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Social work field supervision at a crossroads between yesterday, today, and tomorrow

Social work field supervision at a crossroads between yesterday, today, and tomorrow

Since Independence, the social work profession has expanded exponentially from being housed exclusively in the Ministry of Health and Social Services, to six more government ministries, many state-owned agencies, United Nations agencies, institutions of higher learning, and the private sector, including social workers in private practice.

This expansion signifies appreciation of the profession but it also caused uncertainties as responsibilities are now shared amongst various ministries and the private sector. Moreover, the expansion demands a coordinated response to assure quality in field practice standards.

A 1996 social welfare policy draft that the health ministry initiated, needs to move beyond its current status quo. Therefore, one cannot help but ask, which stakeholder should spearhead the development of social service policies or frameworks? Should it be left to a single sector? a combination of many or to the overarching regulatory body, specifically the Health Professions Council of Namibia (HPCNA)?

Regulatory Bodies:

The Social Work and Psychology Council (SWPC) is a subsidiary of the Health Professions Council of Namibia, a body that oversees and regulates all the health professions in the country. The SWPC prohibits social work practice without registration, regulates the registration and practice of social workers and students, protects the public against malpractice, and sets standards for social work education and requirements in the country and abroad, amongst others. Despite the extensive regulatory framework, the profession does not have a national supervision guideline or framework to regulate field practice supervision, as is the case in South Africa, and other places such as the US, the UK, Sweden and Israel, for instance.

Social Work Field Practice in Action:

Field practice in social work is an equivalent of Work Integrated Learning (WIL) or Work Integrated Education (WIE). Bachelor degrees in social work globally, including Namibia, have a mandatory requirement for extended practical attachments (field practice) for students , overseen by registered social workers (aka field supervisors), through a process known as field supervision.

In the case of the University of Namibia’s bachelor’s degree (honours programme) in social work, field practice commences already in the 1st year with 28 hours of job shadowing, followed by 30 hours of block practicum in the 2nd year, 112 hours of community service in the 3rd year and a whole 6 months of practical placement in a workplace throughout the 4th and final year of studies.

At UNAM therefore, a social work graduate would have gone through a total of 720 hours of field learning by the time they exit the institution, a process that is helping social work graduates obtain employment easily at home and abroad. A social work intern is required to register with the HPCNA already from their 1st year of study, and be issued with a registration number, before they can interact with clients.

Roles, Responsibilities and Challenges:

Field supervision is a specialised and serious function in social work education. As such, a field supervisor who oversees a student social worker can ethically be held accountable by the Health Professions Council of Namibia, for the work a student undertakes. Thus, a field supervisor must be a registered social worker, and must always supervise and guide a student intern.

Moreover, a field supervisor must conduct student’s final assessment , thus assisting the university in determining an intern’s readiness to graduate or not. These are done in addition to their normal duties, most of which include managerial and administrative functions, making them wearers of many hats simultaneously.

A recent analysis of field supervisors’ experiences which I undertook revealed that they received little to no prior training in field supervision, that they are grappling with high workloads, that they are not fully aware of the supervisory models or theories associated with student supervision, that they struggle to navigate the gap between theory and practice, and that they are not happy with almost no recognition of this role as a specialised function. Another concerning finding in the corporate sector, although only mentioned by 10% of the respondents, was the practice of non-social work practitioners , such as psychologists supervising social work interns, which is completely against the Regulations of the Social Work and Psychology Act.

Field Education: Catalyst for Employment and Career Trajectories:

COVID 19 is a reminder of what uncertainty is like and why, in the social work profession, interns need to be prepared to deal with uncertainty and risks in the life politics of clients. Field practice is a real testing ground, a space where students face the rawness of problems that exists in our society.

In a country such as Namibia, that is ravaged by many social ills, such as gender violence, high suicide rates and attempts, substance abuse, youth unrest and high unemployment as well as high income disparities, field practice becomes even more crucial to prepare a well-armed future workforce that can tackle these issues from a proactive developmental and preventative approach in welfare service delivery.

Legal Framework:

Namibia is rated amongst the top three countries in Africa, the other two being South Africa and Zimbabwe, with a solid legal framework for social welfare systems in terms of the Social Work and Psychology Act No. 6 of 2004, and the Social Work and Psychology Council, established under the same Act.

Ethical, competent, innovative, and effective graduates are highly dependent on the quality of their field practice experiences and competencies of the field supervisors. Therefore, a supervision framework or better yet, a social welfare policy and guideline at national level is urgently needed, with clear provisions on student supervision standards of practice.

* Dr Lovisa Nghipandulwa is an Industrial Social Work Specialist, employed as an Industry Relations and Cooperative Education Practitioner at the University of Namibia. She holds a Doctorate Degree in Social Work, and writes in her personal capacity.

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