Glasgow’s para professionals help serve social worker recruitment woes

Conceived as a solution to Glasgow’s recruitment crisis, the city’s social care workers are now using their grade as a stepping stone to full qualification. Derren Hayes reports

The creation of a new grade of para-professional holding many of the powers of a qualified social worker caused a stir when introduced in Scotland’s biggest city two years ago.

David Comley, director of social work at Glasgow Council, admits: “It certainly shook things up and brought new energy to people who had been at the organisation for some time.”

In some teams social worker vacancy rates were running at 50 per cent, and para-professionals – or to give them their full title, social care workers – were part of the solution to the recruitment crisis dogging Glasgow’s social work department.

The ambitious project involved developing regional teams run by senior social workers, many of whom became practice team leaders, and comprising qualified social workers and social care workers. Since then, vacancies for all but practice team leaders have disappeared.

For years, Glasgow had social work assistants, and many have gone on to become the new social care workers. Others have come with a range of experience from the care sector and life in general.

Comley says: “It’s attracting people who want to get into social work but couldn’t afford or didn’t want to go to university for four years. They can work and earn money and pursue qualifications.”

Their work and pay is linked closely to their skills and qualifications. Whereas before the reorganisation these were largely dictated by length of service, now they are linked to qualifications achieved, such as SVQ level three and the HNC. Pay grades range between £19,000 and £23,000.

The most experienced social care workers manage their own caseloads and carry out tasks to help social workers with more complex cases (see ‘We now have greater recognition’ below). In the children and families department they will manage many of the looked-after children but are unable to become involved in child protection decisions or investigations.

However, the changes have led to concerns that it is a way of getting social workers on the cheap. It is an accusation Comley rejects. To start with, the highest pay grade for social care workers is only slightly lower than that for newly qualified social workers. Also, the number of qualified and unqualified staff has risen.

“There are functions and roles that do need to be carried out by a qualified social worker and social care workers have freed up their time to do these things,” he says.

Unison supports the new structure, but social work convener Ronnie Stevenson says if a more formal scale linking competences to pay was introduced this would help to alleviate these concerns.

He says: “Management and ourselves have failed to agree on the tasks associated with each of the four [levels] on the social care worker job scale. The way you move up that scale is by getting bits of paper – management would say that it reflects competences but we want that to reflect tasks undertaken.”

Stevenson says better managers understand the level of case complexity each social care worker can handle, but wants a more transparent process. “We can’t accept a situation where this process is managed by the idea of ‘good’ managers. There’s no reason why social workers should do all the tasks around managing a family, for example. But the idea that they can beef up numbers by employing more social care workers isn’t on.”

Helen Doyle, a social care worker in the children and families department, says she understands the concerns. Doyle, who has 20 years’ care sector experience, joined Glasgow in 2002, initially as a social work assistant. She says: “If we say a social care worker can do the job of a qualified social worker we risk diminishing the professionalism of social work, and then the degree means nothing. I think I do a very good job but I don’t think I can replace a qualified social worker.

“I can look at it with two hats: from the social care worker’s point of view you could argue everything I do is as valid as child protection. But there has to be some recognition of the greater knowledge and commitment of doing the degree.”

Debbie Byrne, a social worker in the east area’s early intervention team, says social care workers have freed up qualified staff by taking on much of the looked-after children cases.

However, she feels they do not do more than the assistants they replaced. “They had already worked in the department for some time. Their titles have changed but I don’t think they do more than social work assistants did. They are in a better position from a more informed point of view but I don’t think they’re better.”

Glasgow’s structure emphasises continuous professional development (CPD). Training is a given, not an option, with the biggest testament to this being that the council is paying the tuition fees for the most experienced social care workers to do a two-year fast-track social work degree.

Comley says: “The council will invest more money on the basis that staff take responsibility for their own CPD. Becoming a social care worker is now a potential stepping stone for people that want to pursue further qualifications. I would hope to be able to generate most of our future social workers from this route.”

Doyle is one of the first to undertake the fast-track course – her results are due in September. She says her experience was no substitute for what she has learned on the course. “I now have a much better understanding of why I make decisions. Before, decisions were made on gut reaction, experience and empathy, but now I make it on theory and the legal basis. I had to unlearn everything I’d learned.”

Comley’s assertion that the restructuring and introduction of social care workers shook up the establishment is played down by Doyle. She says: “There was some hostility but that would happen in any job and I never felt it. I would hope they didn’t feel threatened by me. I don’t think social workers were sitting on their laurels – perhaps some had lost their motivation.”

However, Doyle admits social care workers have to prove themselves more “because you don’t have that bit of paper”. CC

‘We now have greater recognition’
Helen Doyle is one of Glasgow Council’s 426 para-professionals (known there as social care workers). She is due to qualify as a social worker in September after doing a two-year fast-track degree in her spare time.

“I worked during the day and did the course for three hours two nights a week and at weekends. It was a big commitment as I have children but my family have been very supportive,” she says.

After completing a social care course in 1987 she worked for 18 years in care settings for people with learning difficulties.

During this time she gained her HNC and SVQ qualifications before moving to Glasgow as a social work assistant in 2002.

The main difference between social work assistants and social care workers is the degree of autonomy the latter now has.

Doyle says: “As a social care worker you arrange your own caseloads, whereas before this would have been directed by a qualified social worker. The expectation was that you would organise the transport or contact arrangements and they would do more complex parts of cases.”

As well as the job title changing, the role is more clearly defined and the salary has improved, Doyle says. “The assistant’s job description was to work alongside the social worker whereas we now have greater recognition for the job we do.”

However, becoming a qualified social worker won’t make a great deal of difference to her pocket – Doyle has been at the top of her pay scale for three years, which is just below the salary paid to newly qualified workers.

“When I qualify in September it won’t be for financial gain. I’m not just doing it for the money.”

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