Social workers’ pay: better or worse off than other public sector roles?

Mark Hunter finds that social workers are near the bottom of the heap in terms of public sector pay, although the picture locally, what with golden hellos and other inducements, may be rather different

When the GMB union published its review of salaries in August, few within social care would have been surprised to find social workers languishing at 124th place in the list of 340 occupational groups. With an average annual income of £26,220 in 2005, social workers were ranked well below their public sector colleagues in the police force (57th with £34,913), teaching (72nd with £32,878), and the prison service (118th with 26,873). Only their low-paid colleagues in nursing fared worse, coming in at 153rd with £24,759.

The figures support a survey carried out recently by Community Care which showed that more than 65 per cent of social work professionals felt they did not earn a reasonable salary. More than a fifth of those responding to this survey said they had taken on a second job to boost their meagre earnings.

Even the Conservative party seems to agree that social workers are getting a bad deal on pay, with a recent policy paper calling for a new partnership to address pay levels and recruitment problems. Indeed, it will be interesting to see how long nurses remain below social workers in the GMB’s annual pay league. As the salary regradings brought in under 2004’s Agenda for Change begin to take effect throughout the NHS, most nurses expect to see their take-home income rise, in many cases substantially.

The prospects of social workers receiving a similar across-the-board restructuring of pay appear remote. Unlike their colleagues in the NHS, police force and teaching, social workers do not benefit from a national framework on pay.

Those employed by local authorities are covered by the deal negotiated in 2004 with the unions through the national joint
council for local government services. Those employed by the NHS are covered by Agenda for Change, while those employed
in the private or voluntary sector must make their own local agreements.

Pay discrepancies
Recruitment and retention problems in many parts of the country have added to the confusion, with many authorities now offering golden hellos worth several thousands of pounds to attract high calibre candidates.

The recent split between children’s and adult’s social services has also led to pay discrepancies, with those working in children’s services generally receiving higher salaries than those working with adults.

As a result, there is an extraordinary variation in salaries offered to different social workers doing identical jobs. For instance, in many areas of the country newly qualified social workers begin their career on spinal column point (SCP) grade 24 which currently attracts a salary of £19,614. This is on a par with the equivalent grades in nursing (£19,166) and teaching (£19,641) although it is less than the current average graduate starting salary in the public sector (£21,445).

However, there are some areas of London that are offering newly qualified social workers starting salaries in excess of £27,000. Show that to a newly qualified nurse or teacher and try telling them that social workers are poorly paid.

According to Helga Pile, national officer for social care at public sector union Unison, these regional discrepancies reflect unsustainable attempts to solve local recruitment difficulties and can, in the long run, cause more problems than they solve.

“Golden hellos are really just short-term solutions. We would much rather see a more general increase in salaries right across the sector,” she says. Pile points out that financial incentives offered by one local authority can increase the recruitment problems of its neighbours.

One of the key causes for low pay among social workers employed by local authorities is a failure to implement the single status agreement agreed during the 2004 pay negotiations. This commits employers to paying comparable rates for similar jobs and was largely expected to benefit traditionally female-dominated sectors such as social care. However, the agreement has been slow to take effect and in some areas totally ignored, as local authorities struggle to find the necessary finances.

“If you compare the single status agreement with Agenda for Change then the key difference is funding,” says Pile. “Agenda for Change had earmarked funding whereas that never happened for local authorities.”

If Agenda for Change remains the gold standard for job and salary restructuring, it might be expected that social workers
employed by the NHS would be happy with their lot. Unfortunately this is not necessarily the case.

There are concerns that, as a health service-driven exercise, Agenda for Change often fails to recognise the roles and responsibilities carried out by those working in social care. As a result social workers can find themselves on lower grades than the nurses they are working alongside. 

“There are definitely concerns that social workers in the NHS are being graded below nurses with a similar level of responsibility,” says Jo Cleary, director of housing and community living at Luton Council.

“We’ve had social workers transferred across to the NHS and been very disappointed with their grading, so we need to
make sure that Agenda for Change does not disadvantage social workers.”

Options for Excellence
Nevertheless, Cleary, who co-chairs the Association of Directors of Social Services’ workforce committee, does believe that
Agenda for Change offers a good template for the kind of revamp needed for social workers’ pay. One way of achieving this, she suggests, is through Options for Excellence, the review of the social care workforce currently being carried out by the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills.

“We have the opportunity to make Options for Excellence our Agenda for Change,” says Cleary. “Whether we can do that will depend on implementation and funding. But it is important that we improve salaries. One of the questions we keep asking is how do we get more skilled people into the workforce. When you ask people, the answer invariably is pay.”

Other key issues that need to be addressed, says Cleary, include the difficulty social workers have in being recognised as key workers and therefore eligible for subsidised housing, and the need for a mechanism to ensure social workers are not forced into management roles simply to achieve better pay.

This is already the case for experienced nurses who can become nurse consultants earning £40,000. Rather than moving into
management to increase their pay, nurse consultants spend a minimum of half their time working directly with patients. They
are also responsible for developing personal practice, being involved in research and evaluation and contributing to education, training and development.

“Not everybody wants to be a manager, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t taking on hugely skilled and responsible roles and
should receive recognition for that,” says Cleary.

“The other huge issue is how do you keep the pay of social workers in adult services on a par with those working in children’s services.

“If you look at the vacancies then most of them are in children’s services. Then market forces come into play and you get
differences in pay. But I don’t think that’s good for the profession. We have to view social work as a coherent whole.”

This article appeared on pages 28 to 31, issue dated 12 October, under the headline – Doing it for the money

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What’s life like in other public services
Five steps to better pay


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