Perceptions of social work education and practice

Iriss.fm, Episode 204
Published on 26 Jun 2018

Building the future: shaping our social work identity newly qualified social worker conference was held on 31 May 2018 in Edinburgh. Delivered with the University of Edinburgh (in partnership with the Higher Education Heads of Social Work Group), Iriss, Scottish Social Services Council, the Scottish Association of Social Work, Social Work Scotland and the Scottish Government, it provided an opportunity for newly qualified social workers to come together to connect and reconnect. 

In this episode, Martin Kettle of Glasgow Caledonian University gives an overview of research on newly qualified social worker perceptions of social work education and practice.

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Audio transcript

Building the future: shaping our social work identity newly qualified social worker conference was held on 31 May 2018 in Edinburgh. Delivered with the University of Edinburgh (in partnership with the Higher Education Heads of Social Work Group), Iriss, Scottish Social Services Council, the Scottish Association of Social Work, Social Work Scotland and the Scottish Government, it provided an opportunity for newly qualified social workers to come together to connect and reconnect. In this episode, Martin Kettle of Glasgow Caledonian University gives an overview of research on newly qualified social worker perceptions of social work education.

You're listening to Iriss.fm Scotland's Social Services podcast.

MK Okay, thanks Viv. Just in terms of establishing my credentials is I'm not going to give you the number of years but if I add them up I think probably amongst the 4 of us we're 133 years and counting! Not individually you understand, not the whole 130 years and I just fairly recently those GCU students that have suffered my lectures in the past will know my sense of humour can be a little obscure and I made a reference, I said "Well first time I did a home visit, I went by horse and cart." And the scary thing was half the room weren't entirely sure that I was joking. That's how long it's been, so we're in that bracket but what I want to do this morningish, afternoonish, is to talk to you about the NQSW study that a team of us are involved in, Scott Grant our colleague is the principle investigator, but I've been asked to talk about it this morning. So, I'm going to talk about that and it's a collaboration between the university of Dundee and GCU, the 2 universities we've done quite a lot together over the last couple of years and it's commissioned by the SSSC. So, I'm going to talk to you about ... and the full study is available on the SSSC website, but before I get into that, I mean what I want to say, this is the 4th NQSW conference and we kicked it off at GCU 3 years ago this year, a number of conversations that were had between colleagues at IRISS and Scottish government and the SSSC and out of it came this first conference and then we had the first conference and it needs to be an annual event and I think that it's symbolically a really important representation of the transition from student to newly qualified social worker and part of the drive is for us in having this was that often the discourse about making that transition from student to newly qualified social worker is all about the deficit, sink or swim, flung at the deep end, baptism of fire, survival guide to being a newly qualified social worker, you'd think you were going over the top in the Somme rather than going into a profession. So, part of the reason for having the conference in the first place was about beginning to shift that discourse and I think we've succeeded a little bit in doing some of that so it's important that we shift the narrative and my interest in this area is from practice in particular. My biggest chunk of my career, I was a first line manager just half a mile up the road from GCU so, I supervised and managed quite a lot of newly qualified social workers. So, I know you know I have a sense of that and of course we were all newly qualified so it's like the bit about when you go into Children and Families, like we were all children once. We were all newly qualified social workers at one point and if you want a picture of English boy and duffle coat it's Easterhouse then, I'll just leave you with that for the remainder of the session. So, onto the research, the research was really about and it was driven by previous work that Scott and Lynn and Steven had been involved in, about really wanting to capture the experience of the newly qualified social worker not just in the kind of the first year there's been a lot of stuff being done about what the first years been like but it was taking that and following up, really getting into • you people, how do you navigate the first years in practice? We've got a sense of all of that, done it, supervised people through it, really a kind of research understanding of what is that like in a Scottish context? So, that was the driver for the research, the objectives are all about getting into some of this, so it's really understanding how you navigate this complex landscape of practice and the workshop that we've just did in relation to that in terms of adult services in relation to that, to get a sense of how people are supported and how they develop and where their support comes from and also to think about professional development so that was part of the driver for the research and so it's a longitudinal study so, what I'm going to talk to you about really is the first tranche of that. The study design has got a number of different aspects to it, there would be an annual repeat measure of an online survey which was done, 157 responses, 39% those of you that have done research methods • okayish, it's quite good for an online survey. We're doing interviews at years one, years 3 and year 5 so Scott and I have done a series of interviews of newly qualified social workers that graduated probably the cohort before most of you in the room, focus group discussions and a colleague's doing some ethnography, some kind of basically ethnography's kind of posh for following social workers around and seeing what they actually do as opposed to what they say they do and a colleague's doing some ethnography in relation to that so hopefully by the end of 5 years we will have quite a rich set of data in terms of what the NQSW experience is in Scotland. And what I want to talk to you, I can't do the whole reports, 50 somewhat pages which is there if you want to go and have a look at it. I'm going to summarise those 6 areas because I think those are the 6 areas that I think are key for me in terms of what do people think about their social work education, what are the task in agile working, one of the things we didn't ask for it to come up but agile working has come as quite a big thing so we need to touch on that, we need to acknowledge it, the work load, professional identity which has come a theme already over the course of it, support and supervision and then really my implications for practice at the end of it. Just to say this is what the data says, this is not us putting our spin on it, this is what the data says, so this is in as far as any of this is objective and let's not get into epistemology at this point on a Thursday afternoon, is this is what the data says in relation to this however I came across this on Twitter, this cartoon, on Twitter really fairly recently it says essentially what we should do is summarise this in • now, any of GCU students would know that I have never willingly used an emoji, so just • just thought I'd just kind of put it out there but essentially it's quite a lot of this, a lot of this, a little bit of that and a little bit of that and no mention of that so, essentially that's the findings of the research so any questions? No, I'm going to go on a little bit longer than that. Actually, the good thing is and this is what was reported, actually most folk quite liked their social education, I'm glad cos that means it keeps me in a job which is good. Most folk quite liked their social education and 86% rated it as good or very good now that's quite a nice thing to have found out and a lot of stuff about broad base and there was some strengths there in terms of the people valued an integrated approach to that. So, quite a lot of people like their social work education and they've very positive feedback about that so that is good and if it had been 24% we'd have still put it up there I would just have said it slightly more quietly but 86% so that's quite good. Practice, they felt relatively prepared for practice. Classroom learning, 54%, well or extremely well. Some concerns about gaps between some, lots of positives about where the learning was integrated and clearly this will be, you know this will come as no surprise to you really, into the importance of placements. So placements were really, really important and we know that, that's not a surprise to us but the quote there, "my placement has been valuable to my learning" and "they were the experiences that shaped the social worker that I am now." So, how important practice education is. One of the discussions that we're having in various forms across the sector is how do we make practice learning everyone's responsibility? Rather than just something that a chosen few do and that's something for a discussion, however, there's always a however is there not in relation to this, the however was "actually sometimes what was taught and the realities of practice, sometimes there was a little bit of a disconnect.", "not enough emphasise on practice." See I don't know which university this relates to but for some there was perceived to be too much of an emphasis on Children and Families and I certainly know that's something that we've addressed at GCU. Lack of statutory placement opportunities was an issue for some and certainly some of the newly qualified social workers that I interviewed had neither of their placements was statutory, they'd gone into statutory Children and Families work and their learning curve was significant, and they really struggled with that. So, a lack of statutory placement opportunities was one of the issues. Practice placements sometimes was the quality that they maybe should have been and there wasn't enough focus in the university on some practice based learning. So, there was some themes there about "Yeah, but ..." kind of in relation to that but by and large people were relatively positive about their practice education.

Once they got out there what the question asked social workers, how do they spend their time? What were the top things that you spend your time doing? And this is social workers perception of it and unfortunately the top 2 are report writing and case recording with contact with service users still down the list in terms of where it was. So, there's still an issue and I think there's a kind of an ongoing conversation across the sector about how do you enable social workers to spend more time working directly with people than they do doing the report writing and the case recording, that is not to say of course that report writing and case recording are not incredibly important because they are but they are still, you know this perception of this cohort of students that they spent a lot of time writing reports or writing case notes in relation to that. Agile working wasn't intended to come up, we didn't specifically ask about agile working but boy did it come up in relation to that, some nods of recognition around the room in relation to that, but this wasn't a question that we had specifically asked, this was something that came up in the free text and the sense I got when I was looking at the report again over the last couple of days, is the sense I get that this was particularly an issue for newly qualified social workers because they were still settling into their role and so they found out a wee bit about it. So, there was stuff about environment being noisy and I know having been in offices that they can be noisy, no physical place in all of that, nothing that's your space in relation to that but there were emotional costs in relation to that. It was hard to come with sometimes, it was a bit overwhelming, there was the reduced sense of team so this cohort, there was quite a strong theme about people struggling with agile working particularly in the early phases of the • and I know that there's been efforts made to mitigate some of that but this was certainly a theme for this cohort of social workers and I think that agile working is one of those things that is now with us. And the conference that Viv and I were at a few weeks ago, I went to one of the presentations where what they'd done, they'd done a study with people about where they actually did their agile working. And a lot of it was done in coffee shops and changed days, changed days but anyway, agile working is still an issue. Induction, so most folk got some kind of induction in relation to that, 76%. And the question about workload protection was quite an interesting one, people were asked whether they had a protected workload or not, quarter of the respondents didn't know whether they'd had a protected work load or not which I thought was quite interesting by itself, 36%, yes they had and 41%, no they hadn't. So, I'm really interested in the quarter, the 23% that weren't quite sure whether they had or not and the current caseload was as you see there with the majority sitting with case loads around 11 to 20. There were some with very low case loads and there were some, you know there were 15% or so of the sample that had case loads of between 30 and 40. Now, clearly underneath that is what do those cases involve? And playing the numbers game is always something that I was very reluctant to do as a manager because 20 cases can be straightforward, or 20 cases can be bloody complicated, but students perception or social workers perception was that they were sitting around here in the • the majority of them were sitting around in the 11-20. And interestingly that most of the people felt that the cases were • they would write, where they were, they were comfortable with, essentially what I've taken out of this is that they were comfortable with it. So, they were appropriate for the level of skill and knowledge that they had, so nearly 70% were either appropriate or strongly agree or agree so significant majority were quite comfortable with the level of workload that they were saying. They were manageable, 70 odd percent either agreed or strongly agreed with their case load were manageable and actually the majority of the cohort felt that they were confident in taking on more complex work. So, I think that's a positive, I think that my reading of that is that social workers felt that they were comfortable with what they were doing and there was a level of confidence with what they were about. In terms of working with others and it certainly came up as an issue in the workshop that we've just done is that there was a level of confidence there as well and given that this is a cohort of social workers that were qualifying at the point where integration was really kind of getting into it's full flow if that's the word, I'm not sure, is that the word that I would want to use? But as integration develops momentum, this is a cohort of social workers that were graduating into that setting, into that set of arrangements. So, the fact that they felt confident or very confident in that I think is a positive, actually not bad in terms of confidence about time management and really pretty confident about meeting the standards of the agency that are set in terms of record keeping and reporting so I think there's a lot of positives there and there's other questions about professional identity in all of this that make it really interesting in relation to that and one of the things that didn't come up as an issue for professional identity, way down the list is that actually very few people saw that registration with the SSSC as being something that drove their professional identity in a significant extent and Scott and I scratched our heads about this and we've thought about it quite a lot and actually what we've come up with is we think that's because registration with the SSSC is just something that you, you know from the point that you register as a student on your social work programme, you live with registration for the SSSC which you don't do in other jurisdictions in the UK so, I think that the SSSC is just something that's there really but there was a confidence about professional identity. Now, where did that confidence come from? Actually 20%/26% thought it came from them and a large majority thought it was self-driven and colleagues helped to shape that. One of the themes that comes across consistently, every which way you look, the support of colleagues in terms of shaping professional identity, in terms of support, in terms of knowledge, in terms of wisdom, the people around you are as important, yes of course your managers and your leaders are incredibly important but the people around you are a major source of support in relation to that. Some of it was shaped by social work education and in fact I teach a module called Making Professional Identity is quite a nice way of doing it but some of it was driven by service users in relation to that. And what came across very strongly in the data was actually that we worry sometimes about how social workers are but what comes across very strongly is this commitment to social justice, the commitment to empowerment, the commitment to actually do it. So actually, there's clearly something right is going on in relation to that so people were driven by the things that brought them into social work education and that commitment to social justice is something that is there, so I think that's really, really encouraging. In relation to that down side is that there wasn't ... people become accountants, slight concern about that in relation to that but that was a minority view in relation to that. Supervision, yes it was happening, I think is the short version is yes it was happening, it was happening by and large for monthly in relation to that. Support for colleagues was really important, now again I'm just presenting the data, the people that weren't getting supervision might have been too busy to fill out the questionnaire, I don't know but this is what the data ... some heads being shaken at that point, I'm just saying don't shoot the messenger, I'm just saying what people said in relation to that. Feeling supported by their manager, again pretty strongly, I'm very fond of that cartoon, just bear with me for a second, but still people hung up on workload management being the central function of supervision and I know that there are places that have tried to move away from that but that's still a major function in relation to that, so need to do something about that. I think that supervision continues to be a kind of bete noire in relation to that and a few years ago I did a survey on supervision in a local authority that I shall not name, and I asked managers how often they gave supervision and I asked social workers how often they'd received supervision and funnily enough the managers gave supervision twice as often as the social workers received it. How did that happen? Anyhow to finish, and I'm just about on time, I've digressed slightly but only slightly for me so, GCU graduates will know that's quite good for me cos normally I'm away off but so the spectre I think that is there and is a relation to this Harry (... unclear) cartoon in relation to burnout, in relation to that, however and this is my last slide, in relation to that, is one of the themes that comes across very strongly, Susan spoke about it, Jane spoke about it, it's a theme for the sector, is support and supervision is a necessity not a luxury, it is an essential part of, so it's not something that you need to apologise for asking for it's an essential part of how we develop our professional identities as practitioners and so you have no need whatsoever to apologise for seeking appropriate levels of supervision and that is me and there's my email address and Twitter handler should you want to follow that up. Thank you very much.