Unsung heroes

Today Community Care and the Local Government Association launch
a national campaign to improve the image of social work. Terry
Philpot explains why it is necessary and how it may help
recruitment, while on the following pages key figures from social
care tell us what they believe is needed to solve the problems of
recruitment and retention.

What do social workers do? It’s well-worn question and the
problem for most people in answering it may well be one reason why
social work is such an easy target for the media and politicians.
But, of course, as we know, social workers help people, they work
with people, they empower, enable, act as gatekeepers, facilitate
and create networks. Alas, not one of these phrases is intelligible
to anyone but the insider.

Everyone knows what teachers and nurses do without explanation –
we have all been to school or have children at school, we have all
used the health service. And while it is difficult to find a
sympathetically portrayed social worker on TV, let alone a series
based on the job, hospitals and blackboards (not to mention squad
cars) fill our screens.

But let’s look at it another way. Social work is full of good,
human stories: the young person in care, an elderly person living
at home, an unaccompanied refugee child, a child in danger of
sexual abuse, someone with a mental health problem, someone
stealing to feed a drug habit or the parents of a disabled child.
They are just the kind of stories that the public need to know to
understand the day-to-day realities behind the professional jargon.
And they will know them because this week Community Care
and the Local Government Association is launching “You can make a
difference”, a campaign to raise public awareness about social

Community Care has funded a series of eight posters.
They are based on the stories of people like those mentioned above,
telling how social work improved their lives. There is also a
leaflet about what a useful and satisfying career social work can
be and a website. There is also a helpline number provided by the
Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work.

The posters and leaflets are being sent to all English and Welsh
social services departments (half the material going to Wales is in
Welsh). All the councils have to do is to ensure that the posters
are displayed and the leaflets distributed in places to which they
have access – libraries, area offices, day centres, municipal
offices, universities, schools and six form colleges, health
centres and so on.

The campaign intends not only to tell the public what social
workers do but also to influence young people at school or
university to think that it might be the career for them. We hope,
too, that it will make others consider a career change or those who
have left the profession think about returning to it. It would let
practitioners see that their work is not only appreciated but that
someone is actually saying so.

Public awareness (and appreciation) of social work cannot be
divorced from the more particular problem of recruitment and
retention. It is particularly acute in London and the south east,
but difficulties in staffing children’s services are reported
almost everywhere. The average vacancy rate nationally for social
workers is 15.9 per cent.

Almost two thirds of social services departments report
recruitment difficulties. The turnover rate for social workers is
15.4 per cent. The independent sector is also affected, although
its staff turnover is lower.

Social work is sitting on its own demographic timebomb.
Applications for places on social work courses are falling. Less
than 5 per cent of social workers are under 25 years of age, and in
most settings a high proportion are in their fifties – 7 per cent
of child care staff are in their sixties. The average social worker
is the same person whom the Barclay report identified as long ago
as 1982 – a woman in her forties.

As our female social worker, with her 18 per cent of male
colleagues who make up the workforce, moves nearer retirement, her
son or daughter is not thinking of following in her footsteps.

There are numerous reasons why social work seems unattractive –
high house prices in London and the south east affect it as much as
nursing and teaching; media antipathy has been shown to be a matter
of concern to workers; graduates can be attracted to better
salaries and conditions in the commercial sector.

So, what next? The Department of Health, whose minister of state
John Hutton launches the campaign today, is carrying out its own
research into the recruitment crisis. As a next step the department
may consider a recruitment campaign. That’s a far cry from the
official view not so long ago when the DoH was shrugging its
shoulders and saying that they could not embark on such a campaign
because they did not employ social workers. But the government did
launch a campaign for a group they do not employ – teachers. The
police are currently benefiting from the £7 million Home
Secretary Jack Straw put into a recruitment campaign.

A DoH campaign would be a strong indicator that the government
not only takes the recruitment crisis seriously but also accords
the same seriousness to social work as a valued public service. It
would be saying what today’s campaign is telling the passengers on
omnibuses from Clapham to Carlisle, Tiverton to Tonypandy – social
workers do make a difference.

The website for the campaign is www.community-care.co.uk/careers

Your profession needs you

  • Contact your director and find out who your authority’s
    champion is and ask what you can do to help.
  • Get copies of the posters and leaflets and display them.
  • Ask non-local authority colleagues and contacts for display


What is needed to crack the recruitment and retention
problem in social care?

Moira Gibb, president of Association of Directors of
Social Services

“What are the prospects?” a young person on the threshold of
choosing a career in social work might ask. Some of the responses
that might spring to mind are: “a job that people don’t value any
more; a constantly critical press and at worst the possibility of
being individually featured in the wake of a tragedy; few perks;
the likelihood of attracting abuse and violence; a cog in the wheel
of a large organisation; low pay.”

These are the characteristics and perceptions which must change
if we are to reverse the decline in the numbers of people wanting
to enter the profession and retain the skills and morale of those
already qualified. Service jobs in the public sector have always
been relatively poorly paid when compared to positions needing
equivalent abilities in the private sector, but the gap in pay is
widening and front-line workers, in particular, need to be better
rewarded in recognition of the demands of the job.

Nothing speaks louder than financial remuneration as a measure
of how much the job is valued. Social services staff ought also to
be included in incentive schemes, like those offering help with
starter homes for key public sector workers and subsidised child
care options.

In the past, vocational jobs like teaching and social work, were
seen as making a valuable contribution and had some credibility as
career choices in themselves, which acted as a counter-balance to
low pay. Social work is now routinely undermined in the media,
though paradoxically the product is in high demand. We need to be
better at explaining the positive outcomes, the value and
complexity of what we do and we need others in the media to be
persuaded to present that neglected picture.

A corollary of the low public esteem in which social work is
held, is the increase in abuse and violence to which workers are
subjected. There must be a concerted effort to implement the
findings of the task force on violence towards social care staff
and ensure that operational managers see this a priority and not a
side issue under the heading of “health and safety”. The threat of
violence is hugely inhibiting and is a significant factor in
subverting good practice.

In a profession which is so labour and skills intensive, it
follows that staff are the greatest asset. We need to improve our
human resources policy and practice to demonstrate that we believe
this. Only when all these measures are in place will current staff
feel valued and will we be able to say to potential entrants: “you
are the strongest link – hello”.

Ian Johnston director, British Association of Social

I have high hopes that the very positive sentiments expressed by
John Hutton about social work and social care in recent weeks will
be echoed by his colleagues throughout the government. Social care
workers need to be, and feel, valued to give of their best. Young
people will not consider a career in a profession which is
portrayed so negatively in the media. There is absolutely no doubt
that politicians have contributed to the view that we invariably
get it wrong.

An unhelpful view that has persisted for many years is that it
is inappropriate for young people to enter the social work
profession until they have had some sort of life experience. We now
believe that this belies the fact that today’s young people have
very sophisticated views of the world and an understanding of the
complex nature of human relationships along with the energy and
motivation to address these.

While some young people interested in a career in social work
are prepared to wait until their early twenties to start, many
others will by then have secured their future in another
occupation. We believe that the government could usefully establish
longer training courses which enable young people to develop a
broad based set of skills in conjunction with professional social
work training.

The increasing emphasis on gatekeeping and social control
activities such as child protection and the application of
eligibility criteria for services have also discouraged people from
entering the profession. This has gone hand in hand with the
erosion of traditional counselling and community development skills
which are much more popular with clients. The limited opportunity
to work in a preventive way has exacerbated this trend. I would
like to see a return to a more balanced workload.

A review of the secondary education curriculum to identify
subjects that promote social care issues and values along with
investment in information about social care careers would also be
helpful. BASW’s agenda includes:

  • better pay, working conditions, career development
    opportunities, family-friendly employment policies;
  • flexible working arrangements; amendments to pension
    entitlements that encourage part-time working grants for people
    re-entering the profession along with special retraining
  • a reinstatement of trainee social worker arrangements; n
    secondment schemes that enable mature students to retain their
    salary whilst undertaking training;
  • additional and more flexible distance learning arrangements
    along with a requirement for all social work training courses to
    enable all students to complete the training on a modular basis;
  • the waiving of tuition fees for social work students.

Owen Davies, national officer, Unison

Why do fewer and fewer people want to work in jobs in social
care? This question has regularly been asked in recent months. The
answer is staring us in the face but it’s beginning to look as
though avoiding the truth is becoming a national pastime. Seminars,
taskforces, working groups, and soon a second “workforce summit”
called by John Hutton – have all been organised to identify causes
and suggest solutions.

Given what Unison members have been saying for a number of
years, it is difficult to forgive those who have only woken up to
the problem so late in the day. And it’s a bit tempting to remind
them of all the missed opportunities over the years.

Unison members point to two fundamental causes for the crisis –
poor pay and poor image. Rubbishing social workers, always looking
for scapegoats rather than explanations when things went wrong, was
one of the hallmarks of the last two decades. While over-stressed
staff tried to keep services running in ever more under-staffed and
under-resourced workplaces, they had the extra burden of knowing
that, if something went wrong, they could expect no sympathy, no
understanding of their difficulties.

They could count on a witch-hunt and cheap headlines from
newspapers more interested in a scandal than a cure. Is it really a
surprise that fewer people are now choosing social work as a
career, that people prefer to work in leisure centres than in
children’s homes?

And to justify the cuts in council funding, we were treated to
an endless stream of anti-public sector propaganda. It came from
central government figures who claimed to know how to make local
government more efficient while they were cooking up the poll tax,
privatising the railways, and coming up with an endless stream of
“big ideas”, each more disastrous than the last.

And the big idea for social care, Compulsory Competitive
Tendering – turning over services to the private sector – did not
improve quality. CCT just made care cheaper by cutting the wages of
the workers who provided that care. So why are we now surprised
that people choose jobs on the supermarket checkout where they earn
more than they can working in low-paid home care services?

So Unison’s answer is that we must fund a big increase in the
wages paid to all social care workers, whether employed in the
public, private or voluntary sectors. High quality services can not
be provided on the cheap.

Sue Banks, Clare Jeeves, Andy Tocher, Trevor
Edinborough, (final year students, Nottingham Trent University: BA
Social Work/DipSW Programme)

Anticipated financial problems put off potential applicants,
particularly mature practitioners, with family responsibilities.
This reduces the diversity of entrants to the profession.

Successful applicants have to budget for a loss of earnings of
between £40-£50,000 over the three-year programme.
Students face an end of course debt of about £12,000. The
ability of standard university students to offset debt by working
is restricted for social work students because of the requirement
to work full time on placements

Students feel dismayed that they spend time on placement, in
multi-disciplinary settings, with police officers, nurses,
probation officers – all of whom receive funding whilst training.
At the end of the course, apart from the burden of debt, newly
qualified students face professional uncertainty, a social services
sector undergoing constant revision and reorganisation, chronic
staff shortages, excessive workloads, and a poor public image
within a blame culture. The question of how the public regard
social work is as important an issue as money: statements of
confidence have been conspicuously lacking from this government,
and the previous administration. The public have never been asked
if they remember a good social worker!

The first solution would be to establish a clear National
Training Strategy that acknowledges comparisons between social work
and the police, nursing, teaching and probation in terms of access,
opportunities and support for those in training.

Secondly, there must be a level playing field between the
graduate and undergraduate routes to qualification in terms of
financial support, bursaries, tuition fees, car allowances.

Thirdly, professional social work courses must be exempt from
tuition fees: a minor loss of income for the government but a
significant move in terms of widening access and opportunity.

Students on placement should be paid – this would acknowledge
that students contribute to the output of an agency and add to its
effectiveness (such is the case with all sandwich courses or
work-based placements in commercial and industrial programmes).
This is standard practice in many European countries.

Social work students are required to have access to personal
transport, and need financial support to provide it

All experienced practitioners should be required to offer
student placements, with practice teaching a function of job
descriptions and remuneration arrangements.

Finally, a clear commitment is needed from government about the
value of social work and social care, however organised and
structured, as part of the Third Way vision of New Labour.

Daphne Statham, National Institute for Social

There is no magic wand that will sort the current crisis in
recruiting social care staff. We have to look to a multi -layered
strategy. There are three things we could start with. Most of the
people in social care are over 30, and are women with family
responsibilities. Funding arrangements for training that recognise
this fact are essential as is having a range of patterns of
training that fit the responsibilities of the workforce.

The drop in applications for DipSW places has not happened in
the work-based route being pioneered in Suffolk through its
partnership with Unison and Ruskin College. The programme fits the
workforce’s life patterns and commitments. Secondly, social care
majors in “people skills that are highly valued in service
industries where the capacity to forge a high quality relationship
with the customer in brief encounters is central to good

Skills in relationship, process and working in a holistic way
are also valued by service users. They have acquired a status in
policies for health, housing and neighbourhood regeneration. NISW’s
workforce studies found a high commitment among social care staff.
The key to retention and to encouraging people to return is
managing to keep this commitment and structuring the job so that
people are doing what they are good at and trained for.

Social care staff are concerned that they usually have just 15
minutes to see service users – not much can be done about their
sense of social well-being in that time. The time social workers
spend in direct contact with service users has decreased from about
33 per cent to about 20 per cent over the past 15 years.

Finally, something has to be done about the political and media
climate. The National Task Force on Violence found that many social
care staff thought that the brick bats they got from this direction
“softened them up for violence”. This climate is hardly likely to
encourage recruitment at times when the competition is tough.

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