Newly Qualified Social Workers in Scotland: Experiences of Practice During COVID-19

Trish McCulloch, David Clarke, Claire Ferrier, Maura Daly, Scott Grant, Robin Sen

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


This report presents findings from a national research study on newly qualified social workers’ (NQSW) experiences of practice during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scotland.

It draws on findings from a review of the existing literature, 124 responses to a national online survey with NQSWs, and 12 follow up in-depth interviews. Data collection took place between November 2020 and February 2021 during which participants experienced a second national lockdown.

There are now several studies that report on different aspects of social work under the COVID-19 pandemic. Very few attend to the experiences of NQSWs and none focus on NQSWs’ experiences in Scotland.

At the time of writing, this is the largest and most comprehensive published research study into NQSWs’ experiences of practice during COVID-19.

Key Findings and recommendations

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on NQSWs experiences of practice. However, our findings make clear that the impact and effects of the pandemic have not been uniform across the NQSW workforce. Rather, experiences are mixed and contingent on individual circumstances and differing approaches to early career support, learning and development across organisations. Efforts to understand the impacts of COVID-19 on NQSWs need to recognise the individualised, situated and temporal nature of this phenomenon. As Joan Tronto (2017) observes in respect of care generally: ‘there are not singular but plural answers to questions about what it means to care well’. This means that if we wish to understand and support the needs of the early career workforce through COVID-19, then we need to work, think and learn through emerging knowledge together.

We offer below a summary of our key findings and recommendations.


• COVID-19 has had a moderate but variable impact on NQSWs’ experiences of qualifying learning.
• One in four NQSWs reported that their placement was concluded early with differing impacts on participants’ sense of professional readiness.
• Many were completing research projects when COVID-19 unfolded and experienced this as a stressful and isolating experience.

Developing supports for NQSWs need to be responsive to the impacts of COVID-19 on recent experiences of qualifying education. Findings from this study suggest that attention to experiences of practice-based learning, and associated learning needs, is particularly important.

Induction and early support
• Experiences of induction and early support remain inconsistent across Scotland. This appears to reflect longstanding differences in the quality of early career supports available to NQSWs across professional settings.
• Poor experiences of induction and early support were frequently followed by poor experiences of ongoing support, learning and development.

Employers should be supported to provide a more consistent experience of induction and early career support to NQSWs. This may be supported by current national activity to develop a Supported First Year in Practice. Frameworks for a Supported First Year should provide a clear outline of employer and NQSW responsibilities and clear lines of governance.

Ways of working

• COVID-19 has had a significant impact on NQSWs’ early experiences of work.
• Most NQSWs are working at a distance, from colleagues, social work offices, and people who use services.
• Home working is typically experienced as lone working and NQSWs miss routine opportunities to learn with and from others.
• The social work office emerges as an important professional and protective space.
• NQSWs report mixed and sometimes poor access to essential digital work tools.
• NQSWs are less positive about remote working than their more experienced colleagues. This appears to reflect the fact that early career learning is a thoroughly social and situated process.

Fuller research is needed into the impacts of remote and hybrid working practices on social workers and people who use services, including through attention to issues of diversity.

We need to better understand the role and contribution of different working environments to professional wellbeing, learning and development. This should include attention to the emotional labour of practice and the implications of this for the spaces in which social work is done.

In-person work with people who use services

• In-person work with people who use services is much reduced and governed by increasingly centralised and/or remote assessments of risk.
• Most NQSWs spoke to the negative impacts of COVID-19 restrictions on the quality of in-person work, linked to challenges of building meaningful relationships.
• Some NQSWs felt that recent restrictions on practice are contributing to, or exacerbating, increasingly administrative and techno-rational forms of practice. • A small number described working outside of COVID-19 related rules and restrictions, framed typically within efforts to provide a more humane and socially just practice.

As we move through and from the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to be attentive to its unfolding and enduring impacts on practice, including in respect of what, where and how social work is done.


• Most NQSWs continue to report regular and positive experiences of formal supervision.
• Experiences of informal support, identified as critical to early career learning and development, are varied.
• Physical distance from colleagues was identified as the key obstacle to positive experiences of informal support. Some organisations and teams have been more effective in overcoming this obstacle than others.

Organisational and professional commitment to excellent early career support and development needs to extend beyond the boundaries of supervision. More strategic and sustained attention should be given to understanding and developing the place of informal support as an important professional development tool.

Professional learning and development

• NQSWs report contrasting experiences of learning and development during COVID-19.
• One third report good access to learning and development opportunities, one third report no meaningful opportunities, and one third describe a mix of the two. This contrasts with our 2017 findings where over two thirds of NQSWs reported being satisfied with the learning opportunities available.
• Positive accounts highlight the value of a structured, blended and multi-modal approach, including attention to formal and informal learning.
• Negative accounts were associated with poor employer recognition of NQSWs’ learning and development needs, professional isolation and a reliance on mandatory opportunities.

Developing efforts to improve early career learning and development need to address the contrasting and situated accounts reported in this study and others.

Improvement efforts should better embrace the multi-dimensional, integrative and social nature of professional learning, including through attention to formal and informal modes.

Professional confidence and confidence

• Accounts of professional confidence are mixed. This appears to reflect the developmental nature of professional confidence and differing access to key practice, learning and support opportunities.
• Positive accounts were associated with good quality practice-based learning opportunities prior to qualification and good quality practice, learning and support opportunities post qualification.
• Negative accounts were associated with professional isolation linked to COVID-19, practicing social work at a distance and limited access to learning and support.
• Overall, accounts of professional confidence under COVID-19 appear to depend heavily on the extent to which universities, employers, practitioners and others have been able to continue to provide critical support, learning and development opportunities to students and NQSWs, albeit in new and creative ways.

Social work is a practice-based profession and accounts of professional confidence appear to depend heavily on supported opportunities for practice-based learning. The profession needs to work together to protect and strengthen this identity and method, including through periods of change and crisis.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationDundee
PublisherScottish Social Services Council
Commissioning bodyThe Scottish Government
Number of pages63
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2022
Externally publishedYes


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