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Revisiting how social workers learn in the workplace

We want to pause to consider what we are really talking about when we plan for supporting NQSWs to learn through the early career stage.

There are several things to reflect on: What do we mean by learning?; What do we value as individuals and organisations in terms of learning?;What is it really like to learn as a social worker and what does that actually involve?; How do we develop the best opportunities for social workers to learn through work?

What do we mean by learning?

There are many theories about how individuals learn, how organisations learn and how we facilitate learning. Social work as a profession strongly promotes reflective learning, self-awareness and reflexivity. We will be including some information about learning theories in the next stage of the website development. It is interesting to think about what we mean by learning, what we think social workers need to learn, and how they learn. In terms of workplace learning, there are rich and diverse opportunities for social workers to learn through the direct work that they do. Understanding more about the nature of how social workers learn in the workplace can help us think about how we maximise the potential and value of this aspect of professional learning.

What do we value as individuals and organisations in terms of learning?

If you can pause for a moment and think about one of the most important things you have learned as a social worker or as a professional in your career. Then make some notes.

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  • How did you learn this?
  • What was it you learned?
  • Where did you learn this?
  • Who supported or influenced this learning?

Many different activities lead to learning. These include formal, informal and self-directed things that individuals, teams and organisations might do. Although guidance for continuing professional learning highlights the range of possibilities that count as learning, many social workers and managers focus on organised training sessions.

Our most significant learning experiences can be through so many different aspects of our work. We are drawing from some recent research in Scotland (Ferguson, 2021) that explored the lived experiences of social workers learning through work. The study highlights that learning in social workers’ workplaces can be incredibly potent in relation to the kind of work they are doing, yet it is not a primary focus in planning for continuing professional learning.

What is it really like to learn as a social worker and what does that actually involve?

The research was concerned with going back to explore the nature of learning in the workplace, for social workers. The study was located at the intersection of different fields of knowledge about individual learning; organisational learning; social work professional learning; and workplace learning. The central research question, “What are the lived experiences of social workers’ learning in the workplace?”, was at the core of the study, drawing from and contributing to these different areas of existing knowledge and offering new insights into how these fields connect.

Social workers learning in the workplace

The study found that learning to be, and learning as, a social worker in, through and at work is an intricate web of sensory and emotional experiences while negotiating and navigating places, spaces and tasks. The lived experiences of social workers can be understood as involving the seven superordinate themes for the group, Journey of the self; Navigating tasks; Navigating landscape and place; Learning through the body; Learning through others; Practices and conceptions of learning; and, Learning by chance. Striking metaphors helped social workers convey their experience of learning in the workplace that encompassed these themes.

Learning as a complex web

Learning as a complex web (Ferguson, 2021)

The themes of social workers’ learning in the workplace should not be considered merely on a surface or simplistic level. It is important to pause and consider what these different themes might mean for an individual social worker, then how these might combine. The threads of the relationship between these themes form a web that is unique to the individual social worker, deeply connected to their embodied experience of learning and the type of work opportunities that they undertake. Understanding the nature and complexity of individual social workers’ experiences can help us design more effective workplace continuing professional learning opportunities.

We will be linking to key ideas from this research and adding more information in the next stage of the website development.

You can find out more about the research and findings “When David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust” The Lived Experiences of Social Workers Learning Through Work (Ferguson, 2021).

How do we develop the best opportunities for social workers to learn through work?

Several important implications arise from Ferguson’s research for those involved in supporting social workers’ learning in the workplace.

  • We need to acknowledge the intensity of the emotional and embodied aspect of social workers’ learning.
  • Social workers are vital to each other’s learning.
  • Learning through direct work with real people who use services is absolutely vital.
  • Direct practice is essential to equip social workers with the kind of learning that they need.
  • We need to understand and value learning through work tasks and consider how we allocate tasks to social workers.
  • The personal value and commitment of social workers to their learning is of fundamental importance. We need to consider how frameworks and regulatory requirements dovetail with this.

References

Ferguson, G M. (2021). “When David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust” The Lived Experiences of Social Workers Learning Through Work. The Open University

This IRISS course provides a practical framework for supporting the writing of analysis in social care records, and is relevant to those working in social work and social care.

The course has grown out of the recording practice project that Iriss led over the last two years, which focussed on supporting social services practitioners to develop their skills and explore ideas for improving their case recording.

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Useful ideas

  • Remember to keep a record of your learning from the IRISS course

Please remember that clicking the links below will take you to information and websites external to the SSSC NQSW website.

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Information and links

Social work with adults

Social work with adults takes place across diverse settings and sectors and includes a broad range of interventions and services which aim to promote the wellbeing and protection of adults using a social-ecological perspective. This involves promoting and upholding the importance of relationships with a human rights and person-centred perspective in a complex social, policy and legislative context.

It is a hugely diverse area of practice that contributes significant expertise to adult social care and support services and across multiple formal and informal partnership arrangements. This includes health and social care, community justice, housing and homelessness, drug and alcohol use and mental health partnership arenas.

Social workers working with adults are in close partnership with a range of individual statutory and voluntary agencies, including children and young people’s services and can be working with adults across a wide age span from sixteen onwards depending on their role. This includes older people, dementia, frailty, palliative and end of life care; mental health, drug and alcohol, learning disabilities, physical and sensory disabilities, autism; support to carers and other specialist services.

You can reflect on how you work in teams and partnerships.

Social workers will be working with adults who are facing multiple physical, psychological and social issues and within diverse family and community contexts, including with carers. They work with the complex issues facing adults using outcomes-focused and strengths-based approaches; balancing rights and risks and taking appropriate action to support and protect people.

Those working in this area are knowledgeable about and fluent in the application of specific legislation in relation to their powers and duties along with broader legislation, policy and guidance. They use this knowledge to take action which supports choice and control, wellbeing and safety for individuals and the community.

Examples of the work often undertaken by social workers in this practice area include:

  • completing complex and comprehensive assessments and provision of reports to assist decision making and to make legal applications
  • contribution to multi-agency planning and leadership of interventions to support and protect adults and acting as a council officer
  • planning with and support for adults ensuring that they are fully involved in decision making about their care
  • provision of evidence-informed therapeutic and behaviour change interventions
  • some social workers who undertake an additional qualification may be working in the role of Mental Health Officer (MHO)

Whatever setting you work in please find out about the relevant legislation, policy and guidance. We’ve included some links here, but always recommend that you check the most up to date and relevant material within your practice setting.

Key legislation informing practice with adults

The Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000 provides ways to protect and safeguard the welfare and finances of adults who lack capacity to take some or all decisions for themselves because of a mental disorder or an inability to communicate.

The Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003 places duties on local councils to provide care and support services for people with mental disorders.

Under the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2016, the police must provide support for persons in custody who are unable to sufficiently understand what is happening or communicate with the police because of a mental disorder.

The Adult Support and Protection (Scotland) Act 2007 aims to protect those adults who are unable to safeguard their own interests and are at risk of harm because they are affected by disability, mental disorder, illness, physical or mental infirmity.

Policy and practice guidance for working with adults

Scottish Government appropriate adult guidance for local authorities outlines statutory duties relating to the provision of Appropriate Adult services.

The Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland protects and promotes the human rights of people with mental illness, learning disabilities, dementia and related conditions.

The School of Forensic Mental Health promotes education, training and research.

The Mental Health Tribunal Scotland considers applications for Compulsory Treatment Orders under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act.

Please let us know about any guidance and resources that you would like to recommend to other NQSWs working with adults.

Social work in justice settings and services

Social work in justice settings such as court, prisons and in the community aims to reduce reoffending, increase the social inclusion and rehabilitation of those involved in offending behaviour and help protect the public from serious harm.

It is a hugely diverse area of practice that contributes significant expertise across multiple formal and informal partnership arrangements. This includes community justice, health and social care, children and families, housing and homelessness, drugs and alcohol and mental health partnership arenas.  

Social workers practicing in this area, work closely with a range of individual statutory and voluntary agencies within relevant partnership arrangements. They work with people aged 16 and over with a wide range of multiple and often complex issues affecting them, such as domestic abuse, sexual offending, hate crime and extremism, violence, substance use and mental health.

Social workers will be working with people facing diverse social and psychological transitions. They also work with victims and witnesses and are involved in supporting the needs of children and families facing the impact of parental imprisonment.

Those working in this area are knowledgeable about and fluent in the application of specific legislation in relation to their powers and duties along with broader adult and child protection legislation, policy and guidance. They use this knowledge to take action which supports wellbeing and safety for individuals and the community.

Examples of the work often undertaken by social workers in this practice area include:

  • contribution to multi-agency planning for the management of public safety
  • completing complex and comprehensive assessments and provision of reports to assist decisions on sentencing
  • supporting people diverted from prosecution
  • supervising people on parole or a community-based disposal
  • provision of evidence-informed therapeutic and behaviour change programmes and interventions.

Whatever setting you work in please find out about the relevant legislation, policy and guidance. We’ve included some links here, but always recommend that you check the most up to date and relevant material within your practice setting.

Key legislation informing practice in justice settings

The Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 replaced community service orders, supervised attendance orders and probation orders with Community Payback Orders.

The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 introduced new ways to assess serious violent and sexual offenders and strengthened existing prison throughcare arrangements.

The Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 outlines the circumstances whereby a court must obtain and consider a report from a local authority officer.

Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) were introduced in 2007 following implementation of the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Act 2005. The Act places statutory obligations on responsible authorities to cooperate in respect of Registered Sex Offenders and Restricted Patients.

Policy and practice guidance for working in justice settings

Scottish Government national guidance on bail supervision set outs guidelines for the operation of bail supervision services by local authority justice social work.

Scottish Government Community Payback Orders (CPOs) practice guidance informs practitioners and managers in the delivery of justice social work and specifically CPOs.

Scottish Government Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA): national guidance 2016 outlines the working arrangements for assessing and managing the risk posed by certain categories of offenders.

Scottish Government Criminal Justice Social Work Reports and Court Based Services Practice Guidance provides direction on the completion of social work reports and delivery of court based services.

The Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice provides information relevant to broad range of justice issues and practice.

Criminal Justice Voluntary Sector Forum is a collaboration of voluntary sector organisations working in criminal justice in Scotland.

SACRO works independently and collaboratively within Scotland’s communities to provide support, prevent conflict and challenge offending behavior.

Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research produces research that informs policy and practice and advances understanding of justice.

The Scottish Prison Service Integrated Case Management (ICM) Guidance Manual explains the ICM process and its requirements.

The National Objectives for Social Work Services in the Criminal Justice System: Standards – Throughcare provide details on statutory prison throughcare. Note: This document is currently being reviewed but may offer some learning.

The Scottish Prison Service Home Detention Curfew (HDC) Guidance for Agencies outlines the role of justice social workers.

Scottish Government Drug Treatment and Testing Orders: Guidance for Schemes provides details on Drug Testing and Treatment Orders is a community disposal.

Risk Management Authority’s Framework for Risk Assessment, Management and Evaluation (FRAME) outlines the policy approach to risk practice in Scotland.

Circular No: SWSG 14/1998 – Extended Sentences: Interim Social Work Guidance (PDF) from the Scottish Government provides practice guidance for those directly involved in the home leave process for prisoners. Note: This document is currently being reviewed but may offer some learning.

Please let us know about any guidance and resources that you would like to recommend to other NQSWs working in justice settings.

Social work with children and families

Social work with children and families takes place across diverse settings and sectors and includes a broad range of interventions and services which aim to promote the wellbeing and protection of children and young people using a social ecological perspective. This involves promoting and upholding the importance of relationships with a children’s rights and child-centred perspective in a complex social, policy and legislative context. 

It is a hugely diverse area of practice which contributes significant expertise to universal services and across multiple formal and informal partnership arrangements. This includes education, community justice, health and social care, housing and homelessness, drug and alcohol use and mental health partnership arenas.

Social workers practicing within and across this area, work in close partnership with a range of individual statutory and voluntary agencies and can be working with children and/or young people across a wide age span from pre-birth on depending on their role.

Social workers will be working with children and/or young people who are facing multiple social and psychological transitions and within diverse family and community contexts. They work with the complex issues facing children and their families using strengths-based approaches, balancing rights and risks and taking appropriate action to protect and safeguard children and young people. 

Those working in this area are knowledgeable about and fluent in the application of specific legislation in relation to their powers and duties along with broader legislation, policy and guidance. They use this knowledge to take action which supports wellbeing and safety for individuals and the community.

Examples of the work often undertaken by social workers in this practice area include: 

  • completing complex and comprehensive assessments and provision of reports to assist decision making and to make legal applications
  • contribution to multi-agency planning and leadership of interventions to support and protect children and families
  • planning for and support for children where living with their family is not possible ensuring that the child is involved in decision making about their care
  • provision of evidence-informed therapeutic and behaviour change interventions.

Whatever setting you work in please find out about the relevant legislation, policy and guidance. We’ve included some links here, but always recommend that you check the most up to date and relevant material within your practice setting.

Key legislation informing practice with children and families in Scotland

The Children (Scotland) Act 1995 provides the range and scope of local authority intervention in the lives of children and their families and the duties and responsibilities.

The Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011 sets out the framework for the care and protection of children by the imposition of Compulsory Measure of Supervision.

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 concerns children’s rights and services in Scotland.

The Age of Criminal Responsibility (Scotland) Act 2019 raises the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland from eight to 12. It also provides certain safeguards to ensure that harmful behaviour by children under 12 can be responded to in an appropriate and meaningful way, which will not criminalise children.

Policy and practice guidance for working with children and families

Getting it right for every child (GIRFEC) is Scotland’s national approach to improving outcomes and supporting the wellbeing of children and young people by offering the right help at the right time from the right people.

Scottish Government GIRFEC National Practice Model.

Protecting Scotland’s Children and Young People Policy Overview (2018) (PDF) provides a comprehensive overview of policy and legislations relating to the national approach.

The CELCIS (Centre for Excellence for Children’s Care and Protection) knowledge bank provides links to a variety of relevant resources and is home to the Protecting Children resources.

Children in Scotland resources on supporting implementation of the GIRFEC model.

The Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland provides a range of resources on protecting the rights of children and young people.

Please let us know about any guidance and resources that you would like to recommend to other NQSWs working with children and families.

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Reflective questions

  • What is your role in any team you are part of?
  • How do you contribute to meetings?
  • How would you like to be contributing to these meeting?
  • What have you learned from any of these meetings?

Please note this is under development and suggested content information as this website evolves as part of our NQSW national project in 2020-21. Your feedback is welcome on additions and amendments to the information and resources included here.You can contact us on nqswproject@sssc.uk.com

Social work with children, young people and adults

Social workers work increasingly in diverse and multidisciplinary services and settings across the public, third and independent sectors. 

We will be including examples of NQSW journeys from third and independent sector here within the website, along with examples of professional learning can be supported in different settings and welcome any contributions from your experience.

Sometimes social work services are understood in terms of work with children and families, work with adults or work in justice settings. The reality of many social work roles is that they will be spanning the boundaries of these practice areas. We have included some information about the specific practice areas to help show the diversity of social work and the roles which might be undertaken in different settings. 

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Reflective questions

  • How would you describe your area of practice?
  • Do you work across different service areas or with different age groups?
  • What areas of practice interest you most? How does this influence your learning?
  • Why is it important to understand broader social work practice than just your own area?
  • How can you keep up to date with enough relevant information about different practice areas as you begin your career as a social worker?

Social work in diverse practice settings

Find out more about social work in different practice areas along with key links to relevant policy and legislation for your continuing professional learning.

Social work with children and families

Social work in justice settings

Social work with adults

Please note this is under development and suggested content information as this website evolves as part of our NQSW national project in 2021-22. Your feedback is welcome on additions and amendments to the information and resources included here.

Social work in Scotland

Since the introduction of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, the social work profession has been subject to transformations which have developed and enriched social work in Scotland. There are dynamic changes to the design and provision of universal health care, welfare and education services which are placing increasing demands on social work as a profession within the landscape of integrated services for children and adults.

Social work continues to adapt and respond to societal need and the voices of lived experience, economic trends and policy direction to ensure it is effective and future focused in its contribution to and impact on the integrated and multidisciplinary landscape. The statement for advanced practice is founded on the international definition of social work and reaffirms the profession’s identity, underpinning values and key strengths. 

‘Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing.’
International Federation of Social Workers (2014)

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Reflective questions

  • How do I see my role as a social worker?
  • Why did I become a social worker?
  • What kind of social worker do I think I am?
  • What values do I believe I have? And how do I demonstrate them?

Policy context

Social workers operate in an increasingly complex policy and legal context. The drive towards public sector reform aims to create more joined up local services based within communities and supported by regional and national initiatives and arrangements. Social work can play a vital role in tackling some of the most important and pressing challenges facing our society in the 21st century as well as contributing towards ongoing sustainable development. 

Key challenges include:

  • persistent and often cross-generational poverty and disadvantage
  • delivering the promise of the independent care review, adult social care reform and other system-wide transformational policy agendas
  • an increasingly ageing population with people living longer with more complex needs and a reduced population of working aged adults
  • increasing number of drug related deaths, with Scotland being among the highest prevalence in Europe
  • 30,000 children a year affected by parental imprisonment
  • the climate emergency, human consequences, environmental justice and disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable people
  • constrained budgets affecting thresholds for social work and social care, as well as universal services (education and health)
  • reshaped organisational structures including diminished resources for social work specific learning, workforce development and support 

Social work role 

Social workers bring ethics, values and rights-based approaches to an increasingly complex continuum of practice from early intervention to securing people’s safety. Social workers build effective therapeutic relationships and collaborate with others, moving beyond the purely transactional intervention. Relationship-based practice and partnership working are vital to providing effective and sustainable support which recognises the complex and difficult backgrounds of people and communities and the need to seek approaches that empower and build on strengths. 

Social workers are operating in an arena that can at times be complex, ambiguous and unpredictable. They hold a range of knowledge of both theory and legislation as well as the skills and confidence to be able to manage the competing demands and expectations of their professional role. 

Social workers work increasingly in diverse and multidisciplinary services and settings across the public, third and independent sector. While roles may vary according to specific services, they are underpinned by a core set of knowledge and skills. Developing in your career as an NQSW sets the foundations for undertaking this role.

Reserved function of the social worker

There are a range of clear and reserved functions social workers are accountable for. These functions are integral to formal statutory interventions relating to care and protection, criminal justice, mental health and adults with incapacity, and the professional leadership role of a chief social work officer (CSWO). In undertaking these functions social workers are required to balance competing needs, rights and risks. The decisions they make in exercising these functions need to draw on a range of appropriate sources of knowledge and evidence and be person-centred; considering the views of multi-agency partners and communicated effectively to a range of stakeholders.

However, these functions alone do not reflect every aspect of social work practice and the contribution social workers make in different services and practice settings. Social workers ensure robust safeguarding by offering advice and support underpinned by their understanding of statutory frameworks. They support colleagues by championing strengths-based and person-centred planning and care. They challenge deficit-based practice while recognising the wider family and systemic context. 

Being a social worker

Social workers work in complex social situations to support and protect individuals and groups and promote their well-being.  Social workers must be aware of their responsibility to promote the well-being, support and protection of vulnerable children or adults at risk of harm or abuse irrespective of role, setting and situation.

Social workers need to be able to act effectively in these demanding circumstances and, to achieve this, social workers must be able to critically reflect on, and take responsibility for, their actions.  Social workers should demonstrate engagement with their on-going learning and professional development and should inform practice through critical analysis and reflection, using research and evidence appropriately to support professional decision making.

Since the nature, scope and purpose of social work services themselves are often fiercely debated, social workers should also be able to understand these debates fully and to analyse, adapt to, manage and promote change. 

Social workers should be aware of personal and professional wellbeing and resilience, seeking appropriate support to maintain a positive work/life balance.

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Reflective questions

  • What have you learned about yourself going through the process from student to NQSW?
  • What are your feelings about being a registered social worker and on a professional register?
  • What difference do you think it will make to your practice?