Promoting NQSW professional learning and development in the supported year

This is part of our suite of resources that are focused on the professional learning and development of NQSWs, how this can be promoted in workplace settings and the expectations of those validating progress.

The information is provided to help those who manage or supervise NQSWs to: understand what is meant by professional learning and development for social workers; promote and support professional learning and development of NQSWs; and, have confidence in validating NQSW professional learning and development in the supported year, keeping a focus on learning.

You can access all the sections of the Promoting NQSW professional learning and development in the supported year resource on this page.

NQSW professional learning and development

The NQSW Supported Year in Scotland has professional learning development at the heart of the core elements: Induction; Professional supervision; Professional development; Continuous professional learning; Protected caseload; Protected learning time; Peer support and mentoring. Different aspects of learning are critical to each element of the holistic approach that employers can take to support NQSWs in their early career. Learning is also integral across all the NQSW Standards.

All resources prepared for the NQSW Supported Year promote learning and professional development. Materials being used in early implementation of the NQSW Supported Year provide a structure to focus on learning and evidencing progress, such as the structured discussions built into the review process. Our suite of supervision resources provide ways to support critical reflection, develop self-awareness and how you can provide feedback to NQSWs.

On this page we focus on understanding what is meant by learning, professional development and how work organisations can design the most effective approaches for social workers throughout their careers.

An evidence-informed approach

The design of the NQSW Supported Year has been informed by wide-ranging evidence. One of the main strands of our longitudinal study into newly qualified social workers in Scotland has provided insight into the kind of activities that social workers are able to access in their early careers.

“Early career social workers access a range of learning and development opportunities, including shadowing other social workers, self-directed learning at work and home, and learning provided by employers, outside organisations and universities.”

(Grant et al., 2020)

Although social workers shared their experiences of a broad range of learning opportunities there are gaps in what is provided, support and investment in this across Scotland. We also draw from recent empirical research into how social workers learn in the workplace through their direct work tasks (Ferguson, 2021). This resource and our accompanying organisational audit have been written for the SSSC by the author of this research.

Influencing effective professional learning and development

What social workers learn is at the centre of different influences: individual learning styles, needs and interests; the professional and job-related requirements; and the ways in which learning is designed, supported and promoted in the workplace. The diagram below shows influences on social workers’ professional learning in the workplace.

A venn diagram with 4 ovals. In the centre oval the words "Professional learning and development" sit over "What social workers learn". In the surrounding oval shapes one has the text "How social workers learn", the next has "What social workers need to learn" and the last has "How learning is supported in the workplace"
Influences on professional learning in the workplace Ferguson (2022)

Different influences on professional learning and development shape what is learned and there is a dynamic relationship between the individual, organisational and wider professional factors involved. Effective learning for social workers needs to draw these influences together in developing positive workplace plans for NQSW (and other social workers’) learning. This resource provides summary information about these different influences on what social workers learn in the context of their work. We have also produced an organisational audit for action to support your thinking and planning for professional learning and development. 

What counts as learning?

There are many different theories about learning which focus on beliefs about the ways that people acquire and/or assimilate knowledge and skills. Learning is also often thought to be about personal growth, or a process of change. Understanding about the ways that people learn is also based on diverse perspectives. Learning opportunities can be formal, informal, incidental, accredited and be as a result of being taught, shown or through experience. In social work we also consider the ways in which adults learn.

A good summary of adult learning principles is included in the SSSC Mentorship Resource. Principles of adult learning include personal motivation, building on experience and being autonomous. Social work is also strongly rooted in experiential learning (Kolb, 1981) and reflective learning (Kolb, 1984). Our suite of supervision resources also help you consider learning styles as part of the reflective learning process.

For social workers, learning is multi-faceted, career-long and career-wide. Professional learning and development can be understood as the continuous process of learning skills, knowledge and growth throughout a social worker’s career that ensures they are equipped to undertake their work in the most effective way.

“Theories of individual learning confirm that this is a complex, personal process and that there are multiple aspects to the experience. Both formal and informal learning theories characterise the discourse of social work, expectations of how social workers gain the necessary knowledge they need for practice and approaches to support this throughout their career. Individual learning for social workers involves their learning as being and becoming as they develop their professional identity and this continually evolves (Webb, 2016; Wiles and Vicary, 2019).”

(Ferguson, 2021)

Useful Ideas

  • Keep learning aims and diverse learning styles in mind
  • Reflect on what you think counts as learning
  • Develop rich and varied opportunities for learning

Our resource how social workers learn in the workplace introduces some key ideas about professional learning for social workers. Learning is proposed to be a complex web, an emotional and physical process, negotiating the landscape of practice and navigating social work tasks (Ferguson, 2021).

We recommend the external source, community-building and change for more information about what counts as learning and learning theories.

You can find a clear summary of ideas about how adults learn in our mentoring guidance, part of the Step Into Leadership resources.

What do social workers need to learn?

NQSWs need to engage in their learning and professional development and meet the requirements of registration. In terms of the NQSW Supported Year in Practice, the NQSW Standards provide comprehensive professional learning and development areas in more detail. It is really important not to fragment these standards, instead try to think of the overall learning journey of any NQSWs that you are working with. Full details of these standards can be found at via our NQSW landing page and in our downloadable summary of the standards.

Social workers are learning knowledge, skills and ways of working in their professional practice. They are active in continuously developing their practice through learning. The demands of specific job roles and tasks will influence learning and professional development, although it is essential that social workers consider their generic learning and professional development across practice areas.

“There is a strong focus in social work as a profession and within social work education that learning involves the development of critical thinking, reflective and reflexive practice. Social work learning is usually understood to include the development of skills and competences which enable practitioners to undertake a role which is rooted in human rights and social justice, where ethical practice needs to be negotiated within a work role where there are competing moral, legal, organisational and policy demands.”

(Ferguson, 2021)

Useful Ideas

  • Keep generic professional learning and development in mind
  • Reflect on what social workers need to learn
  • Think about different methods to learn what is needed

How can NQSW learning can be supported in the workplace?

Workplace learning is a specific area of theory and worth considering for social work professional learning and development. The organisational context is crucial for effective learning and the idea of learning cultures (Schein, 2004) has long been promoted in social services (SCIE, 2008). Developing an ethos that promotes learning is strongly related to an employer’s commitment to the NQSW Supported Year.

Workplace learning theory suggests that places of work are a primary site for professional learning. Effective learning in the workplace can be structured to maximise the opportunity to learn (Billett, 2001). Illeris provides a conceptual theory for the structure and process of learning in the workplace, highlighting how the interaction between the learner, environment, input and incentive are woven together (Illeris, 2003).

The specific nature of social workers’ workplaces places is explored by Ferguson (2021). The landscape of social work practice involves workplaces that are diverse, and can, for example, include home visits, sheriff’s houses, police cells, hospital wards. Each workplace therefore has multiple physical and psychological elements to consider when designing or reflecting on learning. Ferguson also highlights the sensory aspects of the workplace – the sights, sounds, smells, taste and touch that characterise the places that social workers find themselves in. She suggests that understanding the nature of the workplace can help support effective workplace learning that takes the nature of social work into account.

“A commitment to workplace learning needs to balance the opportunities offered in work tasks and dovetail these with appropriate formal and accredited learning. There is therefore an opportunity to carefully consider how a workplace curriculum (Billett, 2005) can best be designed to foster learning in the landscape and tasks of social work.”

(Ferguson, 2021)

The opportunities offered by specific work tasks is noted above along with the importance of valuing learning through direct work practice. Each social work role and task has many layers, although may sound simple on the surface. Taking the time to think about how to structure learning about what a task involves can be helpful for NQSWs. There is a risk that induction or learning programmes can focus on some aspects of the task without full recognition of the dynamic nature, detail and nuances involved.

Ferguson’s research showed that some of the most significant learning experiences that social workers experienced had often been down to chance. This depended on the kind of cases allocated, where social workers were located, the pathways that had led them to this setting and various other factors. Although it is not possible to replicate tasks to enable consistent learning for NQSWs, it is important to balance the kinds of opportunities available throughout the qualifying and early career.

“Roles are multiple, diverse and dynamic. Every task has within it myriad sub-tasks that are often superbly complex and difficult to describe. If the role and task is difficult to describe, articulating how and what a social worker learns is more so. Further to that, planning how to facilitate or support that learning needs to wrestle with those ambiguities.”    

(Ferguson, 2022)

Useful Ideas

  • Consider the diverse spaces and places where social work happens
  • Think about the opportunities the workplace offers for learning and how tasks can be scaffolded
  • Develop strategies to maximise learning in practice

The following resources are available on this website related to learning in the workplace and through workplace tasks:

The NQSW learning journey

Each social worker is entering the supported year in practice with unique experiences and learning needs. Learning throughout the career builds on this experience. Keeping the whole person in mind is essential when planning for NQSWs learning.

Social work is a remarkable, complex profession in which NQSWs will be undertaking difficult and emotional work. The impact on personal life and managing the demands of role is important to remember. NQSWs will be continuing to develop their professional identity as a central aspect of their learning. This is hugely influenced by the settings in which they work, the work that they are doing, and the people they are working with.

“Managing the impact on personal life of learning as a social worker is also important for continuing professional learning, linked with practitioner resilience, wellbeing and longevity of career”

(Ferguson, 2021)

Useful Ideas

  • Keep the whole NQSW in mind
  • Think about the unique NQSW learning journey
  • Develop the foundations for strong professional identity

The following resources are available on this website related to NQSW learning journey:

The emotional and physical aspects of learning

We outlined the complexity of social work tasks and the nature of the workplace. This involves working with the emotions of self and others. An ongoing area of professional learning and development is emotional intelligence (Ingram, 2013). Social workers are also working through and in their bodies in the workplaces described in this resource. This is rarely considered in practice beyond health and safety or lone working guidance. The sensory experiences of working and learning through work are a key feature of social workers’ learning that are highlighted by Ferguson’s research.

“Social work is not often associated with physical labour and although the emotional aspect of practice is acknowledged, the full nature and extent of emotional labour is not. Learning through the body is a core and complex aspect of social workers’ lived experiences of learning.”

(Ferguson, 2021)

The following resources are available on this website related to the emotional and physical aspects of learning:

Where are the social workers in your service?

The changing landscape of practice settings means that social workers are not always physically located together. Social workers are employed in diverse organisations, including in multi-disciplinary or integrated teams. In some organisations NQSWs may be the only professional social worker. Social workers have been shown to be crucial to one another’s learning (Ferguson, 2021). Opportunities for informal, ad hoc and formal learning with social workers within and across service settings is fundamental to developing professional identity and learning the specific nuances of practice. In our longitudinal study, opportunities for discussion with other social workers was highly valued by NQSWs (Grant et al. 2020).   

“Opportunities to work alongside other social workers have changed due to changes in the physical workplace environment such as hot-desking (Ravalier, 2019) and integration of services with other professions (Welch et al., 2014b). Developing opportunities for social workers to be able to learn with each other in direct practice settings is an essential component of effective continuing professional learning”

(Ferguson, 2021)

Useful Ideas

  • Remember the importance of learning from other social workers
  • Think about where social workers are in your organisation, or where you can partner with other agencies
  • Consider opportunities for social workers to learn together in a safe physical or virtual space to share professional issues

The following resources are available on this website related to learning with other social workers:

Learning from people using services in practice

Learning through and with people who use social services is central to the ethos and practice of professional learning and development across the career. It is important that this forms a conscious and depth component of what and how social workers learn. This goes far beyond seeking feedback, although this is crucial to good practice.

“The significance of how social workers learn through their work with people cannot be underestimated. Learning through others and learning from people’s lives identified the heightened emotional experience of working with people and recognition of the seriousness and responsibility of the professional social work role”

(Ferguson, 2021)

Useful Ideas

  • Keep the lived experiences of people at the heart of learning
  • Reflect on how this learning is valued and recorded
  • Maximise the opportunities to learn from direct practice

The following resources are available on this website related to learning from and with people using social services:

Validating and endorsing progress in the NQSW Supported Year

The process set out for validating and endorsing the NQSW Supported Year is detailed in our guidance. This stresses the importance of drawing evidence together from the work that NQSWs do, their reflection on this and engagement in supervision discussion. The process shows how naturally occurring evidence from throughout the supported year builds to show progress. As part of this process, it is vital to keep the focus on learning and don’t let any of the paperwork dominate your support.

Confidence in recognising and valuing informal learning through practice is a challenge for many individuals and employers. Learning opportunities are vast and the workplace is a rich source of these. The NQSW Supported Year offers a great opportunity for employers to develop confidence in the range of learning solutions that stem from authentic and practice-based learning. Articulating learning from rich sources and diverse methods is a key feature of effective supervision and the professional development review process.

“Ways of thinking have shifted over time to firmly acknowledge all modes of learning as valid for social workers and other professionals. Much is said about recognising formal, informal, self-directed and even incidental learning for continuing professional development. However, reliance on, and value ascribed to, direct training, or organised learning activities are the default for many. There is a drive for tangible, measurable and visible learning opportunities of this type. The problem resulting from this is that some of the most significant learning experiences that social workers have, can be the least acknowledged or valued.”

(Ferguson, 2022

Useful Ideas

  • Keep learning aims and outcomes in mind
  • Value all kinds of learning methods and results
  • Don’t let formalities get in the way of recording progress

The following resources are available on this website related to validating and endorsing the NQSW Supported Year:

Download our organisational audit for action to support learning and development

General links and resources


Grant, S., McCulloch, T., Daly, M. and Kettles, M. (2020) Newly qualified social workers in Scotland: A five-year longitudinal study Interim Report 4: December 2020, Scottish Social Services Council, Dundee

Kolb, D. A. (1981) Learning styles and disciplinary differences in A. W. Chickering (ed.) The Modern American College, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

Ingram, R. (2013) Locating Emotional Intelligence at the Heart of Social Work Practice, British Journal of Social Work, 43(5), 987-1004

SCIE (2008) Learning Organisations: A self-assessment resource pack, Social Care Institute for Excellence