6 Apr 2021

NQSW supervision resource 1 - What is supervision?

NQSW supervision resource 1 - What is supervision?

Defining supervision in social work

“Supervision is a forum for reflection and learning… an interactive dialogue between at least two people, one of whom is a supervisor. This dialogue shapes a process of review, reflection, critique and replenishment for professional practitioners… It is accountable to professional standards and defined competencies and to organisational policy and procedures”.

Davys and Beddoe 2020, p.22

How we define supervision shapes expectations of ourselves and others in supervision sessions. There are many different definitions of supervision, all stress the goal of benefitting people who use services and their carers.

This definition highlights accountability and the link between supervision and performance review or appraisal processes:

“Supervision is a process which aims to support, assure and develop the knowledge skills and values of the person being supervised (supervisee), team or project group. It provides accountability for both the supervisor and supervisee in exploring practice and performance. It also enhances and provides evidence for annual performance review or appraisal; it sits alongside an organisation’s performance management process with particular focus on developing people in a way that is centred on achieving better outcomes for people who use services and their carers.”

SSSC Supervision Learning Resource

This definition focuses on social worker support to strengthen ethics:

“Supervision is the systematic, reflective process which supports social workers to make ethical decisions. It also improves confidence, competence and morale, leading to a better service for those who use social work services.”

BASW Supervision Policy

This definition focuses on relationships within the wider context:

“Supervision is a joint endeavour in which a practitioner, with the help of a supervisor, attends to their clients, themselves as part of their client-practitioner relationships and the wider systemic and ecological contexts, and by so doing improves the quality of their work, transforms their client relationships, continuously develops themselves, their practice and the wider profession.”

Hawkins and Shohet (2012)

The development of supervision in social work

In the late 19th century, volunteer social workers gathered around experienced leaders in an apprenticeship model and supervision was concerned with adherence to agency policy and the distribution of resources.

At the turn of the century evaluation of the perceived worthiness of clients needing help turned to greater examination of the causes of poverty and social justice. From the 1920’s onward, social work supervision was strongly influenced by growing psychoanalytic thinking.

From the 1980’s onward, in common with the rest of the public sector, supervision was increasingly concerned with ideas influenced by private sector concepts around performance and accountability.

Supervision has been described as “the most original and characteristic process that the field of social casework has developed” (Robinson in Davys and Beddoe, 2020).

Reflection is part of social work DNA

Reflection is an important part of supporting social work organisations’ core mission to serve communities, (Baines et al. (2014) in Hawkins, et al. 2020). Supervision has been shown to offer an important mediating role in supporting social workers to remain true to their principles. It prevents a focus on purely outcome-driven cultures supporting a more reflective, holistic focus on the supervisee and their practice.

Kolb’s experiential learning cycle  

The learning cycle underpins much of the theory of supervision and professional development in social work. It involves four stages, namely: concrete learning, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation. (Kolb, 1984).

From the 1980s, various writers developed Kolb’s ideas to inform social work supervision, notably Morrison (2001). Models were set out to help social workers and the wider helping professions improve supervision practice, the different processes and roles involved.  

Honey and Mumford (2005) learning styles are familiar to many social workers. Various questionnaires based on this are available online which can be used with new workers. This may be helpful when the NQSW or supervisor is familiar with these learning styles.

Learning styles can change over time and one is not more important or desirable than another. For example, a social worker might develop a more balanced mix of styles or have a different style at points of their career. Being aware of areas that we can develop in is an important aspect of learning and professional development.

The four styles relate to preferences for the above parts of the supervision cycle:

Experience – Activist style

Reflection – Reflector style

Analysis – Theorist style   

Action Plans – Pragmatist style

Each learning style will have favourable and unfavourable activities as described by Grace (2001).

  • Activists may favour new experiences and activities including role play, short term tasks and being thrown in at the deep end. They may be less likely to learn from lectures, reading, observing, analysing data, prescribed activities and frequent repetition.
  • Reflectors may favour activities where they can observe other people first, being given preparation and discussion time and audiovisual aids. They may be less likely to learn from role-playing in front of others, being ‘thrown in’ and having to make shortcuts due to time pressures.
  • Theorists may favour situations where they have to think through complex analyses, a clear purpose, interesting tasks regardless of relevance to the role and accessing models and theories. They may be less likely to learn from unstructured situations and decision making without a policy context and with complex emotional overtones.
  • Pragmatists may favour exercises where there is high relevance to their role, situations where the implementation is as important as the learning content, creating action plans and learning from coaches and mentors. They may be less likely to learn from situations with no clear goal or reward and learning from people outside their field.

Ideally, over time we adopt skills, that may come less naturally at first, as we learn from colleagues, supervisors and people who use services.    


Reflective questions

  • Where do you fit in the above continuum?
  • Either using this or another model, reflect on your strengths
  • Do you think your style has changed over time?

Information and links

  • Please remember that clicking on any of these links will take you to information and sites external to the SSSC NQSW website.
  • BASW Supervision Policy
  • Davys, A., & Beddoe, L. (2021). Best practice in professional supervision: A guide for the helping professions (2nd ed.). London: Jessica Kingsley
  • Hawkins, P. & Shohet, R. (2012) Supervision in the helping professions (4th ed.). London: Open University Press
  • Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall
  • Morrison, T. (2001). Staff Supervision in Social Care. Brighton: Pavillion
  • SSSC (2016) Supervision learning Resource

Go to NQSW supervision resource 2 – How people using services benefit from supervision

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