Two’s company: Is Three a Crowd? Transforming social work practice through supervision
Our Associate, Heather Tyrrell, tells us more about her current PhD research and her findings so far.
I began working as a part-time PhD student on my doctoral research project in September 2015, in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Swansea University. The title of my research study is: ‘Two’s company: Is Three a Crowd? Transforming social work practice through supervision’.
The premise of my research is that strength-based social work practice requires a strength-based model within supervision. A strength-based approach is not just for citizens, but is the basis of relationships between us all as human beings, as well as professionals or citizens. Adopting this perspective on supervision allows the potential for co-productive relationships between citizens as service users and practitioners and managers to emerge. In this way, supervision can become more collaborative and empowering for practitioners, helping them to help citizens.
Throughout my professional career as a practitioner and as a manager, I have always believed that effective supervision can transform practice and make a difference to practitioners’ lives – consequently creating better outcomes for citizens. I firmly believe that the role and responsibility of supervisors is to create a critically reflective space in which practitioners can evaluate their practice in a safe and supportive environment. The relationship a social worker has with their manager or supervisor is critical to a social worker’s professional development, competence and confidence.
The Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act emphasises the importance of having a strength-based approach to practice and developing co-productive relationships. This is in comparison to the care management approach to social work, which is deficit soaked, based on what people couldn’t do and with services they could or couldn’t have. As a manager, it seemed logical to me that if social workers are being asked to change the way they think about their practice, managers also need to work with social workers in different ways – especially regarding how far the personal outcomes of citizens are being achieved.
The research has used focus group discussions with social workers, senior practitioners and managers working in local authority adult service departments. I also held some focus group discussions with social workers and managers in non-statutory services, although these were much smaller than the local authority groups. I was fortunate in that four authorities from across Wales supported the study. The discussion groups looked at what was usually discussed in supervision, how far citizens’ voice as a service user was included in that discussion and how beneficial social workers considered their supervision was in their professional development. Except for one local authority, the common experience was that supervision was a ‘conveyor belt’ experience – focusing on how quickly assessments could be processed; what had been done/not done, with little time left for individual reflection on the impact or emotional content of interactions. This is not to imply that supervision was consciously negative; as one participant described it: ‘that’s the only way I know [supervision] to be’.
I am now at the stage of working with two local authorities to explore what and how a strength-based approach to supervision could be worked out. Such a model will need to show how citizens’ voice can be a central feature of the discussions, as well as how it will support and enable practitioners to reframe their knowledge and skills, and critically what vital skills and role supervisors need in order to support practitioners’ continued professional development and competence.
At the same time, I have started working with groups of citizens to learn about their experience of adult services. Discussions so far have begun to identify innovative ways in which citizens feel they could contribute their views and ideas if asked and how they can contribute to the development of co-productive relationships that enrich social work practice.
Developing a strength-based model of supervision is an exciting and creative way of developing professional social work practice. The next stage of the research study is to start those conversations with groups of practitioners, managers and with citizens to explore separately and collaboratively how this could be achieved. There are already pockets of extraordinary practice both for citizens as service users and professionals. The challenge and, I hope, the contribution my research study will make to practice in Wales, will be to extend that ‘extraordinary’ practice into ordinary, everyday reality.Back to blogs