We are testing a new beta website for gov.scot go to new site

Social work Inspection Agency: Practice Guide: On the record - getting it right: Effective management of social work recording


2 Recording - raising standards, ensuring quality

2.1 Professional writing - example of good practice

Aberdeen City Council and Robert Gordon University have produced a guidance booklet for social work practitioners on 'Professional Writing'. They recognised that many newly qualified social workers were not well enough prepared for the professional writing required in their first statutory post. Following extensive consultation, a literature review and a conference, a working group produced the booklet. The booklet covers all forms of written communication used by social workers today. This includes text messages, e-mails, case recording, letters, memos, minutes, support plans, chronologies and reports.

(Professional Writing Guidance Booklet for social work practitioners, Aberdeen City Council and Robert Gordon University, August 2009)

2.2 Supervision and audit

First line managers have a key role in assuring the quality of practice. One of the ways they do this is through individual supervision or where appropriate, group supervision. Supervision has always been a fundamental part of social work practice. In recent years there has been a lot of debate about its place in modern management. Some have suggested there is a tension between professional supervision and the demands for performance and workload management. Others argue that supervision is key to developing and sustaining quality standards in service delivery.

Good supervision helps front line workers to stand back from, review and reflect on their work. During supervision, first line managers help staff look critically at their reasoning and objectively at their practice as important decisions are made about individual cases.

Decisions made about individual cases in supervision are a core part of the case record. These decisions should be clearly recorded on the individual file as an integrated part of the record.

Although there is an extensive body of literature on supervision and considerable local guidance, a number of inquiries into service failure have included recommendations about improving supervision practice. Recent examples in Scotland are: The Western Isles report, 13 the Colyn Evans review 14 and the Kerelaw Independent Inquiry 15 which all made recommendations about supervision. Many other inquiries over the years have made similar comment.

"Supervision is the cornerstone of good social work practice and should be seen to operate effectively at all levels of the organisation."16 (Laming, 2003)

Recommendation 45 page 121 also highlights the key role of supervision of records:

"Directors of social services must ensure that the work of staff working directly with children is regularly supervised. This must include the supervisor reading, reviewing and signing the case file at regular intervals."

2.3 Effective file audit

There are different levels and purposes to the audit of files. Day to day management audit is part of the line manager's on going oversight of the practitioner's work with the person. Councils also audit files as part of internal or external scrutiny. Different audits can also focus on different types of information, depending on their purpose.

"Practice audit has become part of the supervisory system. It is the means through which practice is overseen and scrutinised (inspected), and feedback is given (correction or congratulations) and verified as fit for purpose." Cunningham, Supervision and Governance 2004 17

Records do not always accurately reflect the work that is being carried out. Some excellent practitioners are not as skilled at recording and on the other hand poor practice can be hidden by well kept files. First line managers have a key role in assisting their staff in developing good recording skills which enhance their day to day practice.

Front line workers are less likely to feel threatened by file audits where they are simply a routine part of day to day line management. Practitioners are less likely to see recording as a burden if it is recognised as a significant and relevant part of their workload. 'Recording with care' 18 found that where regular audit took place the quality of case recording was improved. Guidance for first line managers should make clear their responsibility to regularly scrutinise case files.

SWIA found great variation in how different local authorities audited their case files. Some had arrangements in place for regular audit, some audited in preparation for inspection and some following inspection.

"Quantitative audits consider whether the file is up to date, contains all the relevant documentation and that the documentation has been properly completed. Qualitative auditing considers the quality of the recording on file, and whether it reflects good practice. Both are necessary. The record may be up to date and contain all the relevant documentation, but the quality of the recording may be poor or inappropriate to the needs of the child, similarly the record may be of a high standard, but out of date.' Write Enough 19 effective recording for children's services."

To carry out effective file audits managers must ensure its reliability. You must be systematic, perhaps using a standard form, such as that used by SWIA. You must choose the right people to carry out the audit and they should be trained. Using staff from one practice area to read files from another area introduces objectivity and usually works well. Some authorities now involve staff from other authorities in auditing files. This would also work well with voluntary and private organisations. Appendix 1 of the 'guide to supported self-evaluation' 20 provides guidance on carrying out reliable file reading.

Council staff read files alongside SWIA inspectors during our performance inspections. This 'peer review' was important to our methodology. There was a high level of agreement between the SWIA inspectors and the local authority file readers in their evaluation of the practice reflected in the case files. We also found that the local authority staff who took part in the file reading exercises generally enjoyed the experience and went away feeling it had been useful. In particular they found stepping away from day to day practice and looking at files themselves instructive. Many said they had valued the opportunity and would use what they had learned as managers and practitioners. Local file readers often took away a copy of our template for their own use. Many councils use the SWIA template 21 for their own file audits.

HMIE child protection inspections take a different approach to file reading. They do not audit the files using a standard form but rather gather evidence from the files against their quality indicators, themes or features which are scoped into the inspection. They do not just read social work files but also read education, police, SCRA and health files for children involved in the child protection system.

2.4 SWIA file reading

File reading plays a central role in all SWIA inspections. In the course of the performance inspections, criminal justice inspections and the various multi agency inspections we have read over 5000 case files across Scotland.

As described above, SWIA inspectors read the files alongside staff from the local council they were inspecting. Around 300 council staff have taken part in SWIA file reading across Scotland.

The evidence here is taken from the analysis of 3,075 case files we read across the different councils as part of our performance inspections. In this section we focus on information about management scrutiny of files kept by staff and evidence of worker supervision in the files.

We wanted to find out if there was an association between management scrutiny of case files and supervision on the quality of assessments and on the outcomes for people who used services.

During file reading we looked for evidence of three different types of management activity:

Worker supervision
We noted whether or not there was evidence in case files of the impact of worker supervision.

First line manager
We noted whether or not there was evidence in case files that first line managers regularly scrutinised them.

Senior manager
We noted whether or not there was evidence in case files that senior managers had periodically scrutinised them

2.5 Analysis of SWIA findings

We analysed our collated file reading data. Though statistically not entirely conclusive, overall the evidence suggested that all three different types of management activity were associated with positive results in terms of quality of practice and general improvement in individuals' circumstances.

All three types of management activity were associated with better quality of the most recent assessment on a file. This is particularly true for files where we found evidence of worker supervision. This suggests that management scrutiny of case records may be improving the quality of assessment.

All three types of management activity were also associated with better quality of risk assessment on a file. This is again particularly true of case records where we found evidence of worker supervision. This suggests that management scrutiny of case records may also be improving the quality of risk assessment.

We looked for evidence in files of general improvement in individuals' circumstances. We also looked at the extent to which this improvement was due to effective social work services and/or effective collaboration between services.

There was a positive link between management scrutiny and the extent to which improvements could be attributed to effective social work. There was also an association between management scrutiny and the extent to which improvement could be attributed to effective collaboration between services.

Key messages from inspection

SWIA found management scrutiny of case records was associated with :

  • Quality of assessment;
  • Quality of risk assessment;
  • General improvement in an individual's circumstances through effective social work services; and
  • General improvement in an individual's circumstances through effective collaboration between services

Key point

The quality of case recording is improved by regular audit.

2.6 What have we learned about supervision?

We looked for evidence of the impact of worker supervision on the files we read. This was very variable across Scotland. In one council 82% of the files read had evidence of worker supervision. On the other hand in another authority just 6% of files had evidence of supervision.

Some councils provided staff with clear guidance that all decisions taken in supervision should be recorded in individual case files. Some councils used templates, which could be inserted into case files to record supervision, which made this easier. Some electronic systems had well designed supervision screens linked to individual case records.

We carried out surveys of staff as part of our inspections. We asked about supervision. For Scotland as a whole 71% of those who responded agreed that they received an adequate level of supervision to undertake their role and 17% disagreed. (The range of agreement in individual authorities was 58-83%).

Staff surveys, therefore, suggest that supervision is taking place more widely than it appears in case files. We know, however, that not all supervision procedures require that when casework decisions are made in supervision they are recorded as such in individual case files.

Key messages

  • Supervision remains a core part of social work practice;
  • The majority of staff responding to our staff surveys throughout Scotland consider they receive an adequate level of supervision; and
  • Evidence of staff supervision on case files is very variable throughout Scotland.