Mentoring: The key to service improvement

Mark Willis, on how mentoring can do so much to help social workers develop as confident professionals


“Men·tor (noun): an experienced and trusted person who gives another person advice and help, especially related to work, over a period of time”.

Synonyms: adviser, guide, counsellor, tutor, teacher…

When I started my career in children and family social work in 1987 the landscape was very different from now.  Joining a social work team as an unqualified and green recruit I was dropped very much into the deep end.

After being shown where the toilets were and how to make a cup of tea (this was known as induction in those days) I was handed my first few cases; a young boy in a residential home; a family in need of help and support and a case in care proceedings – in fact the children were wards of court, not a legal status we hear much about these days.  I had no idea what it meant.

However, there was something very different about the team I had been parachuted into compared with many within children’s services today – the other team members were all highly experienced and skilled social workers.

Opposite me sat Simon – he had been qualified 5 years, next to me was Janet – she was 11 years post-qualified; opposite her sat Maureen, she had been qualified for 12 years.  The least experienced member of the team was Liz and she had been qualified a year.  My team manager, Robin, had been qualified for over ten years.

Being surrounded by such experienced social workers was at the same time comforting and a huge relief on the occasions when I felt the need for advice and support, which were many.   Not only that, but in those days it was fashionable for experienced social workers to join us novices on joint visits, accompany us to court or help us write a case conference report.

During my almost two years with this team I learned so much from these experienced voices.  I watched how they spoke to difficult or aggressive clients, how they communicated with barristers at court, how they related so brilliantly and empathically to children and how they stood their ground with other professionals, some of whom were determined to lay the blame at their door for any perceived failings in the case.

Little did I realise at the time but these colleagues were doing at least as much to shape me as a social worker than any book I would later read or any lecture I would attend when I eventually undertook my social work training.  Although it was being done in an informal and unplanned way, I was in reality being mentored by my colleagues.  I was learning through experience; I was learning as a result of watching high class professionals at work.  I was learning to be a competent and confident social worker.

Authoritative social work

In 2012 I decided to create a mentoring service for local authority children’s services within WillisPalmer which mirrored my experiences on the model that had served me so well all those years ago.  My objective was to deliver a service that successfully helped to develop social workers whilst at the same time improving the overall performance of the local authority.

I used as my framework the work of Eileen Munro* who in her report, suggested the aim for local authorities should be to create a learning culture by seeking to increase the knowledge and skills of the workforce, where change is expected as a consequence of that learning.

At the centre of her model was the principle  ‘authoritative social work’ which she decribed thus:

“Authoritative practice means that professionals are aware of their professional power, use it judiciously and that they also interact with clients and other professionals with sensitivity, empathy, willingness to listen and negotiate and to engage in partnerships. They respect client autonomy and dignity while recognising their primary responsibility is the protection of children from harm and the promotion of their well-being”

Looking back at my experience in the 80’s this is what my ‘mentors’ had given me; confidence with both clients and professionals alike.  Of course, I had yet to undertake my formal training and this was also to prove a great learning experience, but being mentored by skilled professional social workers who had been there and done it (many times) impacted me greatly and stayed with me throughout my career in practice.

Having now delivered multiple mentoring programs for local authorities utilising the skills and experience of WillisPalmer social workers, many of whom have been qualified for 25 years plus, we have been able see similar impacts.  Our evaluations have produced positive results from both managers and practitioners, for example:

“It was useful having it at the beginning of my career to give me confidence and support to build on what I had learnt in my degree, but particularly applying it to casework” (ASYE social worker).

“The mentoring helped me formulate my thinking around a piece of assessment work that I was finding it hard to focus my thoughts on. It gave me the space to reflect on my assessment and thinking on the case as well as practical tools to assist my assessment” (social worker).

“[The mentor] provided me with relevant reading and risk assessment models that I was able to use in the process of assessment – particularly in relation to child sexual exploitation and adoption planning” (experienced social worker).

WP-Risk – a collaborative approach

With our launch this month of WP-Risk – a service which focuses upon helping organisations to protect and promote the welfare of children in cases of sexual abuse we have deliberately adopted a collaborative, mentoring approach.  We are challenging the orthodoxy of so called ‘experts’ parachuting in to ‘sort the case out’ and instead plan to work in partnership with children’s social care services to address risk together, plan and advise on risk management interventions.

Drawing on my experience in the 1980’s, what some might refer to as ‘old-fashioned’ learning and mentoring, we plan to work alongside colleagues from local authorities to address risk in a new and collaborative way.

As I felt in my early days as a trainee social worker, splashing around in the deep end is no fun.  However, with a trusted and experienced colleague alongside you it is possible to learn to swim well.  Using this approach we are certain that outcomes for children can and will improve in this complex area of work.

For more information about mentoring contact sarah@willispalmer or call 01206 878 178

*Munro Review of Child Protection: A Child Centred System (2011) HMSO

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