There is one thing that unites social workers across England,
Scotland and Wales – there’s simply not enough of them,
writes Derren Hayes.
This fact was re-emphasised earlier this week when the
Association of Directors of Social Services Cymru published its
Welsh workforce report. It showed vacancy rates of 15 per cent
across the 22 authorities – with this rising to 18 per cent
in children’s services – and retention rates also running at
15 per cent.
The story is much the same in England where the vacancy rate is
around 11 per cent (2003 figures – statistics for 2004 are
due to be published later this month and are expected to show
little improvement), and Scotland where one in 10 posts remain
It has created a situation where authorities try to outbid each
other for a finite pool of social workers, a practice the ADSS
report, calls “unworkable and difficult to justify”. It
adds this in turn is creating winners and losers which is
undermining the quality of services in some councils.
Dominic MacAskill, regional organiser of Unison Cymru and a member
of the ADSS working group that compiled the report, says some
councils have decided to move away from pay scales set in the 1980s
by offering supplements and ‘golden hellos’ to certain
groups of social workers.
“It has created a lot of leapfrogging. Some authorities
have taken a puritanical view and refused to budge from the pay
scale only for a neighbouring authority to chump them,” he
Alan McKeown, social work officer at the Convention of Scottish
Local Authorities, says a similar, “unsustainable”
situation has developed in Scotland. Cosla has set up a group to
look at the problem and whether a regional or national approach to
recruitment and retention is needed.
“The objective will be to create sustainable pay scales
and consistency across Scotland while still allowing [local]
differences to apply,” explains McKeown. “We want to
break down what the key building blocks to the job are and that the
prices paid for this are consistent.”
Certainly, the Welsh report believes councils must work more
collaboratively over recruitment, pay, benefits, training and staff
development. “We must create a culture whereby there is a
feeling that staff are working for Wales social services, which
reinforces the principle of social care being one sector with one
workforce,” it states.
National pay scales
It admits setting national or regional pay scales will be a
difficult task. If further proof of this was needed, John Drew,
secretary of the Greater London ADSS can provide it.
“It is more difficult than it appears because you are not
necessarily talking about authorities that have the same set of
circumstances,” says Drew. “In that scenario it is very
difficult to develop a London, regional or national solution.
“GLADSS looked at it a few times in the last four years
and every time we’ve got close someone has said ‘we
can’t sign up to this, we’ve got to look after the
interests of our authority first’. It has always held us
“I don’t know whether it is a lesson for Wales, but
what you would think is that if there was anywhere you could have
this kind of solution it is in London where you have a mobile and
compressed workforce,” Drew explains.
However, he says the approach most likely to work is for
“clusters” of authorities to collaborate on a
sub-regional basis – this has happened in London where a
consortium of authorities in the west of the capital work together
on employing temporary staff.
|Johnston is sceptical about
Ian Johnston, director of the British Association of Social
Workers, applauds the Welsh approach but is sceptical greater
collaboration in England is achievable because of “size,
conflict and political agendas”.
But David Behan, chief inspector of the Commission for Social
Care Inspection is adamant such an approach is crucial to improving
“Shortage of workers affects a council’s ability to
deliver services and there is a correlation between performance and
having good human resource systems in place. Inspections show those
performing well are attending to issues around training and
development of staff,” he adds.
Social workers will always move around between authorities,
Behan says, but those that think they can recruit by just offering
more money are short sighted, he adds.
“Social workers are more discerning than just chasing a
few extra pounds. They want political and managerial support and
training. If we have a notion of public service, people will work
for a number of different organisations. They may work for you,
join another authority and then come back. That is healthy for
professionals’ development,” says Behan.
One authority that offered social workers more money to address
vacancy rates was Glasgow. It proved highly successful when
introduced in late 2003, cutting vacancies to virtually zero.
However, Glasgow director David Comley says money wasn’t
the biggest factor – it reorganised its workforce so that
senior social workers took on field work again, social care workers
posts were introduced to take on more of the paperwork and team
leader roles created.
Comley believes the reorganisation didn’t lead to
neighbouring authorities suffering.
“We haven’t pinched large numbers of social workers
although we seem to have picked up a lot of newly qualified ones
attracted by the new model.
“Social workers will continue to be a scarce resource but
we think we will be a net exporter to other parts of Scotland as
future social workers will come from social care workers training
up and team leaders will come from our existing qualified social
workers,” Comley adds.
This factor – increasing the pool of social workers –
could prove to be the best chance of tackling the shortage across
the whole of the UK, especially if efforts to create collaborative
approaches are in vain. Kathryn Kelly, recruitment senior advisor
at the Employers Organisation, thinks so.
“We need to move away from the competitive market between
authorities and in the medium to long term increase the pool of
people,” she adds.
‘Social Work in Wales: A Profession to Value’ from