Supervision: what is it good for?

Private: Dr David Wilkins
Assistant Director, CASCADE at Cardiff University

29 May 2019

Supervision is widely considered to be the cornerstone of good social work practice (2009 Laming Progress Report). Yet gaps in the evidence base mean we cannot claim with confidence that supervision consistently helps children and families, and we do not know what kinds of supervision might be more helpful (and more cost-effective) than others. A new review, summarised in our Evidence Store, shows that there is a dearth of evidence relating to supervision effectiveness.

There is some evidence to suggest supervision helps with staff well-being and retention. But again, we do not know what forms of supervision are most helpful for these outcomes – or whether the money spent on supervision would be even more helpful if it were spent in some other way.

These gaps in the evidence are why the What Works Centre is investing in studies of supervision, decision-making and staff well-being. We currently have underway a quasi-experimental study of supervision in partnership with Birmingham Children’s Trust, an updated literature review, various studies of staff well-being and several projects in the pipeline about decision-making. This body of work should help increase the UK evidence-base in relation to social work supervision.

For the project in Birmingham, the primary outcome we are interested in is what difference supervision makes for children and families. Starting in 2018, we identified two child protection teams, one as a control group and one to receive training and support to help them focus more on outcomes during supervision discussions.

The managers in the intervention team have engaged well with the training and started to modify their approach in supervision. And while it has not been easy to engage with families who, for lots of understandable reasons, may not have the time or inclination to talk with a researcher about their private lives, we are on course to involve 40+ families and 75+ children. It is too early to say whether these changes in supervision are making a difference to families, although we do know that social workers are generally responding well to the new approach. The appetite within the Trust to learn more about how supervision can work most effectively for families is very evident – and I suspect the same is true of the wider profession too.

We hope that the findings from these various projects will help inform English local authorities about how they can make social work supervision more effective for children and families, as well as improving the well-being and retention of staff. In the coming months we’ll be asking social workers about their experience of supervision, and many other topics, via our regular polls. Ask your Principle Social Worker for information about how to sign up.