Newly qualified social workers conference

Published in Post-event summaries on 10 Jul 2018

Building the Future; Shaping our Social Work Identity newly qualified social workers conference was held on 31 May 2018. Here we provide a review of the day. 

Social work identity

NQSW conference

The conference was opened by Viv Cree, Professor of Social work studies at the University of Edinburgh. On the conference theme of social work identity, she identifies herself as a qualified social worker, a BASW member and registered with the SSSC, which are all important to ‘who I am’ and her professional identity as a social worker: ‘I may have left the coalface, but I never left social work’.
Congratulations are bestowed on all the conference attendees for having reached this point in their social work career. She highlights that it's also a time to look back and celebrate where we have come from, and the journey travelled. Edinburgh University is celebrating 100 years of social work, with the first course set up by the town council and University in 1918, as part of WWI reconstruction. It’s also 50 years since the Social Work (Scotland) Act, 1968. The centenary timeline captures key points in this shared history, from the formation of BASW in 1970, to devolution in 1998 to the setting up of the SSSC in 2003.

There are also 100 stories from former students and academics. Her key point, perhaps, is that it’s social work’s belief that it can make a difference to the lives of individuals and society, and the collection of stories we tell about the profession, that gives social work its identity -  and this must be retained going forward.

Be a lighthouse

Jane Johnstone, Professional Social Work Adviser at Scottish Government touched on changes over the last 50 years since the Social Work Scotland Act, key messages about rights based approaches, and structural and organisational change. However, her plea was ‘not to let process get in the way.’ She had four key 'asks' of the audience to think about throughout their professional life:

  1. Be able to articulate what the social work role is, and be proud of it
  2. Always be curious, and ask why and what’s this about, remembering what brought you into the profession and your values base
  3. Look after yourself – and take time to work out what works for you
  4. Think about your organisation as a living entity of which you are part – ‘it’s us together’ so don’t be passive, and help shape it and what you want/can give in terms of peer support, leadership and supervision

Leadership, she concludes, is for everyone, not just senior managers. It is for those who stay practitioners all their careers and those who take less travelled routes. 'If you inspire others, dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then you are a leader, and something we can all aspire to whatever your post. It's about leadership, and not management or seniority and we need to hold onto that'.
Jane finishes with a segment of ‘A Lighthouse’ by Louise Walden -  she speaks of ‘social workers, guardian of the vulnerable… You are often the lighthouse that people need to help them steer clear of the rocks.’ 

Listen to Viv and Jane's presentations.

Be a leader

Susan Taylor, past President of Social Work Scotland, provided a keynote on leadership, calling on the audience to think about:

  • Qualities as practitioner leader - the ability to inspire and energise people from challenging places, build hope, with people feeling you have invested in them and care. 
  • Capacity to develop relationships - and how you trigger and maximise opportunities for change in the relationships you make.
  • Ability to persevere (or stickability) - when others have given up on somebody, constantly re-framing the negative as an opportunity. It means knowing yourself well and your own triggers, so you can manage your own response to aggression and hold onto your professional responsibility.
  • How you demonstrate values-based leadership - empowering and enabling conversations, moments of promoting self-determination, creativity in practice and living the codes.
  • Ability to remain resilient - you will have challenging (and wonderful joyful moments) in your career, but you will need good quality supervision, good reflective practice, support from your team and opportunities to go to events such as this! (You must make the time.) She referenced the resilience resources that Iriss, Social Work Scotland and SSSC jointly compiled. 

What does this mean for social work identity?

We are probably not the same as some of the other traditional very well-respected established professions. It’s not that we aren’t respected, it’s just that we don’t work from the position of expert power. Because I think that people living their lives are experts in their own lives, and we should all know that from living our own lives, and be aware that we are not talking about social workers here, and carers and service users over there. This is about one community. Today you are a social worker, tomorrow you might be accessing social work services. Never forget that.

She acknowledges issues of professional identity have been challenging for social work, referring back to Changing Lives (2006) which said that there was ‘an urgent need’ to address this. She adds, however, that she now knows that every decade when change is happening, that there is a call for this. (Including now, in the context of integrated services.)

She also talks about other professions struggling with their identity too - and suggests that is because ‘increasingly we need to be more grey, more blurred at the edges about what we all do.’ She makes the point that you can’t increase education attainment in schools if children arrive hungry - so just as teachers need to think more widely ‘ we all do.’

So how do we articulate our professional identity? 

We do this through our values, we recognise that we think differently to other professionals. We think about equality and we think about social justice, and we see people through that lens, we see through the lens of experience. That’s very different to how other professionals view the world, and we often forget that. So I would encourage you to think about how you are promoting that, because it means that you think about the obstacles, the social obstacles, the political obstacles, the economic obstacle, the structures differently  - it means you will advocate for people when others don’t even think about it, and that’s what makes you different. And actually that stickability, that makes us different, that stickability in seeing people through, people in despair,  people who are going through very difficult circumstances. That unique value of being holistic, seeing through the eyes of others, through a people lens, working through relationships and persisting through challenge - working with that value base is our uniqueness and that’s our professional identity - which we need to absolutely claim and help to share.

She goes on to say:

So if we shape our professional identity then we can begin to think about what we offer in integrated settings, and begin to think out our human contribution to the way in which we work as practitioners.

She ends by asking: ‘Are we making enough of a contribution to shaping our professional identity, and can we do more?’ When Social Work Scotland had a professional summit in December 2017, it decided there was no need to revisit what we as social workers are about - because we know - rather we need to get more vocal about the importance of that, and work alongside the people who are using services and carers in articulating the value of supports and opportunities around people. 

Listen to Susan's presentation.

Views of newly qualified social workers

Martin Kettle, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at GCU provided us with a flavour of the five-year longitudinal study he has been involved in, along with other colleagues at GCU and the University of Dundee. This was driven by the desire to understand the experiences of NQSWs and how they navigate their first years in practice. Data is based on annual online surveys, and interviews and focus groups at years 1, 3 and 5. 

Before outlining some of the key findings, Martin considers the symbolic importance of the annual conference for those at this key point of transitioning from student social worker to NQSW.  For him, it is important in helping shift the current discourse of deficit - ‘flung in at the deep end’ or ‘baptism of fire’ or ‘survival guide to being a NQSW’  - to a more positive narrative around becoming a social worker.

Key findings

Students at NQSW conference

86% rated their social work education at university as good/very good, appreciating its broad base and integrated approach, with practice placements regarded as invaluable for learning. Some students felt there was too much emphasis on children and families in the curriculum, and some were unhappy not to have received statutory placements, making them feel less prepared if they subsequently got a job in a statutory area.

The overall headline figure is that 54% reported feeling well or extremely well prepared for practice.

The research also outlines how NQSWs spent their time, with report writing and case recording the top two. Spending time with service users is further down the list, and something that remains an issue for the sector.

Interestingly, 23% completing the survey didn’t know if they had workload protection (36% did, 41% didn’t), with the majority reporting case loads of between 11 and 20. 15% had case loads of between 30-40, but we can’t tell from the data what these involved and if simple or complex. Perhaps, more significantly, over 70% felt comfortable in managing their caseload.

Supervision was happening, mostly on a monthly basis, and support from colleagues, was identified as incredibly important. Martin highlighted that ‘supervision is a necessity, not a luxury, and an essential part of how we develop our professional identity.’ 

Very few regarded registration with the SSSC as something that defined their professional identity - perhaps, says Martin, ‘because it’s just something that you do.’ All will be heartened to read that the NQSWs in their study, continue to be driven by a commitment to social justice and empowerment - the things that brought them into social work education in the first place!

The full report is available on SSSC website.

Listen to Martin's presentation. 

Learning resources

The Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) gave a presentation on their role in promoting learning and development for newly qualified social workers, along with information on their learning strategy, resources and Open Badges. View the presentation slides:

'Relationships, relationships, relationships...'

To end the conference, Jo McFarlane, a writer, poet and public speaker, tells a powerful and engaging story of her early childhood trauma and journey to recovery. She relays her experiences of social work support throughout the journey, the difference it has made to her life, and 'how harm, hurt and hate can be repaired by love'. 

In three words she sums up the aspects of social work that can really make a difference to people's lives: 'relationships, relationships, relationships'; she stresses the importance of positive, meaningful relationships in countering the ill effects of abuse and neglect. 

Throughout the presentation, Jo reads some of her own poetry which reflects the positives, as well as challenges of her journey, and some of the people involved along the way. She also offers some guidance to social workers:

Clients don’t need social workers to be perfect or all powerful. We need you to be human and humane. We also need you to reflect on your practice, day in day out, to question everything you do. And above all, to ask us what we need - to listen to our stories as you’ve been doing with me today, and to honour us with the gift of your presence, which in many ways is the most transformative thing you can do for a person.

Listen to Jo's presentation.

A big thank you to all

Thanks to all the speakers, workshop contributors, stall holders and the University of Edinburgh for providing such a fabulous venue. A massive thank you as well, to all the final year social work students and NQSWs from across Scotland who came along and fully participated in the day.

We appreciate your positive feedback, and are glad you found it an inspiring, informative and useful day, with opportunities for reflection and discussion. We also know, you enjoyed being able to engage and re-engage with each other, sharing your experiences, common goals and vales to make a positive difference to the lives of others. This is what makes you social workers!

We look forward to the fifth annual conference next year.