Social Work Supervision

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Professional Supervision in Social Work


1.1.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.

1.2.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.

1.3.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.

1.4.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?

2.1.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.

2.2.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.

2.3.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.

2.4.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.

2.5.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).

2.6.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.

2.7.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

3.1.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?

3.2.This misunderstanding largely derives from a misunderstanding of autonomy. Autonomy is about working independently, yet often sharing that as...
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