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Supervisory practice

Contribution from Jenny Bimrose, Warwick Institute for Employment Research

At a time of arguably unprecedented change and uncertainty for career guidance, it would be easy to dismiss increased activity in support and supervision as neither feasible nor tenable. However, a profession that gives only cursory attention to the rationale for its existence does so at its peril. This paper raises some issues related to support and supervision and outlines a possible framework for delivery.

Individual supervision in careers guidance: tasks and roles

Career guidance does not take place in a vacuum. It is subject to changes, pressures, demands from funding bodies, the workplace and from client groups. Alongside these changes should be continued analysis of the underlying theoretical, ethical and ideological considerations of its practice.

Practitioners and their managers should be encouraged to search for new perspectives, develop different professional responses, keep up to date with and contribute to research and reflect on various aspects of practice continuously. Support and supervision are recognised mechanisms for achieving these goals and can be defined as representing a learning system that facilitates the lifelong career development of career practitioners and managers (Patton & McMahon, 1999).

Supervision has been defined as a formal contractual arrangement that enables practitioners to discuss their work with someone who is appropriately experienced (Horton, 1993). The formality is important, and the supervisory contract should make explicit such things as time, place, frequency, length and purpose of supervision. Horton (1993) identifies the primary purpose of supervision as enabling practitioners to develop and maintain their usefulness to clients, and claims that most of the literature on supervision identifies various tasks or supervisory functions. Kadushin (1976), for example, describes three main functions or roles for the supervisor:

  • Educative;
  • Supportive; and
  • Managerial.

The `educative' role provides the supervisee with a deeper understanding of their situation. This role should encourage the exploration of various aspects of professional work, producing a higher degree of integration between theory and practice. A reflective approach is adopted in the search for explanatory viewpoints relevant to the issues under scrutiny.

The `supportive' role is particularly important when the supervisee is feeling overwhelmed (either by the intensity of the demands, conflicting demands or by the sheer weight of demands). The `managerial' role seeks to ensure that standards are being maintained and that the supervisee is meeting agreed standards and goals both of the profession and of the organisation. The manager's task is to monitor quality of work and engender a sense of responsibility and accountability of the individual towards their professional role. The extent to which these roles balance and support or override and dominate each other depends on whose interests are being represented during supervision.

In any supervisory situation four elements are always present - by implication if not in reality (Hawkins and Shohet, 1989). These are:

  • the supervisee,
  • the supervisor,
  • the work context, and
  • the supervisee's client.

These elements interact with the four roles of supervision in a complex and subtle manner. For example, if the supervisee`s interests demand that the major part of supervision be given to reassuring the supervisee, dealing with feelings of insecurity about their role, offering encouragement and backing for tasks undertaken, then the supportive role will dominate supervision. Alternatively, if the client's concerns are given priority in supervision, with case study discussions, examination of the supervisee's skills and knowledge and suggestions of different ways to respond to challenging client situations, the supervisee could feel overwhelmed, undervalued and generally unable to cope.

Achieving an even balance between elements and roles is never an easy task for supervision as it is made up of different factors. The competent supervisor must be prepared to move effectively from one role to another in a way that inspires confidence in the supervisee. An additional complexity relates to the status of the supervisor compared with the supervisee. In a relatively small organisational structure, the power differential between a supervisor and a supervisee can vary considerably. This will inevitably complicate the supervisory relationship further, and will require a sophisticated level of awareness on the part of the supervisor regarding the level of control and form of interaction that it is appropriate to adopt when assuming different roles or functions. Overall, the quality of the complex relationship between supervisor and supervisee is key to successful outcomes (McMahon & Patton, 2002).

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Organisational issues in support and supervision in careers guidance

In career guidance organisations, the managerial role has assumed prime position in supervisory practice (Bimrose & Wilden, 1994). Integral to the process of continuous critical self-evaluation is an organisational structure that not only monitors, controls and directs, but also encourages learning in the workplace beyond the initial training phase for guidance practice. Given that supervision is used to describe a heterogeneous set of conditions and activities which can include teaching, skills training and many other activities (Horton, 1993) the potential for conflict does not just occur in the `one to one' 
relationship between supervisor and supervisee. The policy objectives of the 
organisation and the personal and professional needs of the supervisee can be 
significantly at odds and difficult to resolve. This throws into focus the potentially conflicting needs of different parties involved in the supervisory function and how these should be identified and resolved It is important that this process of decision-making is clear and accessible to all involved parties. Proctor emphasises the need for explicit contracting:

`If supervision is to become and remain a co-operative experience which allows for real, rather than token accountability, a clear - even tough - working agreement needs to be negotiated. The agreement needs to provide sufficient safety and clarity for the student or worker to know where she stands: and it needs sufficient teeth for the supervisor to feel free and responsible for making the challenges of assessments which belong with whatever role - managerial, consultative or training - the context requires'.
 quoted in Hawkins & Shohet, 1989, p29

Innovation and change in the work context often bring uncertainty and a degree of conflict into existing working relationships. An additional concern relates to the suspicion that management could be using the process to assess individual 
performance and move towards performance related pay. A similar degree of anxiety can be felt over the confusion of explicit and implicit purposes in peer assessment of interviews, leading to doubts about how each practitioner should conduct their own role in the process. Not only is a great deal of clarity about the contractual roles essential in this type of situation, but these need to be re-examined and sometimes re-negotiated at different stages to ensure continuity of purpose.

Support and supervision in career guidance: a framework for the future

So what would be an appropriate framework for support and supervision in career guidance and how would the three roles of supervision be balanced in the overall scheme? Amongst the necessary conditions for this to happen, the following would seem to form the essential three elements.

  1. Organisational commitment: The organisation must ensure that on-going support and supervision is part of all staff development, and that this did not end on completing professional training. Senior staff would be as much a part of support and supervision as trainee staff. The centrality of support and supervision would need to be explicit, so that it could not be relegated to the level of `we're doing support and supervision anyway as part of our management function'. Support and supervision would then be seen as part of the organisation's determination to engender a climate of enquiry which produced continuous learning from different work situations. Growth in learning would be of equal importance to the control of functions. Appraisal systems would assume a staff development function in addition to an appraisal of work performance.
  2. Contractual agreement: Practitioners as well as managers would be able to participate in identifying the kind of support and supervision needed. The method and form would be open to negotiation. The support and supervisory activity would not just focus on assessment of performance but could be flexible enough to include experimentation with new and untried approaches with all the risks involved. Support and supervision would be part of the feedback needed to examine a new approach from difference points of view. At all levels staff would be encouraged to update their knowledge and skills. Those undertaking the supervisor role would develop skills to be able to move comfortably across the different sub-roles required of them, that is, supportive, managerial and educative, and be able to exercise judgement over their selection and application. Hawkins and Shohet (1990) recommend that supervisors should be practitioners as well as managers. Only then are they fully able to understand working situations from the supervisee's point of view. At the same time, the supervisee should take responsibility for raising important issues, even at risk to the possible inference of their own competence. The agreement would include specific time slots dedicated to the supervisory function with a commitment that this would not be eroded at a time of heavier work demands. Roles and responsibilities of supervisor and supervisee would be clarified and the necessary skills of feedback and personal development would be nurtured in both roles.
  3. Explicit framework: Gardiner (1989) summed up the main purpose of supervision as developing `the reflective practitioner'. How this is achieved may not be the same for every careers guidance practitioner. A new and inexperienced practitioner may need a higher degree of control and support than someone of long experience. The organisation may opt for a model of supervision that extends from the more dependent mode moving across to more collaborative responsibility. The model of supervision can vary in response to the degree of formality adopted. Too informal and the contractual commitment to specific amounts of time can be eroded. Too formal and the degree of control can restrict willingness to share information and engage in a genuine debate of issues.

Support and supervisory practice, as outlined above, could provide the framework for a more focused concern with `what actually goes on' in the career guidance process.

Support for professional practice in Scotland

A contribution from Janet Moffett and Graham Allan at the Careers Guidance Course Centre at the University of Paisley (2003)

It is clear that careers advisers, key workers and other staff are being called upon to work more intensively than in the past with the hardest to help client group, those variously termed disengaged, disadvantaged or excluded. As a consequence there is an emerging need for the introduction of a model of support and supervision to help practitioners engaged in guidance and key worker activity to deal with the demands and challenges of the job.

During 2002 the careers guidance course tutors at the University of Paisley undertook desk-based research into the various models and approaches to support and supervision used in ‘helping professions’, into developments to date in the guidance profession itself and at recent research into supervision by the Connexions Service (see References for a short bibliography). There was also extensive focus group discussion involving around 80 members of staff from across Careers Scotland at all levels during the latter part of 2002. This clearly affirmed the need to develop a support and supervision model suited to the career guidance profession in Scotland.

This report summarises the feedback from focus groups, outlines the resulting recommendations, and provides a brief overview of the subject and a short bibliography (References). Feedback and comments are welcomed.

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Summary of feedback from focus group discussions

11 focus groups including 72 members of Careers Scotland staff have met. The discussions covered the following topics.

Issues and problems staff are now dealing with - Staff are now working more intensively with clients, particularly the hard to help and those with ‘chaotic lifestyles’, as well as networking with a wider range of agencies. There is some sense that people feel they do not have the knowledge and expertise to do this work, including addressing the requirements of providing all-age guidance, and that some staff are experiencing more stress than in the past as a result.

Experience to date of receiving support and supervision - This was variable, with careers advisers reporting that they get little or no formal support after their probationary year. Those involved in adult guidance and special needs work had developed mainly informal (but sometimes formal) support networks through working on and discussing cases with colleagues and developing peer support systems. Those recruited to Careers Scotland with social work or community education backgrounds came from a culture of supervision and felt the lack of it was an issue given the changing role and more intensive work with clients. Some inclusiveness projects have been able to set up support systems for their teams, sometimes drawing on supervision by experts outwith Careers Scotland.

Is there a need for a support system? - Unanimously ‘Yes’, and strong views that it should be able to ‘make a difference’ to people’s work and result in changes to working practice through the opportunity for personal reflection. All agreed on the educative (personal development) and supportive (offloading) aspects, the majority disagreed with the managerial (maintenance of standards and quality) perspective, suggesting a need to distinguish between ‘support’ and ‘supervision’ more clearly: people need both but not at the same time or necessarily by the same person (hence our new working definition noted on page 1 of this report).

Preferred models - A wide range of views were expressed about the ‘model’ that would best suit career guidance workers and that no single model would fit all contexts: there needs to be opportunities for informal support from a group of peers (eg case discussions, team meetings) as well as opportunities for formal support on a 1:1 basis which should be delivered by someone whom staff knew was interested and trained to do so, either within or outwith the organisation. There seemed to be a need to cover educative and personal development issues as well as allowing staff to off-load concerns and reflect on solutions. There was also a feeling that while the support and supervision process should enable staff to be pro-active in “helping themselves”, management would need to be committed to the process to effect real change. There were also wide views regarding the formality /informality of the process. People have appreciated informal peer support in the past but recognised that for the model to be effective a formal/regular time allocation is needed.

Any threats or concerns? - Its introduction should be systematic, thorough and with organisational /management support. Time allocation should be protected. Boundaries, including confidentiality, need to be clear. It needs to be given by someone that the supervisee could trust. Opinion centered on the involvement and agreement of the supervisee and if records were to be kept the supervisee should have a copy. The agenda for support and supervision should be based (at the very least) on 50% of the supervisee’s issues, clearly reflecting the supportive nature but also taking account of the needs of the organisation. Some felt it would be helpful for support to be given by someone external to the organisation (particularly for 1:1 support): there was interest in the Grampian approach where ‘external’ business mentors were supporting link workers. Others would value support being provided by colleagues (though not necessarily in the same part of the organisation) because of the common knowledge base and understanding of the issues.

Issues supervision should cover - Emotional support was ranked very high, but from the discussions there also emerged a separate training need about various aspects of clients lives (eg mental health, child protection etc.), issues around managing caseloads, discussion of limits of own practice, identifying stress and managing change. There was seen to be great value in getting another perspective to any issues/concerns the supervisee had. Some thought it also depended the stage you were at in your career and there was support for all types of supervision (eg supportive. educative and managerial) to those in their initial/probationary year.

What would a training programme for supervisors cover? - It was obvious that clear guidelines on the definitions and limits of what support and supervision are (for both supervisor and supervisee) were needed. It should be “sold” positively and only those interested in being supervisors encouraged to take up the training as part of their own self development Enhanced guidance skills, group dynamics and knowledge of inter-agency work are some practical issues that could be included. It should be relevant to the range of jobs within Careers Scotland. Training should be broken up to allow time to “do it” and then receive feedback. It should also allow for on going and refresher training. Interestingly, many expressed the view that it was not a course for delivery through distance learning. The principles and approach should also be introduced during initial training.

General Issues - In nearly all the groups there was a real confusion as to the meaning of the term supervision. While the social work approach to supervision had appeal, it is often equated with some form of accountability. There was concern that some staff, particularly key workers, needed support as soon as possible. Access to counseling services was also seen as desirable (though this is a separate issue), perhaps through Scottish Enterprise.


There is clearly a demand for a system of support for staff at all levels. This is particularly necessary (and now urgent) for those working with the hardest to help: principally key/link workers. From our focus groups it was also evident that team leaders could benefit from 1:1 support, perhaps from an external source. Given that at the moment there is no support and supervision training programme in place for interested staff within Careers Scotland we would strongly recommend that, as an interim measure, and pending training, Careers Scotland considers contracting with an external agency to provide this. There is however an issue over extending a system of support to all members of staff carrying a client caseload given the constraints of time and cost: training of considerable numbers of staff would be required if a formal support system is to be developed internally and there would be a significant cost if support is to be provided by an external agency. Where support is not enough in helping staff to deal with the rigours of the job we also recommend that Careers Scotland provides access, in confidence, to an external counselling service.

Introducing a support system needs to be portrayed as a positive development, helping staff to give the best they can to their clients, giving them an opportunity to talk and if necessary to off-load, thereby developing a culture where staff are pro-active in helping and developing themselves. Educative / supportive aspects to support were regarded as particularly valuable, the managerial less so. We would therefore recommend that these 2 areas are dealt with separately ie supervision of caseloads treated as a different role to that of supporting people to do their jobs well. Support needs to be formal, 1:1 and regular (notionally 1.5 hours every 6 weeks for staff involved in intensive work with clients) and the time needs to be protected. The outcomes of a support session can be recorded but only with the agreement of the supervisee and kept strictly confidential. We envisage Careers Scotland being able to offer training in supervision skills to interested members of staff (several focus groups participants freely expressed an interest in this role).

There is still a place for discussions in the form of peer group support to cover case work, critical incident etc with colleagues in the same role but this should also be treated as more formal than in the past, given time and done regularly. This is the second area – that of peer group supervision - where we envisage training being offered by Careers Scotland to its staff.

Finally, all focus groups felt the need for a specific support system for the guidance profession, which could borrow elements from counselling and social work supervision but needed its own focus. In addition its introduction needs to be systematic, thorough and with full organisational/management support.

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Supporting personal advisers in Connexions and Next Step

Supporting personal advisers in Connexions: perspectives on supervision and mentoring from allied professions (2001)

An occasional paper contributed by Canterbury Christ Church University College. This consists of six contributions which focus on the challenge of providing effective supervision, mentoring and support to personal advisers in Connexions services. These contributions are:

  • Supervision in social work - messages for the Connexions Service, by David Bucknall
  • Mentoring in schools: from support to development, by Kit Field and Chris Philpott
  • Supervision from an informal education/youth work perspective, by Janet Woods
  • Supervision in cousnelling and psychotherapy: a critical space, by Helen Reynolds
  • Support and supervision for guidance practitioners in a personal advisor role, by Hazel Reid and Claire Nix
  • Developing a framework of support for personal advisers, by Andrew Edwards

Supervision for nextstep Advisers in Berkshire (Boddington, 2008)

This article by Helen Boddington, an independent career professional, gives her perspective on the practice of supervision based on her experiences offering supervision to 8 nextstep careers advisers in Berkshire. As such it represents a useful case study for consideration.

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