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Councils struggling to retain social workers in face of high caseloads and competition over pay

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An examination of three local authority documents shows the extent of the challenges facing recruiters in the year ahead

by Kirsty McGregor

Pay may not be the only factor, but it is an important consideration (Credit: Martin Lee/Rex)
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Rising caseloads, a culture of blame and the lure of better pay elsewhere have been cited as major concerns by councils faced with the challenge of recruiting and retaining experienced social workers in 2014.

Three reports published this month by Manchester, Cardiff and Lambeth councils, have highlighted the true extent of the challenges facing social work employers in the year ahead.

Earlier this week, the London borough of Lambeth’s overview and scrutiny committee met to consider a public notice question submitted by Jon Rogers, branch secretary of Lambeth Unison, in October 2013.

Rogers asked: “Why have the number of agency workers employed by the council increased over recent months, at the same time as redundancies are being made?”

In its response, the council revealed that the rise was largely due to an increase in the number of agency social workers, from 136 to 222 between January and October 2013, which had been necessary due to ongoing problems recruiting and retaining permanent staff.

“The situation in relation to the recruitment and retention of social workers is a concern, particularly in children’s social care,” the council said.

“This is a problem that is not just confined to Lambeth; other boroughs are now beginning to report a strain in this area, with many permanent staff leaving to take up posts with more attractive salary packages. In some cases, permanent staff are leaving to take up agency worker positions, with the market driving up rates of pay.”

Blame culture and high caseloads

Cardiff council has also reported concerns this month about the recruitment and retention of children’s social workers.

In a briefing paper submitted to the children and young people scrutiny committee on 14 January, Tony Young, Cardiff’s director of children’s services, said he was worried that the service’s “core” of permanent employees had been “eroded by a growing agency contingent”.

He identified three main reasons for this: a culture of blame in children’s services; the reputational damage associated with negative inspections over the past two years; and high caseloads.

“It needs to be borne in mind that much of the work social workers do is often high risk – and if staff do not feel safe because of a blame culture, this simply stimulates people to look for somewhere safer to work,” he said in the report.

He added that there were ample opportunities for the “scarce qualified social workers” in south Wales to find employment at a neighbouring council.

Another major concern was high caseloads. He said it was clear from caseload numbers that staffing levels at Cardiff were inadequate.

“Social workers with caseloads of 25 or more cannot hope to bring about change in families at the level and intensity needed to tackle complex, high risk needs and too many social workers are carrying caseloads of 30 or more.”

The council has already undertaken some initiatives to tackle this, including investing in recruiting and training staff, changing the management culture and improving the external profile of its children’s services.

Pay satisfaction

Finally, near the beginning of January, Manchester’s young people and children scrutiny committee considered a report on the council’s children’s social work strategy, which seeks to address retention issues within the service.

Manchester said the turnover of social workers was above the average across the council. In particular, turnover rates in the locality social work service remain “stubbornly high”.

Once again, this was attributed in part to the size and complexity of caseloads. Manchester expects its children’s social workers to be able to safely and effectively manage up to 30 cases (its target is an average of 25 per person), but some have over 40.

Various workload management systems are available and managers have adopted them in the past, “but they have never been consistently applied,” the report stated.

It also noted that social workers in the locality teams are less likely to be satisfied with their pay than those in other services, at 17% compared to the highest rate of 52% in the safeguarding and improvement unit.

Proposals to tackle these issues include: undertaking further work to understand the issues impacting on the retention of staff between two and five years of services; reviewing the existing induction programme; reviewing training and development; and developing a clearer career pathway for social workers.

Manchester is also considering rotating staff across the different social work services as a way of improving retention levels.

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