By Jackie Ryan and Anna Bouch, professional education consultants, South Coast Regional Centre for Social Work Education (SCRC) teaching partnership

When we were tasked with embedding the knowledge and skills statement for adult social workers, we at the SCRC teaching partnership asked ourselves one fundamental question.

How could we approach this task to ensure we produced a document that would be a support rather than a burden for social workers?

The obvious approach is to run a one-off snapshot survey but since that would do little to help change day-to-day practice we decided we needed a different approach.

We envisaged using the statement as the foundation for creating a suite of tools that would plug into existing appraisal and supervision processes provide a clear knowledge and skills assessment framework, and help social workers and their managers identify training and development needs.

We also saw an opportunity to use these tools to promote a reflective approach to practice, and give experienced social workers the kind of structured development framework that they rarely experience beyond the ASYE year.

Service user views

With these principles in mind we develop two tools: a self-evaluation form that asks social workers to rate themselves against the standards on a scale of one to five, and a template for the direct observation of social workers’ practice.

Crucially, the direct observations would be informed not only by the assessment of the observing social worker but also by the opinions of the service user.

We felt having the service users’ voice in the process was critical as they have a unique view on the emotional impact of engagement with social workers.

We hoped the involvement of service users would also make them feel like partners in a reciprocal process rather than simply a bystander in an assessment.

Concerns vanished

Last summer, with the tools in place, we put our vision to the test with trials in adult services in both East Sussex and Brighton & Hove ahead of a full rollout in early 2018.

Understandably there were concerns. Would the new processes get in the way of social workers doing their job? Would social workers see the development benefits? Would service users see value in contributing to direct observations?

The concerns soon vanished, however.

Social workers participating in the trial told us the tools made the measuring of their performance more meaningful than the usual written or quantitative measures. “It makes much more sense,” a senior social worker told us. “I’ve no idea what I’m like chairing a meeting, I haven’t been evaluated for years.”

The concerns about the time demands of the self-evaluation and direct observation also evaporated, with one participant saying they “didn’t really take more time”.

Better integration with health

Social workers also reported that the tools had benefits for the integration of social care and health. “Doctors, physios and nurses are observed all the time against standards, they have this type of structure and it’s about time we did too as social workers,” said one social worker.

A senior social worker added: “It’s a brilliant idea, it’s got structure to it, sometimes social work is seen as secondary to health and I think a lack of rigour around observation of competence in the past hasn’t helped that.”

Service users liked it too. One told one of the observing social workers that “it’s nice to be able to talk to someone about what I felt with [the social worker], I don’t mind you coming here with her at all, I wish I could do more of this”.

Social workers also liked getting the feedback from service users. “Finally something that gives more equal power in looking at how we’re doing to our service users and not just our managers,” said one social worker. Another added: “It was really powerful to hear what the service user said. I was a bit nervous at first but really it’s just like visiting with a colleague.”

A positive difference

This was better than we ever imagined. We were surprised at how strong the appetite for self-assessment, direct observation and service user feedback was among practitioners and so we’re excited that from February 2018 the development of every adult social worker in East Sussex and Brighton & Hove will benefit from the same tools.

And those benefits could be huge. All social workers need the opportunities to be challenged about their practice to make positive change and with these tools we believe we have found a way to deliver this sustainably through learning that is rooted in reflections on direct practice.

Its an approach that not only embeds the knowledge and skills statement but also supports the development of a strengths-based reflective approach to practice that can make such a positive difference to the lives of the people our social workers support.

As we move forward we plan to produce a similar framework using the knowledge and skills statement for social work supervisors in adult social care, currently out for consultation.

Children’s services in both councils are planning to implement a similar framework later in the year.

Want to work for a council that makes developing the skills of its adult social workers a priority? Then check the latest opportunities at East Sussex County Council