Social worker supervision

Social worker supervision

Research has found no statistically significant effect of the supervision experience on social workers’ decision-making.

There is a need to ensure that social workers are following the correct legal requirements for decision-making in their roles, study finds.

Social workers make decisions about adults in need of care and support when, for example, those individuals might not be the best judge of their own well-being, or they might need assistance with well-being relating to protection from abuse or neglect. Their decision-making must at minimum comply with the decision rules of the Care Act 2014.

A study led by Angela Jenkinson, while based at Kingston University, has explored the effect of the experience of supervision on social workers’ decision-making to explore their reasoning for their decisions and compliance with legal frameworks.

The study found that participants often seemingly misunderstood some key legal rules and this had implications for their case decisions.


The research asked 169 adult social workers to consider two of four case vignettes created by a group of Principal Social Workers (PSWs). Each vignette featured at least one problematic factor derived from the Care Act 2014 and indicating the need for social worker assistance, with at least 10 problems built into it on which decisions would need to be made.

Half of the participating social workers were invited to discuss the cases in simulated supervision sessions, delivered by experienced managers, before making their decisions.

The supervisors had set scripts but did not reveal which problems were built into the vignettes, nor what satisfactory decisions could be made.

The study revealed that participants were not good at identifying the problems they would need to address as social workers. In particular, practitioners were concerned with helping adults to achieve what they believed the adults wanted, rather than working with them to promote their well-being.

The research found the simulated supervision experience had no statistically significant effect on social workers’ decision-making – which was subsequently scored against a set of answers that a group of experienced social workers agreed would have been acceptably correct.

The research suggests that the benefit of supervision for adults’ social workers depends on the knowledge and judgement their supervisor brings to bear – not on the opportunity for discussion with an active, informed listener.

‘Counselling social work’ omission

The process uncovered areas for development in terms of the decisions made by social workers and how these related to their knowledge of the Care Act.

Participating social workers appeared not to recognise that the Care Act includes a counselling type of social work role, and rarely decided to provide this to meet psychological or interpersonal needs for care and support. Instead, they mostly decided to assess for or provide other forms of care and support, such as care in the home.

Participants also did not recognise that they must exercise judgement on what well-being outcome they must assist an adult to achieve, rather than just accepting the adult’s judgement. Instead they relied on rules which led them to accept the adult’s judgement and wishes even where the indications were that doing so would probably not promote their well-being.

Needs not assessed

Participants did not recognise that they could not accept a refusal of an assessment if an adult is at risk of neglect or abuse, and that any eligible needs must be met, researchers found.

Social workers typically thought their duty concerning the protection of an adult in need of care and support from abuse was mainly to provide information and advice, and to refer to domestic abuse agencies, or less often to a safeguarding team. They did not recognise their duty to complete a needs assessment.

This implies that an adult with needs that are impacting on their wellbeing in relation to protection would typically not have such needs assessed or be provided with services to meet them, other than information and advice, the study suggests.

The results signal a need to evaluate further whether practitioners are following the correct requirements for decision-making in their roles.

Practice advice

As a result of the findings, the research team and the National Principal Social Worker Network participated in a series of consultation events with 140 social workers with the purpose of producing written guidance on when the Care Act duties of a local authority should be carried out by social workers.

Full summary findings

NIHR SSCR (2020) Optimising the Quality of Social Work Decisions in Supervision, Research Findings 065, NIHR School for Social Care Research, London.

View also:

Jenkinson A, Chamberlain J (2019) Social Workers’ Knowledge and Skills and the Care Act: Practice Advice Note, NIHR Policy Research Unit in Health and Social Care Workforce, The Policy Institute, King’s College London.

Further information

This study was funded by the NIHR School for Social Care Research and led by Angela Jenkinson while based at Kingston University.

The findings were completed before COVID-19 and have been published to support NIHR SSCR’s requirement that findings from all completed studies are made publicly available.

Monday, December 21st, 2020

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