This guest blog post is by a Registered Social Worker who has worked across statutory and NGO sectors and most recently in Social Work Education.
One of the areas in scope for the Child, Youth and Family “Expert Panel” is:
The professional knowledge, skills and expertise required by Child, Youth and Family to deliver improved results for children and young people they work with, and implications of this for providers of training, development and contracted services
As Liz Beddoe reminds us, social work education in tertiary sector has long been the poor relation to other professional programmes (teaching, nursing) which have a similar significant clinical component. Indeed, social work practica, which constitute a significant amount of the learning time on tertiary courses (120 days) are still completely dependent on the goodwill of placement agencies who continue to take students. Compare this to professional programmes in teaching and nursing where associate teachers and nursing preceptors and their schools or organisations are paid to take students and can thus access training and support to ensure the learning experience is the best it can be. Compare too, what happens when new graduates in these professions enter the workforce.
The NZ Nursing Entry to Practice (NETP) nationwide programme is designed to strengthen the application and use of undergraduate knowledge in clinical situations and requires the graduate nurse to be assessed as competent by the DHB at the conclusion of the programme. Provisions which include close mentoring by preceptors, specific learning, and additional clinical placements which enable the new practitioner to get a wider overview of the profession. Graduates must complete requirements and be assessed against a set of criteria before they are deemed ‘competent’.
First year teachers in both primary and secondary systems are required to be provisionally registered and then evidence that they are performing to a satisfactory level by the end of two years’ service. During this time, they have reduced workloads and support and formal mentoring from more senior staff. In their first year they have no more than 15 hours in the classroom and schools receive extra funding for the extra staffing needed to cover this protected learning time for additional learning.
An ANZ small-scale qualitative study (Payne, 2007) about how new SWs construct their professional identities found that new SWs experience gaps between their ideals for practice and the reality’ and that this affects their sense of confidence and efficacy as practitioners. This often creates a difficult tension for the worker who is attempting to become clear about their role. Payne recommended that employing organisations ensure supportive systems are in place for new graduates particularly with regard to supervision so that they can critically consider themselves in the work environment and receive emotional support. Induction programmes and the availability of mentors, particularly in the first year, could assist with strengthening new workers’ understandings of social work practice…Staff retention will continue to be a problem unless such issues are adequately addressed.
Emerging findings, from a study in Northern Ireland into resilience and burnout amongst child protection social workers, highlight the importance of the first year in practice in setting expectations, ability and motivation to develop expertise. (Munro, 2011)
The Newly Qualified Social Worker programme (NQSW) in the UK was set up in 2008 and consisted of a comprehensive system of support provided to newly qualified social workers including a protected caseload and protected learning time, and increased training and support for supervisors of new graduates. The evaluation indicated that there had been a positive impact on recruitment and retention, the enhancement of supervisory skills, and the learning of the graduates.
Simon Lowe mentions the similar programme piloted by CYF in 2012-2013 and comments that inadequate resources were provided for its full implementation. This seems like a missed opportunity to begin to create the kind of learning culture that is needed for practitioners to begin their professional lives with the kind of structure and support that promotes safe, accountable and effective practice.
To prepare social workers for professional practice means to prepare them for a range of practice domains and settings which is arguably broader than almost any other discipline. The Commissioner’s call for social worker graduates to be ‘more expert’ in the fields of ‘child protection and domestic violence or the impact of abuse and neglect on a children’s development … ‘ could be echoed by say, the Health and Disability Commissioner wanting all new social work graduates who work in mental health to be ‘more expert’ in the detail contained in the DSM 5 and its implications for practice, or those who go to palliative care area wanting all new graduates to have be ‘more expert’ in the fields of grief counselling for children. Social work graduates can enter the profession in so many arenas that it is simply untenable to expect a level of expert knowledge in all possible practice settings.
What we should expect though, is that new social workers have a core grounding in values, knowledge and skills which all social workers use in their practice. This means that they need to, among other things, know about and be able to recognise signs and abuse and neglect of vulnerable people, including family violence, and to respond appropriately. What they also need to be able to do is to apply their new skills and knowledge in their chosen field of practice and then with support, build on this safe and ethical base to increase their effectiveness as practitioners in exactly the same way that beginning practitioners of nursing, teaching, law and medicine do.
Adult learning theory tells us that new learning is integrated slowly, with practice and support through a range of mechanisms and that most workplace learning happens as people practice. Practice competence and confidence are built steadily; a reflective learning model of supervision, a reduced, or at least manageable workload and opportunities for ongoing professional development are pivotal.
We need, more than ever, a workforce of critically reflective, autonomous practitioners who are able to work responsively in a range of changing contexts. They need to be able to make sound judgements based on robust assessments and to do this they need to be part of an organisational culture which values ongoing learning, and does not flinch from examining mistakes. To become true professionals they need to actively seek and then listen to the feedback of the children, young people and their families they work with, to reflect on this with via the mechanism of robust supervision and then integrate this new learning into their practice.
Most important, is an organisational culture which promotes learning and values and supports the new practitioner engaged in the complex process of becoming a social worker.
Just some things for the ‘Expert Panel’ to be thinking about.
Department for Education Research Report (2012) Newly Qualified Social Worker Programme: Final Evaluation Report (2008- 2011) DFE-RR229 ISBN: 978-1-127-6 Department for Education, UK.
Payne, Carmen ( 2007) ‘Sometimes we are everything and nothing in the same breath:’ beginning social work practitioners constructions of professional identity. Massey University: Unpublished Masters thesis.