there were any
meaningful differences between different hubs or different types of case (e.g. child protection
or child in need).
Family visits coding analysis
Using the coding framework developed by Whittaker et al. (2016), we rated the skills
demonstrated by workers in family visits (Table 3). The two recordings involving children
seen alone were not coded for child focus. The overall score is an average of the six
dimension scores (or seven if evocation is included).
To place these results in context, the same framework has been used in several other
studies and workers typically score between two and two and a half overall, with moderately
higher scores for ‘good authority’ than for ‘care and engagement’ (Bostock et al., 2017;
Forrester et al., 2017).
Parent interviews
Based on the family interviews, twelve out of 17 parents (71%) said they were
pleased with the service overall. Parents generally reported positive experiences of the social
worker’s involvement and the quality of help provided (Tables 5 and 6). Of the twelve
parents with previous experience of social services, eleven (92%) said their current
experience was better.
Shared goals
Most parents said they had a good understanding about the goals of the work (Table
7). In eight of the 16 cases (50%), the goals of the worker and parent were closely matched
(in one of the seventeen completed interviews, the parent did not answer this question for
reasons unknown). In the other eight cases (50%), the goals were not closely matched,
although in six of these cases, the parent believed they had the same goal as the worker. In
the other two cases, the parent knew they did not share the worker’s goal.
The relationship between supervision and practice skills
We compared the quality of supervision discussions and the quality of social work
practice in family visits. We found significant associations between one dimension of
supervision (‘support for practice’) and two dimensions of practice: ‘good authority’ and
overall practice skills (Table 8).
To explore this association further, we placed each supervision discussion into one of
two categories practice-focused’ or ‘other-focused. Supervision discussions that scored
‘3’ or ‘5’ on the ‘support for practice’ dimension were included in the former (n=9). Those
that scored ‘1’ were included in the latter (n=13). Practice scores associated with the
practice-focused category were consistently higher than the “other-focusedcategory
(Table 9). These differences were significant for the practice skill category of ‘good
authority’ (t(15)=.-3.14, p=.007) and for overall skill (t(15)=-3.09, p=.008) but not for ‘care
and engagement’.
The following four extracts from selected supervision recordings demonstrate some of
the differences between practice- and other- focused supervision. By providing these extracts,
we hope to show with some degree of specificity what these differences ‘look like’ in
In the first example, explicit links were made between perceived risks to the child, the
work that had already been done and the work that still needed to be done. Although the
session began with a summary of activity, talk quickly turned to an evaluation of what this
activity had achieved in relation to the risks. The social worker identified a need for “some
parenting work with Mum” because this is what “[the mother] has requested”. The group then
discussed what elements of parenting the worker might want to focus on and by the end, the
worker had a clear plan for her next home visit. The discussion included an agreement about
what the worker was going to do (‘some parenting work with mum’), why she was going to
do it (‘[the mother] has requested [it]’) and how the worker could start this work in the next
home visit.
In the second example, the worker was interested in exploring the father’s own
experiences of being cared for as a child. The supervisor helped the worker think about the
kinds of questions she might ask, linking this to previous direct work completed with the
child he may want to have more physical affection, he maybe doesn’t know it or can’t say
it yet? So, questions like ‘how did your dad show affection’ or ‘how did your parents show
affection [might help]’? The social worker responded by saying, “Yeah, I hadn’t really
thought about specific questions but yeah, what kinds of things did he do with his dad, trying
to get to the affection side of things, that’s a good question to ask”.
In the third example, the supervisor suggests that she and the worker think about her
next conversation with the mother.
Sup: So, we can have a think about what you might do next?
SW: Absolutely. I need to follow up, I might put in a quick visit later…and sit down
with [mother].
Sup: If she has time for a chat today, maybe 5 minutes, [you could say] that’s great
that you went [to the alcohol service], how are you feeling about going tomorrow?
SW: Yep, if I don’t visit today, I’ll call her.
Sup: That’s great. And reinforce about her going tomorrow.
SW: Whether I visit today or not, I’ll certainly sit down with her and explore a bit
more about how it goes tomorrow, it’ll be new and her initial feelings about that.
Sup: The other thing we talked about was a session with her, looking at things she’s
achieved and then a sheet with things she’s still working on…helping her see you’ve
come this far but let’s try and work on these things because you don’t want to go
As in these examples, practice-focused supervision does not necessarily entail a very
long discussion. It can be as simple as deciding on some questions for the social worker to
ask in the next visit and being clear about why. ‘Other-focused’ supervision often did not
include a clear agreement about future actions or the rationale for them. Instead, they tended
to be characterized by: a lack of structure, a focus on the past and a superficial discussion of
problems and issues. There was often no sense that the social worker, or other members of
the group, understood the family or had a clear idea about where the case was headed.
Members of the group might ask lots of questions about a whole range of issues, but with
many of them going unexplored and unanswered. In many examples, no single issue was
discussed in-depth and there was no attempt to prioritise what might be the most important
issues. These factors seemed to operate as a barrier to more ‘practice-focused’ discussions.
The following extract demonstrates the flavor, if not the extent, of these sessions:
Sup: How old is he? 2?
SW: Two.
Sup: And we’ve been involved since?
SW: We got the referral when he was born, mind you, dad’s had two children
removed from his care previously.
Sup: What for?
SW: Neglect. For adoption.
Sup: The prognosis is?
SW: Not very good
Sup: No.
Sup: When are the family moving?
SW: They got the keys last Friday I’m told so over the weekend they were meant to be
moving stuff.
Sup: Because I would kind of watch that initially.
The relationship between supervision, parental experiences, goal-agreement and life rating
We then compared the quality of supervision, parental engagement, goal-agreement
and life-rating measures, using the same ‘practice-focused’ or ‘other-focused’ categories. For
all these areas, scores were higher in the ‘practice-focused’ category than the ‘other-focused’
category (Table 10). These differences were significant for goal agreement (t(14)=-2.675,
p=.018) but not for the other variables.
Summary of findings
We now return to our three research questions and summarise the key findings from
the study (Figure 2):
What happens in group supervision case discussions?
o Group supervision discussions scored relatively highly for ‘family and child
focus’ and ‘clarity about risk’ and relatively poorly for ‘collaboration’ and
‘support for practice’.
How does group supervision relate to what happens in family visits?
o Where supervision was ‘practice-focused’, there was a positive association
with more skillful social work practice, particularly the use of ‘good authority’
(purposefulness, clarity about risk and child focus).
How does families’ experience of the service relate to what happens in group
o ‘Practice-focused’ supervision discussions were also associated with higher
levels of parental engagement and goal-agreement (Figure 2).
Understanding how good supervision supports good practice and helps improve
parental engagement and goal-agreement is a complicated task. The number of variables that
would have to ‘line up’ to support such a relationship is high (Fleming and Steen, 2004). And
yet the belief that good supervision supports good practice and leads to better outcomes
(including better engagement) for service users is widespread (Kettle, 2015). In this paper,
we have described a golden-thread between supervision (of a particular type), improved
practice skills (measured in a certain way) and better parental engagement and goal-
agreement (within a specific context). The starting point of this golden thread is ‘practice-
focused’ supervision but what does this mean? Broadly, practice-focused supervision seeks
to answer three key questions:
1. What is the social worker going to do next?
2. Why is the social worker going to do those things?
3. How is the social worker going to do these things?
Sessions that score highly are characterized by a sustained curiosity about practice
and a sense that the responsibility for achieving good outcomes is shared between supervisor
and supervisee. Supervisors and supervisees will discuss clearly why they are going to do
these things rather than those things and will consider how best to share this rationale with
the family. The discussion will also include an exploration of how to complete these tasks.
For example, if the agreed action is for the worker to talk to a father about how his mental
health difficulties are impacting his parenting, the supervisor will spend time helping the
worker think how best to have this conversation. Would it be better to talk about it in the
office or at home? Would the father feel more comfortable if his partner were present or not?
How can we explain to the father why we think this matters? What kinds of questions might
lead to openness and self-reflection? What kinds of questions might lead to resistance and
defensiveness? How might the worker respond if the father becomes anxious or angry? And
how would we know if the conversation was helpful or not and for whom? When deciding
whether the session is practice-focused or not, researchers are encouraged to consider the
following three questions:
1. Do you know what the social worker is going to do in the next home visit or the next
few home visits with the family?
2. Do you understand why the social worker is going to do these things and how?
3. Has this discussion helped the social worker think more carefully about what they are
going to do, how and why?
On the other hand, ‘other-focused’ supervision sessions tend to be characterized by a
lack of curiosity and a sense that the quality of the social worker’s practice is his or her
responsibility alone. There may be no discussion about what the social worker is going to do
or these discussions will relate to procedure and process (e.g. completing an assessment,
referring to other services, completing a visit on time) rather than practice. There will be no
discussion - or only a very limited discussion - about why these actions are important or how
they might be completed in the family’s best interests. For example, the supervisor might
advise the social worker to talk to the mother about her partner’s suspected drug misuse but
offer no guidance about how nor make explicit why this particular action (as opposed to all
the other potential and equally-as-reasonable actions one could take) and why now.
Implications for practice: Creating the conditions for practice-focused supervision
Achieving more ‘practice-focused’ supervision is not as simple as asking in case
discussions more ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. For a start, within the context of a
mistrustful supervisory relationship, where the focus may be on accountability and
management oversight, a question such as “why are you thinking of doing that?” is likely to
provoke a defensive response rather than a reflective one. Being able to think and talk openly
with a supervisor about how and why you practice requires a degree of mutual trust and
respect. But assuming such a relationship does exist, there seem to be (at least) three
necessary conditions for more practice-focused supervision. Many of the best ‘practice-
focused’ sessions in this study were characterized by a respectful curiosity about families.
Even in situations of high risk, social workers and their supervisors had a genuine desire to
understand. For example, we observed one session in which the risk of physical harm from
domestic abuse was very high. Part of the discussion involved thinking about why the mother
might want to remain in a violent relationship or what barriers might be preventing her from
leaving. It was easy to imagine how the same kind of questions (‘why would she want to
stay? What are we missing about the relationship that makes it hard for us to understand?’)
might be posed very differently and more punitively without a foundation of respect and
genuine curiosity (‘why on earth would anyone stay in that situation? What kind of person
would make such a horrible decision?’).
From this foundation, we identified two other conditions that helped inform more
practice-focused discussions ‘child and family focus’ and ‘clarity about risk or need’
(Figure 3). The first involves a consideration of what life is like for different family members
and in particular the child/ren. The second involves an explicit discussion about risk (or need)
including what harm have the children experienced? What harm might they experience in
future? How likely is this harm to occur? What do other people, including the child and the
family, think about these risks? And is the level of risk increasing, decreasing or staying the
same? Clarity about these two things (‘child and family focus’ and ‘clarity about risk or
need’) often helped inform the three ‘support for practice’ questions – what are we going to
do? Why? And how?
In this paper, we have described a ‘golden thread’ between supervision, practice,
parental engagement and goal-agreement. By focusing on how supervision helps families,
rather than social workers, we hope to contribute to the developing debate about the
effectiveness of supervision in the context of child and family social work in England. For
several reasons, we have deliberately avoided a discussion of particular models of
supervision or the provision of a list of questions to ask in order to achieve more practice-
focused discussions. First, because there are already many excellent supervision models
available and our aim at this stage is not to develop another one. Second, because providing
practice-focused supervision probably depends more on attitudes and values than it does on
what might otherwise become a tick-box list of questions to get through. And third, because
although our findings may be promising, they are best considered as a series of case studies
rather than a robust evaluation. As ever, more research is needed in this case, the
implementation on a wider scale, in more than one local authority, of an existing model of
practice-focused supervision to which fidelity can be reliably measured (perhaps by using the
framework we are developing and have trialed in this study), followed by an experimental
evaluation of whether and how it works - or not - in widespread practice. And fourth, because
the provision of good supervision is not merely the responsibility of supervisors and
supervisees. Where managers are finding it hard to provide more helpful, practice-focused
supervision, we do need to ask whether they have the right skills to perform the job
effectively but we also need to question what support they have been given, whether they
have had proper training, whether they get proper support from their own managers and
whether they have adequate time and space to think about the complexity of the task they
have been given.
Nevertheless, as the basis for a thoughtful consideration of what good supervision
‘looks like’ in the context of child and family social work, we hope this paper has provided a
useful starting point (or way marker) for considering how supervision can support improved
practice skills but more importantly help increase parental engagement and goal-agreement as
part of the journey towards improved outcomes for families and children.
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Figures and tables
... Given the lack of research exploring what happens in supervision (Beddoe, 2012;Wilkins et al, 2017), little is known about whether and how supervision provides social workers with such a space. Wilkins et al (2018a) argue that supervision forms part of a 'golden thread' with practice and outcomes for children and families. Their findings suggest that where supervision is effective, practice is improved, and outcomes for families are more positive (Wilkins et al, 2018a). ...
... Wilkins et al (2018a) argue that supervision forms part of a 'golden thread' with practice and outcomes for children and families. Their findings suggest that where supervision is effective, practice is improved, and outcomes for families are more positive (Wilkins et al, 2018a). Supervision that promotes sensemaking should help to support social workers to make well-supported decisions about the lives of the children and families they are working with, and so the relationship between sensemaking and supervision is an important line of inquiry. ...
... Although there is generally a lack of empirical basis for supervision's efficacy (Carpenter et al, 2013), there is some evidence that supervision positively influences practice and outcomes. Wilkins et al (2018a) used audio recordings of systemic group supervision and home visits to explore the relationship between supervision, practice, and outcomes. Recordings of supervision and homes visits were analysed using parallel evaluative frameworks; interviews with social workers and families were also used as part of the study. ...
Full-text available
The way that children and families social workers make judgements and take decisions in their day-today practice has been an area of significant interest in the early part of the twenty-first century. However, the sensemaking process that underpins decision-making and judgement has received comparatively little scholarly attention. Social work supervision should offer a space where sensemaking can take place individually and collaboratively, yet little is known about what actually happens in supervision. This study contributes to addressing these gaps; using an ethnographic approach it explores how one-to-one supervision, informal supervision and peer discussion, and group case discussion support social workers' sensemaking. Data are derived from semi-structured interviews (n=22), recordings of formal one-to-one supervision sessions (n=17), and from participant observation of office case-talk (n=19) and group supervision (n=2) across two local authorities. The analysis highlights that social work sensemaking involves the process of constructing a case narrative through three stages: initial formulations, developing the narrative, and adopted accounts. Five key themes, situated within the first two sensemaking stages, are explored in presenting the analysis: case framing, case history, testing and weighing information, generating hypotheses, and feelings and relationships. In exploring key themes from the interview, supervision, and observation data, a key finding of the study is the context-dependence of how case narratives are presented and the role identity plays in these differing presentations. The way in which functions of supervision are dispersed across teams in day-today practice will also be highlighted as a key finding. Recommendations for practice are made, including the need for organisations to provide social workers and supervisors with spaces where they can engage with the emotional and relational aspects of their practice and explore their identity as social workers.
... Carpenter et al. (2012) recognised the practice imperative for social workers to receive emotional support and the resources to develop and maintain reflective thinking. However, the effect of supervision on practice is an area of research that requires further evaluation (Wilkins et al., 2018). To date, Watkins (2020) has stated that evidence supporting supervision is weak, particularly for worker and client outcomes. ...
... Whilst this study provided some initial investigation around supervision changing practice outcomes for social workers and their work, the impact of supervision on client outcomes needs to be central to further research in supervision (Watkins, 2020). Further studies, similar to Wilkins et al. (2018), and Bostock, Patrizo, Godfrey, Munro & Forrester, 2019) that explore practitioner work alongside effective practice with service users, are central to an Aotearoa New Zealand research agenda which builds towards better children and whānau, aiga (family) outcomes. Despite the limitations outlined, this study contributes towards the evidence base of supervision literature in social work practice in Aotearoa New Zealand, specifically supervision practices in OT. ...
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INTRODUCTION: Reflective social work supervision is essential to professional development, building resilience and client work. However, in child protection, supervision is preoccupied with managing risk and meeting outcomes at the expense of analysis and critical reflection. Oranga Tamariki (OT), the statutory child protection organisation in Aotearoa New Zealand, has recently been scrutinised for poor supervisory practice. The authors worked alongside OT social work supervisors and supervisees to explore ways to generate resilience, learning, self-awareness and develop practices that support reflective capability and well-being in supervision. METHODS: This article presents data from the pre/post online evaluation of an action research intervention study with OT supervisors and supervisees. The aim of the online survey was to measure participants’ supervision practices, and the extent to which perceptions of confidence, reflection, professional learning and resilience improved. FINDINGS: The findings are reported from key areas within OT supervision: the frequency of supervision sessions, the functions of supervision, engagement in reflection, supervision changing practice, resilience and longevity in social work careers and the supervision of supervisors. CONCLUSIONS: The results from the survey showed social workers had increased confidence as they built reflective capacity, resiliency and improved their supervision practice. The study identified the importance of developing learning spaces that enhance reflective supervision for supervisors and supervisees in child protection.
... British research about child welfare supervision has identified what happens in supervision, how it is recorded, a lack of time and space for reflection and supervision having primarily a managerial focus ( Beddoe et al., 2021;Saltiel, 2017;Wilkins et al., 2017). British researchers have also explored the relationship between supervision, practice, and clients and found that supervision focused on social work practice was associated with improvements in client outcomes Bostock, Patrizo, Godfrey, Munro et al., 2019;Wilkins et al., 2018). In North America, researchers have identified that child welfare supervision relationships varied according to agency culture, that supervisees were satisfied with strength-based supervision, and there was a relationship between work self-efficacy and supervision ( Julien-Chinn & Lietz, 2015;Lietz & Julien-Chinn, 2017;Zinn, 2015). ...
... It would also necessitate separating linemanagement from professional practice supervision and require an investment in building supervisor capability so that the professional supervision model and training aligns with the recommendations of He Pāharakeke, he Rito Whakakīkīnga Whāruarua: Oranga Tamariki Urgent Inquiry concerning better and more consistent supervision across all sites (Waitangi Tribunal, 2021). Recent UK research suggests that professional supervision focused on improving the practice of social workers is more likely to be associated with improvements in the outcomes for children and families Bostock, Patrizo, Godfrey, Munro et al., 2019, Wilkins et al., 2018. For such a significant change to occur for statutory social workers, the support of the professional and regulatory bodies in Aotearoa New Zealand is needed. ...
Full-text available
INTRODUCTION: This article examines the supervisory experiences and views of registered social workers across the practice areas of statutory services, health and non-government organisations (NGOs.) The article aims to establish a baseline for supervision across areas of practice in Aotearoa New Zealand and discuss the implications any differences have for the supervision of registered social workers. METHODS: Demographic data from 266 postal survey respondents was descriptively analysed. A one-way ANOVA and Tamhane T2 post hoc tests were applied using IBM SPSS 24 to explore variances in means for the independent variable of Area of Practice across 10 scales about the respondents’ supervision experiences. FINDINGS: Differences were identified in the workforce profile of each area, and there were significant differences in supervisees’ experiences of supervision across areas of practice which reflected each area’s different supervision culture, policy, and practices. The findings show that supervision in health and NGO areas was more professional, clinical, cultural, reflective and involved more positive content within a more constructive supervision climate than supervision in the statutory area. CONCLUSIONS: A significant difference was found between the quality of supervision experienced by social workers in health and NGOs and their statutory social work colleagues. This needs to be addressed through changing the supervision climate, developing supervisor capability and the uncluttering of supervision through separating professional/clinical supervision from line management. This study provides a foundation for further research that compares supervision across practice areas.
... Much of the systemic theory that underpins the Unit Meeting model stems from the work of the Milan Team, who employed the pioneering systemic theory of Gregory Bateson (1972) to work therapeutically with families (Boscolo et al., 1987). Research has indicated that the Unit Meeting model of social work supervision; is a positive forum for embedding reflective practice, generates multiple perspectives on practice (Bostock et al., 2017;Domakin & Curry, 2017), provides a space for supervisees to rehearse conversations with service users (Bostock et al., 2019), and leads to improvements in the quality of social work practice (Bostock et al., 2019;Wilkins et al., 2018). ...
... This increase in worker adherence was in turn linked to reduced youth behavioral problems (Schoenwald et al., 2009). Through observations of group supervision and workers' sessions with families in child welfare, Wilkins et al. (2018) found that supervision focused on practice (e.g., prompting reflection, including the family's voice), was associated with more skillful practice, goal agreement, and parental engagement. Supervision has been linked to improved client outcomes (Bambling et al., 2006;Callahan et al., 2009), although some studies have demonstrated limited or no impact of supervision on client outcomes (Martino et al., 2016;Rousmaniere et al., 2016;Whipple et al., 2020). ...
Contributing to the understanding of supervision within evidence-based interventions (EBIs), this paper presents a feasibility study implementing a workplace-based clinical supervision model within Canadian community-based agencies delivering the SNAP (Stop Now and Plan) EBIs for children with disruptive behaviors. Partial demand for implementing the model was demonstrated, as was acceptability and implementation by six sites (n = 6 supervisors, n = 21 practitioners), with challenges to practicality using existing resources. Proof of concept of the model for enhancing practitioner competence contributed to the determination of value in further researching the model and its impact on the SNAP EBIs.
... However, while revealing some important long-term institutional patterns, none of these studies researched the effects of organisations on the quality of face-to-face practice. Similarly, the literature on staff supervision in social work illuminates different approaches to and processes of support (Davys and Beddoe, 2010), and has only begun to explore the link between supervision, the quality of practice and service-user outcomes (Wilkins et al., 2018). ...
Research into social work and child protection has begun to observe practice to find out what social workers actually do, however, no such ethnographic research has been done into long-term practice. This article outlines and analyses the methods used in a study of long-term social work and child protection practice. Researchers spent fifteen months embedded in two social work departments observing organisa-tional practices, culture and staff supervision. We also regularly observed social work-er's encounters with children and families in a sample of thirty cases for up to a year, doing up to twenty-one observations of practice in the same cases. Family members were also interviewed up to 3 times during that time. This article argues that a methodology that gets as close as possible to practitioners and managers as they are doing the work and that takes a longitudinal approach can provide deep insights into what social work practice is, how helpful relationships with service users are established and sustained over time, or not, and the influence of organisations. The challenges and ethical dilemmas involved in doing long-term research that gets so close to social work teams, casework and service users for up to a year are considered.
... Travis,Pyun, & Xie, 2009;Wilkins, Lynch, & Antonopoulou, 2018). Supervision serves a wide range of functions, including professional education and development, provision of personal and clinical support, performance evaluation, administrative and managerial responsibilities, and mediation between professionals and the organization(Carpenter, Webb, & Bostock, 2013;Mor ...
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The current dissertation aimed to advance knowledge regarding the importance of the alliance between parents and professionals for outcomes of child, parent, and family treatment in general, and home-based parenting support in particular. Moreover, we examined whether key factors in home-based parenting support and the supervisory alliance may impact the parent-professional alliance, and (thereby) outcomes of home-based parenting support.
In Australia, like other developed countries, there has been an increase in reports to child protection services about children experiencing domestic violence. While there is research on the importance of the skills and knowledge of the child protection workforce for this growing problem, little is available about practitioner attitudes and beliefs. This paper presents findings on research undertaken in New South Wales, which is the most populated state in Australia. The research considered the attitudes and beliefs of the statutory child protection workforce about domestic violence. It relied on a large‐scale survey of 1041 child protection practitioners. In order to compare the attitudes and beliefs of child protection workforce with those of the general community, the survey replicated questions from the Australian National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Surveys. Overall, the attitudes and beliefs of the workforce more closely reflected contemporary theory and evidence about domestic violence than those of the community. The research also examined variations in the attitudes and beliefs of the child protection workforce according to practitioner characteristics, finding variations by gender. The implications for the fields of child protection and social work are discussed.
Despite an extensive history in developing, delivering and leading child protection (CP) services, social workers are not an explicit part of the health-based response to CP in the UK. In this setting, a biomedical discourse dominates, with doctors and nurses fulfilling the roles of named and designated safeguarding professionals. Supervision for these health professionals, while considered necessary, has a multi-layered system of governance with no clear policies to guide its content and purpose. This article will argue that the inclusion of social work expertise in health-based CP services, through an interprofessional approach to supervision, can offer clarity to the operationalisation of supervision and support integrated service development. A model for supervision, with experienced social workers engaged to supervise named safeguarding professionals, is outlined and informed by a psychodynamic perspective. With both CP and supervision an inherent part of the social work tradition, social workers are well placed to use specialist knowledge and insight within the health setting, through supervision, to strengthen reflective practice in this complex area of service delivery.
This article uses mixed methods to examine service user satisfaction with social work treatment in social services departments (SSDs) in Israel—its level, the factors that influence it and its experiential dimensions. A total of 235 service users (SUs) from 11 SSDs were interviewed for this study. They were divided into three groups: (a) SUs receiving standard treatment; (b) SUs participating in poverty‐aware programs and (c) SUs receiving a poverty‐aware standard treatment. The quantitative findings indicated a significant higher level of satisfaction among the SUs who had been included on poverty‐aware programs or received a poverty‐aware standard care compared to SUs who had received standard treatment. Additionally, high reported levels of satisfaction were influenced by the frequency of meetings between the service user and the social worker, while the history of care in the SSD had no apparent impact on satisfaction levels. The qualitative analysis indicated that high levels of satisfaction were linked to the service user perceiving the social worker as active, supportive and respectful, and as responsive to the user's emotional and material needs. These findings are discussed in the context of the Poverty‐Aware Paradigm and relationship‐based social work.
What are the developments influencing supervision in clinical psychology?
Supervision is currently of considerable interest in social work and is seen as a vital activity for meeting many professional demands: the continuing development of professional skills, practitioner well-being, the safeguarding of competent and ethical practice, and the oversight of casework. A recent UK review of evidence found that the empirical basis for supervision was relatively weak ( Carpenter et al., 2012) and evidential support for supervision as a core practice in social work is needed. This is a significant challenge to supervision educators and researchers. Given the breadth in understanding and implementation of social work across the globe and its distinctive shape in specific national settings, supervision is likely to be very different across these diverse contexts but few comparative data are available. A modified Delphi study was devised to address the question: Is there an international consensus on the agenda for research and development of supervision in social work? This article will outline the processes of study design and recruitment and will report on findings from the first phase of the project.
Objective: The objective of this study is to ascertain what is known about the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of supervision in child welfare in relation to outcomes for consumers/service users, staff and organizations. Method: This is a systematic review of the English language literature (2000-2012). Scoping study is followed by database searches of indexes and abstracts including Campbell Collaboration, CINAHL, the Cochrane Library, Medline, PsycInfo and Social Work Abstracts, journal hosts (EBSCO and IngentaConnect) plus specialist journals. Inclusion criteria: studies that reported on the associations between the provision of supervision and outcomes for service users/consumers, workers and organizations as well as intervention studies. Potentially relevant studies were independently screened by two reviewers (Stage 1) and if meeting the eligibility criteria proceed to full text review and data extraction (Stage 2). Studies were subject to critical appraisal by three reviewers using the Weight of Evidence approach (Stage 3). An analysis of included study characteristics is followed by a narrative synthesis of findings structured to answer the research objective. Results: 690 unique studies were identified at Stage 1,35 proceeded to Stage 2 and, following quality appraisal, 21 were included in the review. Almost all of the studies were cross-sectional, providing evidence of associations between the provision of supervision and a variety of outcomes for workers, including job satisfaction, self-efficacy and stress and for organizations, including workload management, case analysis and retention. There was only one, poorly reported, intervention study and no studies of outcomes for consumers. No economic evaluations were found. Conclusions: The evidence base for the effectiveness of supervision in child welfare is surprisingly weak. An agenda for research based on a framework for the development and evaluation of complex interventions is proposed.
Clinicians and clinical supervisors have a mutual interest in using client feedback to improve practice. Yet the literature provides little guidance to supervisors on this important supervisory role. This paper reports on a collaborative effort between clinicians and supervisors to develop a client feedback mechanism and define the supervisor's role in the use of this feedback to improve practice.
Effective supervision is a vital aspect of service delivery in social service organizations. This article provides a meta-analysis of 27 qualified research articles published between 1990 and 2007. The analysis thus includes a combined sample of 10,867 workers in child welfare, ocial work, and mental health settings. The results indicate that supervisory dimensions of task assistance, social and emotional support, and supervisory interpersonal interaction are positively and statistically significantly related to beneficial outcomes for workers. The dimensions of social and emotional supervisory support and supervisory interpersonal interaction are found to be negatively and statistically significantly related to detrimental outcomes for workers. All effect sizes were moderate (r at the 0.30 to 0.40 range). These findings underscore the importance of effective supervision in fostering beneficial outcomes and in limiting detrimental outcomes for workers. They also indicate that social service agencies should devote resources to training supervisors across all supervisory dimensions.
This paper outlines the purposes, professional obligations, and key components to consider when providing effective evaluation in psychotherapy supervision. An overview of various methods for gathering supervision data for evaluation purposes is provided including self-reporting; process notes; video and audiotaping; live observation; co-therapy; and practices of reflectivity. A review is provided of research findings related to evaluation in supervision. The paper describes the creation of a Supervision Outcomes by Method Evaluation Matrix to help supervisors identify the kinds of outcomes they are trying to facilitate and the methods they may want to employ to evaluate those outcomes. A list of references to articles on evaluation in supervision and on instruments and formats for evaluation in supervision are provided. (JDM)