Newly qualified social workers in Scotland – A five-year longitudinal study

In 2016, the Scottish Social Services Council commissioned researchers from the University of Dundee and Glasgow Caledonian University to explore the organisational, practical and subjective dimensions of professional social work as experienced by newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) over time.

The research sought to capture professional experiences, report on observed practice and trace the professional journey of NQSWs over their first five years to develop a national picture. The research team worked across six thematic areas: education; employment; competence and confidence; learning and development; professional identity; and leadership.

Interims reports were published annually. We also introduced a specific strand of the research to explore the experience of social workers who graduated in 2020 in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, the report from which was published in 2021. Links to all the reports are available below.

The final report was completed in July 2022.

The 10 Key Takeaways from the final report are

  • The first two years of employment represent a crucial period of transition from the point of qualification. Incremental processes of professional socialisation into organisational cultures (ways of being, acting, doing) and methods of working seem to characterise this initial phase. It takes time for new practitioners to feel comfortable in their roles, and we need to acknowledge that becoming a professional is a fluid and plural process.  
  • Colleagues and the informal peer support, advice, guidance, learning and emotional space they offer cannot be underplayed. The impact and effects of interactions with peers are immediate and long-lasting, with critical implications for sense- and decision-making in practice.  
  • Agile working reduces opportunities for informal and critical reflections and discussions which impact on sense- and decision-making in cases. We need to harness the best of flexible working with the best of static / fixed models of working. Proximity to colleagues and managers really matters to social workers and to the quality of practice they undertake.
  • The impact and legacy of social work education is underplayed; the integrated model of learning we employ is absolutely critical to helping shape the trajectory of social workers as they develop in their careers. We need to ensure that practice placements are given greater priority in national discussions and organisational strategy. Integrated learning must be understood as two equal and unified dimensions – both requiring resource, attention and commitment from all stakeholders. The impact and effects of this model of learning are significant and long-lasting. And we don’t just need more placements, we need our practice educators, link workers and teams to be supported, developed and given the recognition they deserve for the important contribution they make to professional learning and workforce development.
  • Our approach to, and understanding of, what happens in supervision is under-developed; we place too much weight on workload management as a negative process and not enough on exploring less obvious dimensions of critical reflection, sense making and ethical judgment intrinsic to case discussions. 
  • Professional identity is felt (understood) most acutely when the value of what social workers do is recognised, and when the role and contribution is clear. Participants appreciate their autonomy, but unlike their colleagues in education, law or health, they do not have a voice in the profession nor as a profession. Social workers must be empowered and supported to engage in a much broader range of activities outside their statutory duties. Shaping policy and contributing to the public enhancement of the profession must be given attention.   
  • Leadership is too often conflated with notions of ‘management’ in the minds of participants. The distinction is not clear for most. Opportunities to engage in leadership activities are perceived as poor in most sites of employment; however, what constitutes leadership in everyday practice, eg managing conflict or performing advocacy, is sometimes difficult for participants to recognise. We need to support social workers in their understanding of leadership and provide opportunities for activities to be recognised as such. 
  • Social workers routinely work with and through complexity and conflict. They find fulfilment, value, and confidence in this work and they experience it as struggle. We need to recognise professional practice as a mix of strength and struggle and develop ways to support social workers through this experience. 
  • We need a better culture of learning and professional development in social work. The options open to most qualified staff at the moment are both limited and limiting. Unlike education, law, and health, social work offers little recognition of experience, and few pathways for specialism in particular areas of practice. This restricts and binds professional identity and professional self. The use and application of research in the profession is also notably poor. Employers, national bodies, academics and policymakers could do much more here.
  • Social workers need their peers, managers and working environments to reflect and demonstrate support, compassion and encouragement. Employers need to spend less time on efficiency savings and more time on efficiency investment: maximising the potential, commitment and achievements of the dedicated, passionate and value-led workforce that is revealed through our research. But we also need to look beyond the worker-employer dyad to attend to the economic, social and political contexts in which social work is done.
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Published reports from the longitudinal study

You can access the final report, the report on newly qualified social workers’ experiences of practice during COVID-19, and all the interim reports from Year 1 to Year 4 by clicking on the links below.

You can watch this short video that tells more about the research 

You can also find out more about the research from Review of Social Work Education that informed the current workstreams for Newly Qualified Social Workers in Scotland by clicking on the link below.

Next steps in the research

We are moving into the final year of the study, progressing with the research and will keep you updated here. Watch this space.