Better support for the front line
19 Mar 2012
To mark World Social Work Day on 20 March we highlight an Ofsted survey report that explores the link between the quality of support that social workers receive and the difference they are able to make to improve children’s lives.
The report, High expectations, high support and high challenge: protecting children more effectively through better support for front-line practice, acknowledged the key role that social workers play in protecting children and young people from harm. It is based on survey inspections in 14 local authorities, discussions with 250 front-line social workers and managers, and almost 650 questionnaire responses from front-line staff.
Welcoming support and scrutiny
Good supervision and line management support were cited overwhelmingly as the most important elements, and the ingredients of this are analysed in detail. However, social workers said that the high expectations placed on them and the high degree of challenge to which their professional practice was exposed were as important in making them feel effectively supported as the more obviously supportive elements of their working experience. In positive organisational cultures, management scrutiny and challenge were not experienced as constraining or undermining professional judgement; they were experienced as absolutely integral to supporting it.
The bigger picture
The report also emphasises that ‘support’ is not a simple matter of the relationship between a social worker and a manager, however good that is. It is important to consider the whole of an organisation’s system and culture. Recruitment and retention, team working, performance management and learning and development are all explored in the report. It also looks at the support that is needed from other agencies and partners, through their ownership of shared responsibility and their willingness to challenge and resolve differences of professional opinion.
The report gives many case examples that demonstrate the link between the quality of support that social workers get and the quality of the work they are able to do. The strength of the support systems available helped to give social workers the confidence to hold, challenge, and resolve some of the immensely difficult situations and conflicts which they worked with. High-quality support gave workers the emotional resilience to deal with the feelings that their work aroused in them and to use those feelings positively to inform their analysis and assessment.
There was a strong link found in the survey between the way social workers experienced their own organisation and the way they were able to work with parents and with children. Parents and children appreciated in good social workers – straightforwardness, honesty, reliability, clarity and doing the things they say they will do. These were also the qualities that social workers valued most in the relationships they have with their managers and their colleagues.
Social workers in the survey identified a lack of time and resources, together with high caseloads, as barriers to providing high-quality support to families. However, front-line staff were engaged in actively resolving these problems and senior managers offered good support to their staff by developing a number of initiatives to overcome these challenges. Ensuring that caseloads were manageable continued to be a major challenge for many local authorities. The skills and creativity of team managers, along with a flexible approach across team boundaries were pivotal in managing demand and workload pressures.
The report, High expectations, high support and high challenge, and a summary leaflet aimed at busy front-line social workers, can be found on the Ofsted website.