Newly Qualified Social Workers in Scotland: A Five-Year Longitudinal Study: Interim Report 4: December 2020

Scott Grant, Trish McCulloch, Maura Daly, Martin Kettle

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


This report presents findings from Year 4 of a five-year longitudinal study which aims to develop a national picture of how early career social workers (ECSWs) experience and navigate their early years in practice. Year 4 findings draw on 149 responses to a national online questionnaire. This executive summary provides an overview of key findings and an initial mapping of implications for policy, practice and research.


Almost nine out of ten respondents continue to be employed in statutory settings (88%) with a slight drop in those employed in voluntary settings. Less than half describe working within integrated or interdisciplinary teams. The number of respondents based in children’s services continues to drop (down to 44%), with associated increases in adult care (40%) and criminal justice (11%).

Professional movement remains steady with around 1 in 5 moving to new posts in the last year. Levels of movement remains broadly consistent with previous years, with 21% describing job changes in the last year. Respondents continue to provide a mix of practical and professional reasons for moving jobs. Most regularly cited reasons were to: (i) reduce stress and workload pressures and (ii) achieve promotion. Movement to reduce stress continues to be most associated with movement from children and family area teams.

We now have robust repeat measure data on social work workforce patterns across service settings, including for newly qualified and early career social workers. We can make better use of this data to understand and support professional experiences within and across service settings and at key career stages, including stages of exit.

Agile working continues to emerge as a significant feature of many respondents’ working lives and most continue to describe their experience of agile working in mostly negative terms. However, this year’s findings indicate that respondent dissatisfaction with agile working is not related to its agility but to limited and limiting forms of agile working. Where agile working includes access to adequate desk space, essential agile work tools, spaces for quiet and concentrated work and easy access to peer support, agile working is typically experienced positively. Experiences of agile working on these terms remain rare.

We recommend investment in more professionally responsive forms of agile working; that is, forms that recognize and are responsive to the distinct needs of professional social work and its workforce.

Year 4 respondents report increasing workloads, with a significant increase this year in the number holding between 31 to 40 cases (27%). This year just over half described their workload as ‘manageable’ (falling from two thirds in Year 1), while just under half reported that their workload makes them feel anxious. Workload-related stress continues to emerge as a significant factor in accounts of professional morale and movement, particularly when accompanied by other professional challenges.

Respondents continue to report spending most time on report writing and case recording and least time on reading and applying research. This finding is consistent across years. Reported time spent with service users and carers reduced slightly this year. Balance of activity emerges as important to ECSWs and to their professional identity, morale and wellbeing. ‘Too much’ and unnecessary ‘admin and bureaucracy’ emerges as a problem across survey sections and years.

There are many implications here for those responsible for supporting ECSWs. We need to understand the drivers behind increasing caseloads while finding ways to ensure that caseloads are manageable for all. Relatedly, we need to find ways of ensuring a more equitable workload experience across localities, service settings, organisations and teams. We also need to achieve a better balance of professional leadership and management if we are to ensure that the human value and values of social work are not subjugated to managerial values. At present, organisations and managers appear to exercise considerable autonomy in these areas with little in the way of impactful professional guidance or governance.

Professional confidence and competence

Most respondents continue to report high levels of professional confidence and competence across a range of skills, knowledge, values and self-efficacy measures. Across these measures, lower levels of confidence emerged in only three of 35 areas: (i) use of research skills; (ii) ability to overcome opposition; and (iii) ease of sticking to aims and accomplish goals.

The consistently high level of professional confidence and competence reported across this longitudinal study is both a positive and surprising finding, particularly in light of the well-documented challenges practitioners report in fulfilling their role and purpose in contexts of social inequality, economic austerity and sustained public sector reform. Relatedly, our very positive findings in this area were often at odds with responses captured elsewhere in the survey where respondents describe a struggle to practice in value-led ways. This duality in the study findings likely reflects our mixed method approach to understanding professional experience. It also appears to reflect the pluralities of professional experience, as workers are pushed and pulled between statutory duties, value-led action, organisational norms, regulatory requirements and managerial demands. Expecting a single story to emerge from this experience is misguided.

There are important implications here for social work research methods and for how we read and make use of research findings. Our findings underline the importance of multi-method and plural approaches to research, analysis and reporting. We need to continue to show social work’s pluralities, complexities and uncertainties, even and especially when those pluralities do not lead to neat conclusions and actions. Our findings suggest that most ECSWs are confident, competent and struggling. Sometimes professional confidence and identity is bolstered by workers’ shared sense of struggle and sometimes the struggle becomes too much. We need to find ways of more explicitly recognising these dualities of professional identity and experience across career stages, including through the development of more relevant and responsive supports.

Supervision, support, learning and development

Our findings suggest that the frequency of supervision for ECSWs continues to fall, with those reporting regular access to supervision dropping from 74% in Year 1 to 56% in Year 4. For most, the focus of supervision continues to be on workload management. While many would like to achieve a better balance between managerial and professional developmental strands, most appear satisfied with the frequency and quality of supervision. This year, areas for improvement centre on ensuring that supervision is protected and conducted as a professional and skilled exchange. Our findings continue to underline the value ECSWs place on supervision and their investment in it as a key mechanism for professional development, effectiveness and wellbeing.

An important implication of these findings is that supervision can and should be viewed as more than a management tool. Conducted well it has the potential to contribute to many professional development needs and priorities, including the development of professional confidence, competence, identity, learning, leadership, self-care and resilience. For these reasons and others, it is an obvious area for targeted investment, including through the development of more co-productive and developmental models.

Informal support continues to emerge as a critical but underdeveloped element of ECSWs’ professional experience and development. It is rooted in an exchange model of development, shows significant impact on professional practice, wellbeing and resilience, and carries minimal additional material costs. However, access to and opportunities for informal support appears to vary greatly across settings. It appears to be rarely ‘designed in’ to social service environments and is easily ‘designed out’, i.e. through adoption of limiting forms of agile working. There is potential to better harness the co-productive potential of this particular form of support and development, perhaps through ‘seed corn’ investment or through supporting bottom up innovation.

Respondents continue to report varied and mixed experiences of learning and development opportunities. Most describe opportunities provided ‘in house’ by employers or via self-directed learning at home. Least time is spent in learning supported by universities and in self-directed learning at work. An increasing number express a desire for more formal, structured and career-focused opportunities, as well as frustration at the limited opportunities and pathways available. However, the generic nature of the research questions and responses in this area make it difficult to draw clear conclusions from the data. Across survey sections, post qualifying learning and development emerges as an important but underdeveloped element of ECSWs’ professional journey, with respondents left to make the best of what comes their way.

The key implication of our findings in this area is that there is a need for targeted and collaborative research and investment in this area.

Professional identity and leadership

Respondents continue to report - and find - a strong sense of professional identity and confidence in their role and purpose, though this year shows the first dip in these areas. Strains on professional identity continue to be linked to challenges and conflicts in the organisational, interprofessional and socio-economic contexts in which practitioners operate, for example, arising from ‘managerialism, bureaucracy and budgets’. Free text responses suggest that practitioners find strength and solidarity in their shared struggle but experience minimal material support to address and overcome known challenges.

The implications of our findings in this area, extend to all involved in providing professional support, supervision, development, registration and governance to ECSWs (see Year 3 report). Our findings from this year underline a need to find ways to better support practitioners to navigate the well-documented micro and macro challenges of professional practice.

An increasing number of respondents now recognise leadership as an important part of their role and practice. However, experiences of organisational or employer support to develop leadership capacity remain minimal and mixed. Recent national initiatives in this area appear to have had most impact at the level of the individual practitioner with limited evidence of impact on local organisational practice and behaviours. Achieving better alignment between individual and organisational initiatives in this area is needed to maximise and sustain impact.

Next steps

We are now in the final year of the study. The final online survey was circulated to all ECSWs in March 2021. Final participant research interviews will take place between April and May this year. We expect our final report to be available at the close of this year.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationDundee
PublisherScottish Social Services Council
Commissioning bodyThe Scottish Government
Number of pages54
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2020
Externally publishedYes


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