An unforgiving profession

A combination of intense media scrutiny – particularly in the wake of Baby P – high case loads, bureaucracy and extremely stressful working conditions, means we are seeing fewer people entering the profession, while increasing numbers of experienced staff are calling time on their careers.
The end result is vacancy levels across the UK typically running somewhere between ten and 20 per cent.
At Essex County Council the vacancy rate is towards the higher end and that situation is totally unacceptable. Children’s social care simply cannot afford to be understaffed because without sufficient social workers we cannot protect children.
The long-term solution to this problem is not easily achieved and certainly cannot be managed by Essex in isolation.
A negative impact
Back in January – while the media frenzy surrounding Haringey was still ongoing – my council’s leader, Lord Hanningfield, asked the House of Lords what so many people were thinking: “Who would want to be a social worker?”
While failings cannot be condoned, the vilification of children’s social care post Baby P from some quarters of the media had gone too far, had left morale at a desperate low and made social work the most unlikely of career choices. We are seeing today, in the shape of the high vacancy rates, the consequences of some of the more sensationalist reporting.
Although the Baby P criticisms were extreme, the profession has grown used to media maulings. As Lord Hanningfield pointed out, local authorities are regularly criticised amid allegations of “snatching” children into care without just cause.
Social workers could be forgiven for feeling, “Damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.”
The profession needs support and staff must to be encouraged rather than lambasted if the morale that has been chipped away is to be restored and if social work is to be made an attractive career prospect.
Raising the profile
For too long social work has been seen as a Cinderella service, the difficult role it plays in protecting children unrecognised. If we are to attract greater numbers to the profession, the reputation of children’s social care needs to be repaired on a national level.
I welcome Lord Laming’s report ‘The Protection of Children in England’ and his recognition: “Frontline staff have a demanding task. Their work requires not only knowledge and skill, but also determination, courage and an ability to cope with sometimes intense conflict.
“This must be recognised in their training, caseloads, supervision and conditions of service, and their managers must recognise that anxiety undermines good practice. Staff supervision and the assurance of good practice must become elementary requirements in each service. More should be done to ensure the wellbeing and confidence of the staff who undertake such an important task on behalf of us all.”
These are all fine targets, but it is clear that without sufficient social workers the reforms talked about simply will not happen.

Finding a solution
In Essex we are looking to the long term and the next generation of home-grown social workers by exploring the possibility of increased investment in training at Anglia Ruskin and Essex universities. However, our priority has to be addressing staff shortages in the here and now, particularly with regard to experienced social workers.
There simply are not the numbers in the UK to fill the gap, and rather than turn to agency staff – who can change jobs easily, leading to a high turnover of staff and a potential lack of consistency for looked after children and families – in Essex we have been proactive in shifting our attention overseas – to Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and the USA.
The positives are manifold. We are looking for a three-year commitment from any staff we recruit during the campaign, giving us greater control over the retention of social workers and giving clients the consistency that is so vital.

The staff who are eventually employed – we are aiming for 95 and have already made 16 job offers – will all be well qualified and experienced. The training that social workers receive in the countries we are targeting is of a high standard and the skills that the recruits bring with them are easily transferable. 

All staff will take a conversion module at Anglia Ruskin University when they arrive, but it will be only a matter of weeks before they can start taking on cases and making a positive difference.

Looking overseas
The next stop in the programme is the US where the difficult economic climate we are all too well aware of actually presents some opportunities.
Due to a freeze on recruitment in the States there is a surplus of excellent quality social workers. 
This makes the three year opportunity – or longer if they choose to stay on in the UK – in Essex all the more attractive.This is not the first time Essex has looked overseas, and the successes we have enjoyed in this regard in the past gives us confidence in what we are doing now.
Several social workers from our first recruitment drive in South Africa are now senior managers in the department and some of them are involved in the current recruitment campaign.
The retention of those staff is a practical demonstration of the scheme’s mutual benefits. Essex gains highly skilled staff and the staff have the opportunity to live in and work for one of the UK’s most ambitious and innovative local authorities.

Better promotion
Clearly, however, if an ultimate answer to the social worker recruitment problem is to be found we must look not only overseas, but ourselves.
The profession needs to be promoted, in the same way that teaching has been in recent years. More resources need to be made available to local authorities to reduce caseloads as well as to improve training and development opportunities.
We also need to be better at explaining to the public just what it is social workers do. The negative stories will always hit the headlines, however, there are always so many more positive stories waiting to be told. We need to be better at getting those out there.
I firmly believe in the value of overseas recruitment and think that in the long term the route we are taking in Essex of a balance of home grown and foreign talent is the way to a sustainable future for children’s social care.

Graham Tombs is executive director of Schools, Children and Families at Essex County Council

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