Developing best practice in reflective supervision

10 November 2014

In October we launched our new Change Project on Reflective Supervision. Change Projects are designed to allow social work professionals and researchers to explore a topic in depth from both practical and academic perspectives. They are collaborative processes of learning and research, with the ultimate goal of co-producing resources that enable evidence-informed practice in the topic area. The effectiveness of these resources in practice is evaluated and final changes made before they are made available to the Research in Practice network and others.

Our Change Projects follow the model below, and you can find more about them here.

change projects 

The Development Group

The first phase of the project will result in resources to support the delivery of reflective supervision across children’s services in both one to one and group supervision.

The Development Group for this phase is made up of supervisors and practice development managers from 11 local authorities across England, Research in Practice expert facilitator Jo Fox, and research expertise from the University of Bristol. The phase consists of six Development Group meetings with tasks to be agreed and carried out ‘back at the ranch’ in between. The opportunity to apply new knowledge in real settings promotes learning that can be shared with the rest of the group and fed directly into the development of the resources.

What is supervision?

“Learning from supervised practice is an essential component of the education and training of social workers. Through regular, structured meetings with a supervisor, students learn how to manage a caseload, apply theory and research evidence to practice, perform the key tasks of assessment, planning and intervention, and reflect on their own professional development. Supervision is also an opportunity to seek and receive emotional support for undertaking what can often be a demanding and stressful role.” (1)

Why reflective supervision?

The topic of this Change Project has been developed in response to demand from colleagues across the Research in Practice network and issues highlighted in Ofsted Single Inspection Framework reports. We know from the network that ensuring high quality supervision across the system is a challenge in many local areas and there are benefits in building supervision practice at all levels.

The project builds on outputs from a previous Change Project on Analysis and Critical Thinking in Assessment.

The timelines of the project are reinforced by the announcement last week of new professional standards for children’s social workers. These will see three types of social worker qualification introduced including one for achieving supervisor status. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan describes it as “imperative” that social workers are supervised by people able to shape best practice. (2)

What do we know about supervision?

It was really exciting for the project to finally get underway with the first Development Group meeting two weeks ago. The group took plenty of time to explore their experiences of supervision and motivations for taking part in the project before looking at the existing evidence around supervision.

Whilst it is commonly accepted that good quality supervision is vital for enabling family support professionals to be the best they can be in their work with children and families, the evidence base in this area is surprisingly weak. Many studies report only an association between supervision and outcomes such as practitioners’ stress or intention to leave. In other words, this evidence is not causal; it cannot prove that the effects observed at the time can be attributed to the outcomes of supervision. In addition to this, few studies give information on the nature, quality and regularity of supervision or report on the impact of supervision on outcomes for supervisees over time. And the relationship between supervision and outcomes for service users is little explored.  

What evidence there is nonetheless demonstrates that supervision featuring task assistance, social and emotional support and a good relationship between supervisor and supervisee is associated with important factors such as job satisfaction, staff retention and increased critical thinking.

Our Development Group encompasses a huge depth and range of supervision experience and the evidence base was explored with rigour. This energy remained palpable throughout the day reflecting group members’ conviction in the importance of supervision to social work practice, their passion for delivering the best supervision they can and excitement about the opportunity to meet and learn from their peers. It is clear everyone is reading from the same page and keen to get on with the task in hand. 

We are not reinventing the wheel

The shape of a Change Project is negotiated in an ongoing way in response to the groups’ learning needs and emerging priorities. This is always with awareness that by the penultimate meeting we should have a good idea of what resources are to be produced.

By the end of the first meeting a clear outline of the kinds of resources needed to support the delivery of effective reflective supervision had already begun to form in people’s minds. The rich discussion concluded, however, by identifying that in order to be able to move forward we need to agree what we mean by reflective supervision. It was also understood that we are “not trying to reinvent the wheel” and that it is important that we share existing tools and good practice between authorities; these two things will therefore form the focus of next session.

I will also be setting up a project Wiki for the group, following my colleague Geoff Owen’s good experiences of using one to manage his Change Project (read his blog on the topic here).

Keep checking the Research in Practice blog stream as I will be providing updates as the project progresses.

Related RiP resources on this topic:

Analysis and Critical Thinking in Assessment: a handbook including key research and practice messages around analysis and critical thinking in assessment.  

Delivering reflective supervision (full day) and Promoting emotional resilience in social work teams (for Team Managers) (full day): workshops from our Tailored Support menu for Partners.


(1) Carpenter, J., Webb, C., Bostock, L. and Coomber, C. (2012) Research briefing 43: Effective supervision in social work and social care. Briefing to Social Care Institute for Excellence. Available at: http://www.scie.org.uk/publications/briefings/files/briefing43.pdf

(2) Hayes, D. (2014) Government announces new social work standards. Children and Young People Now. Available at: http://www.cypnow.co.uk/cyp/news/1147819/government-announces-social-worker-standards?


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