We expect a great deal from children’s social workers – they work with chaotic families, they have to look into the darkest parts of society, juggle large caseloads and hold huge amounts of emotional collateral. When things go well, their work often goes unnoticed; when things go wrong, the sky falls on their head.
It is perhaps unsurprising that this story plays out in the numbers too; the vacancy rate for children’s social workers was 17% last September, according to new data published by the Department for Education. The same data suggests more than two-thirds of vacancies are covered by agency staff. A third of social workers leave the profession within two years, and the average career span is just eight years. With all this considered, workforce must be a priority for the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care.
The DfE data also raises critical questions about how we improve recruitment, resilience and retention of this essential workforce, and points us to places to learn from.
Last year Ofsted published its verdict on Camden children’s services where my trust, the Tavistock and Portman, works in partnership with the council and its schools. The trust supports social workers by providing expertise and training and our staff are integrated in frontline social work and early help teams.
The collaboration has seen the adoption of a new model of systemic thinking and reflective supervision. Systemic thinking is a technique for making sense of challenging situations and developing practical approaches for transforming them. Ofsted acknowledged the value of this approach, saying that a learning culture sees systemic practice enabling social workers and other frontline workers to increase their skills and knowledge through continuous training and development.
Ofsted added: “Social workers enjoy working in Camden and benefit from manageable caseloads and analytical, reflective group supervision.” And inspectors said the approach “allows social workers to explore and implement imaginative and bold approaches to assess and support families”.
Adopting systemic ways of working can have a big impact. An evaluation in Hackney found that the organisation’s culture fostered reflective learning and support. Among the eye-catching results were a 55% reduction in sick days taken and a 54% reduction in spending on agency staff.
In the London ‘tri-borough’ of Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea, the Focus on Practice systemic practice training for 660 practitioners led to dramatically improved staff retention rates and a 10% reduction in the number of looked-after children in one borough.
Promoting this type of practice also requires whole system reform and sustained leadership. These approaches have their critiques as well as champions but as Camden has shown, adopting a systemic approach – and making group reflective supervision the way of learning – benefits children, young people and families.
With workforce pressures growing, we must focus on the resilience, retention and recruitment of social workers. A third of social work graduates never go onto practice and almost six in 10 leave the profession within five years. Add to this the demography – which suggests that around 30% of the workforce is already eligible to retire or will be in the next five years – and the scale of the challenge is stark.
The good news is that these issues are receiving increased attention. The new Centre for Systemic Social Work, funded by the DfE, is supporting the next generation of social workers to implement these approaches across children’s social care through its practice leaders development programme. And the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care, which the Social Care Institute for Excellence is helping to set up, is exploring how we can generate better evidence on building a more resilient workforce, including on the role played by outcome-focused and systemic approaches to supervision.
The Department of Health has announced plans to publish a workforce strategy for adult social care; is it time for a children’s workforce strategy too?