Shaping our Future conference 2019

Published in Post-event summaries on 20 Jul 2019

The Shaping our Future: Relationships Matter conference was held on 31 May 2019. Kerry Musselbrook, Project Manger at Iriss, provides an overview of the day. 


This was the fifth national annual conference aimed at newly-qualified social workers and final year social work students at this key transitional point in their careers. It is a conference delivered in partnership by the Heads of Social Work Education, Iriss, the Office of the Chief Social Work Adviser, Scottish Association of Social Work (SASW), Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) and Social Work Scotland.

The University of Strathclyde hosted this year's event, which was opened by Roisin McGoldrick, Head of Social Work. ‘Relationships’ was the key and central theme of the day. Keynotes were provided by Iona Colvin, Chief Social Work Adviser to the Scottish Government and Jackie Irvine, Past President of Social Work Scotland.

Influencing policy: how relationships matter, Iona Colvin

Being joined up

Iona Colvin spoke about the importance of relationships at strategic and policy level – 'We’ve been working hard to try and join things up, be more holistic, which is what you guys aim to be basically'. 

‘It took me a long time to work out how government works’ she added, saying with a laugh that she is still learning! In brief, it’s split into different policy teams ‘which don’t always talk to one another.’ The Ministerial Forum (or Social Work Services Strategic Forum) is one vehicle for bringing together key players.It includes different government policy teams, employers, those who regulate, inspect, education, train, and represent social services.Outside of this, Iona also works closely with the Chief Nursing Officer and Medical Officer, which links to her next point.

Practice in Scotland is quite different to what it once was she says. It’s organised around partnerships – Health and Social Care Partnerships in particular – but also in the delivery of Getting it Right for Every Child. The Community Justice Partnership is the newest of these – joining up prisons, the police, social work, the judiciary and health. ‘And it makes sense…’

The important thing to remember about the Public Bodies Act … and the key phrase in the legislation for me ‘is about being seamless… about seamless services delivered from the point of view of the people who use them.

Clarity of the social work contribution

She goes on to say that too often social work is seen as ‘a reductionist thing,’ associated only with the legal powers and duties of social work, such as taking children into care.

… the thing we underplay all the time in social work – and I’m glad that Colin Turbett is running a workshop on community social work – is our ability and our understanding of people in the context of their families and their communities- and that many other professions (they have many other strengths) do not see that. They see people as a fragmented part of their life, presenting as a patient, out of context, in a hospital… Don’t ever think that everybody else knows what you know … why (people) have become involved in the situation they have become involved in... what happened to them…  Because you will understand that, do not assume that others around you will understand that.

‘And the other thing that makes the difference’ she goes on to say  ‘and it will not be news to social workers… is having someone who really believes in you, who goes that extra mile! … And it’s incumbent on the organisations that employ you to think about that too.’

How we support the profession

She acknowledges that sustaining those relationships at a time of cuts is a real challenge. Government are in discussions with COSLA to think about how social work is organised and how social workers are supported. They are also very keen to get practitioners involved in this conversation. 

Evidence and improvement
Iona stressed the need to focus on practice improvement and evidence, so social workers feel confident and competent in practising with others. By others, she is thinking particularly about health colleagues, with their long history of clinical trials. ‘We need to do more of this, not about clinical (trials), but about evidence … but in doing so, we need to be clear about our role.’ 

Better planning of future workforce
Audience members are informed that a new national Health and Social Care workforce plan is soon to be published. ‘This will try and address the workforce for the whole of the NHS for Scotland, 32 local authorities and about 2,000 third sector and independent organisations- so you can see why it’s been complicated in pulling it together.’

.. it is beginning to look at what we need for a future workforce in Scotland, and in many areas of Scotland, we are used to just (saying) ‘we have got the workforce we’ve got according to the budget we’ve got.’ But this will be the first step towards trying to say: here’s the demands; here’s what we need our social workers to do and our social care workers, and this is the workforce we need.

Better planning also involves establishing a Social Work Education Partnership, sitting down with the universities to ensure supply and demand is well-matched and developing advanced programmes (Masters and beyond) to help practitioners fulfil current and future roles with the right skills in place. (We should be mindful that the numbers entering social work programmes has been on a downward trend over the last five years...)

Another key priority is ensuring that there are enough practice placements for social work students, including ones in local authorities, recognising that this has been a significant issue in Scotland for some time. The newly-qualified supported first year is another, with three pilot programmes currently in train.

Catching up with the future 

‘It’s no longer good enough, I think’ Iona stressed, ‘for the government to pass legislation and then just expect you to be able to go out and do it … we need to work with you to identify what skills you need in the future to be able to deliver that legislation- and there’s far too little of that basically.’ Engagement with the workforce will be critical.

What’s coming on the horizon was also highlighted. In the next two years there will be new legislation, including changes to the way children give legal testimony to avoid them appearing in court and there is work with the Police on agreeing standards for joint investigative interviewing.

Significantly, there will also be a stronger focus on human rights.

One of the biggest things that’s coming frankly will be the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child…. A human rights-based approach will also change how we do assessments and how we support adults, particularly those with mental health problems, adults with learning difficulties and dementia.

Of human rights, the point is made that social workers are trained in human rights-based approaches ‘but actually a lot of the legislation is deficit-based’ - and that needs to change, with it at odds with strength and holistic–based approaches.

To end:

So it’s really important that you get involved in this discussion when it comes around, and we will make sure that all employers are asked to get involved in the discussion because it will have profound implications for the way we practice social work, but most importantly, it will have profound changes for the people you work with.

Iona draws to a close by saying, not only do we need to reflect on what’s effective practice, but we need to consider what it should look like as we move forward.  ‘ We will do the best that we can around supporting you and implementing this…’

Influencing practice: relationships matter, Jackie Irvine

Jackie, now past President of Social Work Scotland, takes some time to reflect on how the environment in which social work operates has changed. Speaking about people’s first taste of this during their practice placement she says:

You’ll either have been involved in the Health and Social Care partnership, or you will have been sitting outside the Health and Social Care Partnership. And they all have slight variations in what they include – whether that is children’s services or criminal justice. And what that means for you is an extra challenge… because where you have been on a student placement and where you go in terms of your first and subsequent jobs will vary significantly.

She provided advice on making the most of relationships at work:

1. Orient yourself when you start your new job to understand who the key local players are and what the strategic structure looks like. This is about being clear about ‘where you sit and what you bring to the table.’ 

2. Find out about other professionals, as well as promoting social work’s role to others. (She recounts a conversation that suggests nurses and OTs might feel over-shadowed by the current focus on GPs and acute care too– and that being recognised and understood is not just an issue for social work.)

3. Get to know the third sector in your area. ‘They can offer preventative as well as less stigmatised support ... so there are HUGE opportunities there.’ 

4. Resist the temptation to be defensive and retreat to comfortable silos; be open to working collaboratively and co-productively with others. We need this to be more innovative, solution-focused and efficient when there is less money she says. Furthermore, this approach builds capacity and there is a huge amount of learning to be gained in working in this way.

5. Relationship with managers are very important. ‘I’m very clear to say that there’s a duty of care to provide supervision, development and learning from your managers’ says Jackie ‘ and I would hope that you … would demand that…see that as your right. ’ If your supervision is cancelled she says, you need to tell them you need this.  In Edinburgh (her own authority) she says staff are surveyed about supervision to provide quality assurance and to open up conversations on this topic.

Jackie provides her own reflections on what good managers look like and how they develop your confidence:

“I can remember probably on one hand the managers I’ve worked with who I still remember who had direct influence on my practice, my confidence, my ideas, my understanding. They were the managers who let me go out and do my job – obviously gave me support – but allowed me to work on my own as part of my team… They were the managers who challenged me to take myself a bit further, to say ‘you can do more than that.’ But importantly they were also managers who had my back … when things didn’t go to plan… The responsibility they have is to make sure their team is well supported, know what they are doing, aren’t having too many dilemmas, have got an opportunity to talk through options and decisions and make those decisions collaboratively.”

6. Social workers relationship with peers is critical. This might be in the form of supervision teams, ‘a mini practitioner’s network’ that allows social workers to talk about research and challenges in their area or pair up to take forward specific pieces of developmental work. ‘The time to self-reflect is so important…’ she says. ‘Practitioners networks can be difficult to maintain’ she acknowledges, ‘and you sometimes hear that ‘we used to have one but got too busy.’  The best ones and those that are more likely to sustain, she believes, are where staff and front-line managers plan and organise them themselves, deciding what they want to talk about and who they want to invite in.

7. Social workers relationships with those that they support is undeniably key. Social workers need to be aware of power, of people’s fear and sometimes, sense of shame. She says,  'Remember, you are the person who can remove their children; you are the person that can make decisions that will impact on their life significantly… And what service users tell us is that they fear, their fear of an unsympathetic and punitive approach can inhibit them from asking for help.’'The keyword here is trust' she says, being honest and open about why you are there, your concerns, and understanding why they are in the situation they are in. 'It's working with them and not doing to them.'

8. Self-care matters. This encompasses supervision, team supervision, buddy or coaching systems, shadowing, joint visits, and time for reflection and learning. 

Jackie Irvine and Iona Colvin
Jackie Irvine and Iona Colvin

Jackie’s final point focuses on ‘being true to yourself. ’ On asking practitioner network members in Edinburgh what they would say to newly-qualified social workers, they highlighted the importance of managers ‘supporting you and encouraging you, not instructing you to do things.’ She recounts how as a ‘ baby social worker’ she was told to go into court with certain expectations around what she was to achieve. ‘And we went into court, and we didn’t get the plan, and I thought ‘that’s because I didn’t believe in it… and I should have been much more explicit about this before I went into court…. So, I suppose I’m just trying to say, for your self-care, be true to yourself as well….’

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 that he and other colleagues at GCU and the University of Dundee have been involved in. 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.

Key findings

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 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. 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.

Interestingly, in Year 1, 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. Importantly, 70% felt comfortable in managing their case-loads.

From Year 1 to 2, there’s an increase in case-loads and an increase in both report writing and case recording, as you might expect. In Year 2, 60% of respondents reported that they felt confident in dealing with more complex work and 60% felt their workload was manageable. However, there was a 17% decrease in social workers using research knowledge and evidence – ‘and that is a worry for me ‘ says Martin ‘as research mindedness falls off.’ 48% also agreed/strongly agreed that their workload was making them anxious. The report delves deeper into this, but Martin recounts ‘a lightbulb moment’ when he asked an interviewee if they had anything else to add at the end of his list of questions.

This social worker thought for a moment, says Martin, and said: ‘I might have come across that I’m really confident and I’m really sorted, and everything is fine and in place, I am, all of that – but everyday I am terrified of getting it wrong.’ For them it’s not just about support, it’s also recognition of the complexity and difficulty of the job that they do and the challenges they will face. ‘It was a real light bulb moment for me.’ For that social worker it was about anxiety in relation to that.

Which brings us to support and supervision. Two-thirds reported that they received regular supervision from managers, and support from colleagues was identified as incredibly important. There was also broad satisfaction with opportunities for learning and development, although some desired deeper and richer explorations.

So what does this mean in terms of professional identity?

There are fairly high levels of confidence being expressed, with time for reflection an essential part of how social workers develop their professional identity.

By Year 2, social workers tend not to identify as newly-qualified social workers anymore says Martin. ‘They were calling themselves early careers social workers – and that is important to understand – with others calling themselves just social workers.’

However, we need to acknowledge, he says, that there exists a minority with less positive messages, who say ‘I can’t do this’ or who, for example, feel emotionally drained by it all. ‘We need to listen to why’

There are challenges too – a perceived lack of respect and value from other professions; and in children and families work, the increasing involvement of solicitors in children’s hearings, with the danger of children’s interests getting lost.

Martin ends with drawing out implications for practice:

  • We need to ensure that education, policy and practice are integrated. The Social Work Education Partnerships highlighted by Iona Colvin are a very positive development in this respect he feels.
  • We need to pay attention to research-mindedness. This is important, and we have moved a long way from an anti-intellectual culture in front line social work managers.
  • Support and supervision is a necessity, not a luxury.
  • Self-care is not an indulgence, but an essential part of developing our identity. ‘It’s like in an aeroplane, if the oxygen masks come down, you put your own on before you help someone else.’

He ends: 'My test used to be: when I was a manager, would I want this social worker in my team? As I get older, it’s now would I want this social worker doing my outcomes focused support plan as I get older?!'

Two interim research reports, published  2017 and 2018 are available on SSSC website.

Newly qualified social workers in Scotland: A five-year longitudinal study (2018)

Newly qualified social workers in Scotland: A five-year longitudinal study (2017)

Pilot of newly qualified social worker supported and assessed year

A pilot to test approaches to a supported and assessed year for newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) is currently underway. The SSSC were asked to make recommendations to the Scottish Government on a sustainable programme to meet the developmental and learning needs of NQSWs, which employers could deliver and maintain.

Key drivers for this pilot include the Review of Social Work Education and Part 2 of the National Health and Social Care Workforce Plan. Close attention has also been paid to research findings, including the five-year longitudinal NQSW study Martin Kettle has talked about at the conference.

The SSSC selected three pilot areas in Aberdeenshire, Angus and a partnership coordinated through Learning Network West. The LNW partnership involves four local authorities (Dumfries and Galloway, East Ayrshire, Glasgow and North Lanarkshire) and four higher education institutes – Glasgow Caledonian University, Open University, University of Strathclyde and University of the West of Scotland.
The pilot areas were chosen based on criteria including:

  • having sufficient numbers of NQSWs joining the area
  • an existing induction programme ready for enhancement
  • or a pre-existing partnership in place.

Each pilot area agreed to put arrangements in place to provide NQSWs with support through a dedicated line manager, regular supervision, protected time and caseload. There are also opportunities for formal and informal learning opportunities throughout the first year.

Those taking part in the pilot are assessed against a draft NQSW standard developed for this, mid-way and at the end of the year. At the midpoint, progress towards meeting the draft standard is assessed with managers provide feedback to NQSWs on areas of strength and areas for development. At the end of the pilot year, managers will assess overall whether the NQSWs have met the draft standard. This assessment of practice aims to support a more effective transition from newly qualified to practice rather than the current post registration training and learning (PRTL) requirements.

Each area has implemented the pilot year in different ways and have different approaches to the assessment. Further information is available via the presentation here

Support for NQSWs & cont professional development from Iriss

Going forward

The pilots are being evaluated to establish the impact and effectiveness of the approaches used to help NQSWs consolidate learning and prepare for their ongoing social work career.

Evidence from this will inform recommendations to the Scottish Government on a sustainable programme that meets NQSWs learning and developmental needs. The pilots are also closely linked with the current consultation on changes to the SSSC’s PRTL system and the development of a post qualifying framework for social workers which we will consult on early next year.  

As well as the pilot the SSSC are also working with more rural and smaller employers to make sure there is sufficient insight into and consideration given to issues they face in supporting smaller numbers of NQSWs.

Further information on the pilots, and referenced research, is available on SSSC website

Musical close by Vox Liminis

Jo Mango playing music
Jo Mango from Vox Liminis

Vox Liminis is an arts organisation working within the criminal justice system.

Colleen Souness, explained how they work with people involved in all parts of the system – including individuals who are directly affected, families, practitioners, and the wider public to spark fresh conversations and insights for positive change. Together they write and record songs that are a means to support change, open up dialogue and say things that are otherwise difficult to say.

Colleen outlines how the stories of people involved in the criminal justice system, and their identities, are often narrowly defined by their criminality (as well as a lack of belief that people can change). She reflects that narrow definitions can also affect single parents, those in recovery, and even social workers themselves! Creative processes, she says, can help tell a bigger, human, picture about who we – and others – are. And in this, the possibility exists that we might find common ground with people, that peoples’ stories, expressed through music and the arts, can affect positive attitudinal changes and provide hope for reintegration after punishment.

This was all beautifully illustrated with songs created through their partnership project Distant Voices. Jo Mango (Dr Jo Collinson Scott, UWS) introduced and performed several songs, including one Rachel Sermanni co-wrote with Frank which can be found on their website along with other resources.

A big thank you!

Thanks to all the speakers, workshop contributors, stall holders and the University of Strathclyde for hosting the event. Their student helpers, recognisable by their pink T-shirts, played a key part in making the day go smoothly! Nor should we forget members of the conference planning group: Roisin McGoldrick and Fiona Stansfield (University of Strathclyde), Avril McIvor (University of Edinburgh), Jane McLenachan (University of Stirling), Kerry Musselbrook (Iriss) and Edel Walsh (SSSC). 

Most importantly, a massive thank you to all the final year social work students and NQSWs from across Scotland who came along and fully participated in the day. We hope you found it an inspiring, informative and useful, with opportunities for reflection, discussion and connecting with others.  

We look forward to the sixth annual conference next year at the University of Stirling!

Workshop links

For those who couldn't make the day but wish they could have, we hope you find this report useful. Here's some links so you can find out more about some of the workshop topics on the day: