Situations vacant: social workers

With the recent suspension of the social care council's chief executive and the fallout from the Baby Peter scandal, it's no wonder local authorities are having trouble recruiting. However, the picture is not all bleak and recent events have caused a much needed shake-up
social workers

When the chief executive of the regulator of social care is suspended it doesn't inspire confidence in the profession's leadership, particularly when the temporary replacement is parachuted in from another part of the public sector.

But in the front line of social services, some managers are finding new ways to improve morale and tackle staff shortages.

Last month, Mike Wardle, chief executive of the General Social Care Council (GSCC), was suspended and replaced, as an interim measure, with Paul Philip, currently deputy chief executive at the General Medical Council.

The move came after an internal investigation identified a backlog of referrals regarding the GSCC's conduct service, which investigates claims that some social workers had not been adequately risk assessed and may pose a risk to the public.

In response to Wardle's suspension, Rosie Varley, chair of the GSCC, said the situation ''was a matter of extreme concern to the council and to the department of health" and added that it had reviewed all the cases in the backlog and had suspended social workers facing serious allegations.

The suspension comes as the social work profession tries to rebuild its public image in the wake of the Baby Peter scandal. Pressure on departments is heightened by a national shortage of social workers, particularly for those working with children, where about one in 10 posts are unfilled, according to a report by the Local Government Association published in March.

But the picture isn't all negative. Some council managers are trying new ways to tackle recruitment problems and to boost staff morale.

Essex county council, for example, is helping social work support workers to become qualified by paying their university fees for social work degrees.

In addition, the council, where about 15% of social work posts are vacant, is offering final-year social work university students a bursary of £3-4,000 if they join the social services department and stay there for three to four years.

The council is also looking overseas too – recruiting social workers from countries including Ireland, New Zealand and America. Other councils have tried this but Essex says its campaign is slightly different because it is targeting more experienced social workers with about 10-20 years experience.

"We want an influx of internationally experienced staff," says Samson Jebutu, an interim HR manager who was hired by Essex to implement a new recruitment and retention strategy for its Schools, Children and Family Directorate. "They come in fresh with zeal and no prejudice. It has worked very well."

Jebutu, says the news international recruitment campaign and retention strategy has improved employee morale and retention at all levels. The council is planning a media campaign to trumpet the achievements of social work in communities.

Other councils are also trying new ways to improve career development and boost staff morale – for example by creating "consultant" posts for experienced social workers and allowing them to act as mentors to more junior staff.

In Scotland – an acknowledged world leader in social care – executives say morale is higher.

David Hume, chief executive of Scottish Borders Council, says that its social work managers are visible and accountable, but elected members of the council also take pride in their social work staff and the job that they do.

But back in England, will innovative hiring policies and PR campaigns be enough to solve protracted problems in social work?

Last month, MPs warned that social work training was unfit for purpose. The Commons select committee for children, schools and families warned that children's lives are being put at risk because social workers are not being prepared adequately for the challenges they face.

MPs blamed sub-standard social work degrees, which they claimed where too easy.

The committee's verdict came a day after an interim report from the government's social work taskforce outlined plans to overhaul the training and leadership of the profession in the wake of the Baby Peter scandal.

Sir Rodney Brooke, a former chair of the GSCC, and now chair of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, agrees that social work training, supervision and career structure need to be improved

"Some of the [social work] teaching at universities is not as good as it should be," he says. "One fears that many of the lecturers were social workers in the past but in some cases are 20 years out of date in terms of practice. The agenda has moved on very substantially in that period of time."

He also calls on social care employers to offer more practice placements for social work students.

"Quite a lot of employers do not provide practice placements. They can't complain about the shortage of social workers if they don't provide those placements. And some of the practice placements being provided by employers are not as good as they should be."

Better training and career opportunities may encourage more people to go into social work (although previous reforms have had mixed results). But organisational change is not enough, according to the British Association of Social Workers.

It calls for a change in the culture of social work departments.

It wants senior managers to end a "blame culture" in departments, give social workers more support, and encourage them to use their professional judgement.

"[As a social worker] you're going into an oppressive working environment," says Nushra Mansuri, professional officer in England for BASW. "You need confidence that your managers are backing you when you go out."

Improving the public image of social work is a tough challenge and will take time, but Essex's Jebutu is optimistic.

"We need to explore the good things and the contribution of social work," he says. "We don't expect the media to do it for us. We need to do it ourselves."

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