Applying an active CPD approach to social work

Every social worker in the UK right now stands poised awaiting for their HCPC renewal letter. and waiting to see if they are part of the 2.5 % selected for a CPD audit.  There will be social workers who know they’re ready, perhaps with a little more to do and others who are anxious, particularly interim social workers who may have had several locum posts in the last 2 years.

After 4 workshops and a 150 Interim social workers later RPN have established that many attendees are not ready for CPD submission.   Even more do not have a career plan. This approach to career management is concerning. From our experience this problem isn’t just limited to interims although the focus of this article is upon interims.

  1. What does this indicate about interim Social workers? To what extent does a lack of focus on active CPD minimise the potential of social work?
  2. By not doing active CPD what are the perceptions of employer organisations?
  3. What is getting in the way of interims doing active CPD?

We know there are amazing interim social workers out there making a fantastic difference with and without taking a pro-active CPD approach to their career management and development. That said there are also many interims who may not doing as well, who ought to be taking a more proactive approach with their CPD but are just not doing so.

Only just a few days ago I was interviewing an interim for a social worker position who surprisingly, was not aware of the PCF, even when probed specifically about it. Lets keep in mind, it only takes one serious practice error for the media to feast on. We’re not saying there’s a direct correlation between no active CPD and errors in practice, but we would like you to consider the possibility of an increased likelihood of such.

When someone leaves, knowledge leaves with them and re-learning has to happen when someone joins. The risk of heavy reliance on interims has at times been viewed as one of the causes of failures on organisational performance and outcomes.  In reality this is a gross generalisation and although indicating a perceived trend, I would like to posit that the real problem is the selection of and reliance upon interims who are poor learners, which negatively impacts on their performance. At a time of constant change, increased risk taking and media scrutiny, local authorities need interim social workers who take an active CPD approach, to help prevent mistakes and bring a dynamic and agile approach with them.  They are more likely viewed by recruiting employers at interview as less of a potential risk and more of an opportunity! Simply put, confidence and trust is more likely to follow them.

It is already evident that HCPC have been taking a stern approach resulting in an increase in social workers being struck off –the highest of all the HCPC registered professionals. Whilst this is for various reasons, to what extent can improving learning and performance in social work help to reduce this trend?

We are all ambassadors of the social work profession and responsible for the public’s perception and the results we  achieve of this noble, challenging and typically misunderstood profession. We each have a duty to strengthen the back -bone of social work. CPD frameworks like the PCF, KSS and the SOP provide a common backbone that bind us all and used well, can provide the potential to strengthen our social work learning and practice. But like all muscles unless we focus on growing and feeding them they eventually weaken, as does their impact on the very people we’re intending to help. Indeed the purpose of introducing such frameworks was to help improve the confidence and reputation of social work. But if these aren’t being proactively used this objective is made less possible.


At RPN, we distinguish between CPD/learners and active CPD/active learners.  The former involves behaviours like going on training with no associated goals and follow up action.  We’ve all done and sadly it happens much more than not.  Active CPD means planning how to make the most of learning opportunities (on and offline training, reading books/journals/websites,reflectivesupervision), widening the learning window to empower ones practice for better performance and outcomes.Active learners find that regularly making space to document and apply their learning helps to achieve a higher level of learning, one that is more robust and consistently progressive in nature.

Kolb and Kolb (2005) learning styles and learning spaces teaches the use of 4 modes and 4 stages of learning including

1. Reflection (reflective observation),

2. Objectively critiquing using established theory’s and models and conceptualising (abstract hypothesising), and transferring the learning

3. Planning and testing different approaches

4. Doing/ Implementing into concrete experience/outcomes.

Kolb and Kolb refer to their model being based on 6 main principles, useful for active learners:

  1. Learning is a process – Social workers should focus on being actively engaged in the process of learning, seeking feedback along the way and actively setting goals into practice based on the learning. There is no learning without goals.
  2. All learning is relearning –active learners test their range of ideas in order to create new outcomes and generate new ideas.
  3. Learning requires conflict between the modes of learning – it is not necessarily a linear process and requires flexibility to move between the modes, despite a general trend from one mode to the next.
  4. Learning itself has to be holistic – involving feeling, reflecting, theorising, testing and acting and across a balance of capability domains e.g. PCF/KSS.
  5. Learning is an interaction between person and the environment – converging new experiences into existing concepts and existing concepts into new experiences
  6. Learning is a process of creating progressive levels of knowledge – impacting on real life practice

Sourced from Kolb and Kolb (2005, Vol 4 No.2 p913-212) and adapted slightly.

This is a generative learning process.  Active learners set aside space to apply these principles and progress their levels of knowledge by moving through these 4 stages/modes. What follows is spiral of learning .  For each learning cycle there is a new level of learning represented by an upward and outward spiral and an increasing body of knowledge and expertise, which, over time, not only ‘develops greater ability to generalise, abstract and transfer learning [into practice] but also recognises how each level is linked and inter connected to the other (Henton, 1996,p46) and positively impacts upon an increasing number of people.


‘The National Research Council in its report on the new science of learning recommends on the basis of research on expert learners, effective learning requires not only factual knowledge, but the organisation of these facts and ideas in a conceptual framework and the ability to retrieve knowledge for application and transfer to different contexts (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking 2000). Such deep learning is facilitated by deliberate, recursive practice on areas that are related to the learner’s goals (Keeton, Sheckley, & Griggs 2002). The process of learning depicted in the experiential learning cycle describes this recursive spiral of knowledge development. Space needs to be created in curricula for students [social workers] to pursue such deep experiential learning in order to develop expertise related to their life purpose’ (Kolb and Kolb, 2005)

What is often happening, as confirmed by many of RPN’s attendees is that there is a lot of planning and doing, going on in their day to day practice and very little active reflection and conceptualising to help evolve their learning and practice.  One reason for this is that learning tends to be organic and environmental in nature rather than by conscious design. The process of becoming expert in social work suggests there is an end in itself –ie when one becomes expert.  However, given the persistently changing landscape we cannot say this is wholly true as it requires persistent pursuit of learning and performance goals to extend our expertise in line with career plans and that changing landscape.

It is the purpose of reflective supervisors to support social workers to recognize this and to encourage them to take charge of their own learning, set learning goals, help them aspire and achieve better outcomes, as well identifyperceived obstacles to the learning process, e.g.confidence, lack of time, energy, resilience.  Like Olympians need coaches, social workers need reflective supervisorstoo. This is active CPD at its best and much more likely to result in interim Social Workers being wide awake and dynamic.

It begs the question then, why are there interims who avoid an active CPD approach?

Firstly, a mixture of busyness and saturation. There are interims ‘dumped’ with comparatively higher caseloads and others with lower caseloads due to concerns about them leaving any time soon, or due to their performance or rising aversion of interims due to tightening of budgets.In any case,social workers tend to be constantly running against time and by the end of the day when they have ‘ping ponged’ from one task to another they are full to the brim and have little spare capacity for learning (leaving learning to be processed outside of working hours). This poses a very real challenge for social workers– how to prevent learning from being sidelined and provides a strong rational for getting ongoing support from a skilled reflective supervisor.  Furthermore, we know that personal resilience is essential for robust social work practice and learning,but too many social workers leave nothing for themselves.For optimum and enduring learning and performance interims need to ensure their own personal needs and wants are met in balance.

Secondly, the 2.5 % random selection from HCPC is not enough to serve as an external motivator leaving many social workers hoping to breath a sigh of relief rather than willing and actively involved in their CPD portfolio.


Conclusion and Recommendations



Active CPD is an approach to CPD that fuses CPD portfolio and carer management and planning. Social work practice and learning are indivisible, as are the setting of learning and performance goals resulting in better service user and career outcomes.   While there are fantastic interim social workers out there interims as a whole would serve social work better by taking a more consistent and pro-active approach to CPD.

Make time to integrate active CPD into your practice to: 

  • Remove the impending fear at the back of the mind.
  • Develop a more dynamic approach to practice and build a more confidentand reputable social work profession.
  • Increase your chances of winning at interview in an increasingly competitive interim market.

If you’re finding it difficult to do this independently, you’re not alone, the busyness of work and saturation levels and poor learning habits can often get in the way.   It is advisable and responsible to accept support as an accountable professional.  Skilled reflective supervisors can help you to:

  • Reflect on practice and prepare for better outcomes.
  • Assess for yourself your current level of learning and expertise in practice.
  • Develop learning and performance goals and encourage active habits aligned to those goals.
  • Help raise awareness of and identify obstacles to achieving these goals.
  • Develop and sustain a commitment to active CPD to support application of the learning cycle and ensure the confidence and reputation of social work is built upon one social worker at a time.

Develop active learning habits … this time in 2 years you will feel a greater sense of achievement by committing to doing up to 20 minutes of learning reflection and recording every day.  Choose your learning opportunities wisely ensuring maximum long lasting output for the minimum time.  Keep it simple, firstly attend free workshops, read articles, present a topic, consider how you can apply your learning into practice, record the impact and the evidence.   Check the HCPC site and

RPN is inviting you to take part in a short survey about CPD and career planning.  The purpose of this research will be used to inform and shape the work we do and to review how else we can support agency workers.  Your answers will be anonymised. The summary and report will be made available to the public as well as key decision makers in health and social care.

If you wish to be entered into a prize draw then you can leave your details, to be in with a chance to win a free 30 min CPD portfolio or career plan review with an RPN Associate. Closing date for the survey is 23rd September. Click on this link to take part in the survey

Article authored by Jan Carpenter, 18 years post qualified Social Worker and 11 years as an interim and Co-Founder/Director of The Reflective Practice Network.



Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2005). Learning styles and learning spaces: Enhancing experiential learning in higher education.      Academy of Management Learning & Education4(2), 193-212.doi:10.5465/AMLE.2005.17268566


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