Social workers who have switched from the south of England say that some characteristics of the North East and Yorkshire benefit social work practice there. Rowenna Davis reports
Social care in the North has had a tough time in the press lately. Perhaps the best example of this is Doncaster, where a series of failures in children’s services have tainted every aspect of the council’s work. But behind the scenes, few people know about the excellent work that is underway at the authority.
“The stereotypes are unrepresentative,” says Denise Sholtysek, acting team manager of adult services. “Certainly our department is going from strength to strength. Ever since I came to Doncaster supervision has been good, working conditions great and managers have been competent and supportive. People are happy to work for Doncaster and work hard to provide first rate services for its citizens.”
The facts seem to support Sholtysek’s assertion. All of the adult service’s care homes are rated as good or excellent and the department has received two stars from the Care Quality Commission two years running. In the past two years, adult social care teams have only employed three agency workers.
After working in the independent sector for four years, Sholtysek says she settled on Doncaster because of the supportive environment she found there. The training opportunities were excellent, and after completing two post-qualification courses on the job, she quickly rose to become deputy manager before entering her present position.
Martin Farran, chair of the Yorkshire and Humber branch of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, believes these positives extend across the North East. “The stereotype is ‘It’s grim up North’ but we’d say it’s a vibrant place to take forward change,” he says. “It’s a strong region with a history of innovation which has embraced the challenges ahead, from engaging communities to the effective use of assisted technology. Social care is committed to working in partnership across authorities and agencies – and it’s a great place to live.”
Talk to those who have moved from south to north (see case study opposite) and they say public sector wages go a lot further in this part of the country – house prices here are the lowest in England and Wales – and the region is greener, quieter and there appears to be more respect for the work-life balance.
But perhaps the North East’s greatest asset is the warmth of its communities. According to Susan Mullen, who practises as a senior social worker at North Tyneside, this sense of community helps social workers operate more effectively in the region. “One of the great things about the North East is that neighbours look after neighbours,” she says. “That makes it easier to keep people in the community – we don’t have as many admissions into 24-hour care.”
Mullen says that this warmth is also found in staff members, who made her feel at home despite her unconventional career path. Mullen left school with virtually no qualifications and worked in telesales before becoming a foster carer – but North Tyneside has offered her the opportunities she deserves, including the chance to participate in the development of audit controls for quality assurance.
“Because we’re quite a small authority we all know each other and can draw on each others’ experience and knowledge,” says Mullen. “I’d say I know every social worker in adult services and I feel free to call them any time.”
If the North is known for caring, it’s also known for innovation. North Tyneside – along with eleven other councils across the country – is participating in the Remodelling Social Work delivery pilots. These projects place experienced social workers into multi-agency teams that work on early intervention measures for children and families. The idea is to free up the paperwork and encourage social workers to test out new ideas. According to Paul Cook, head of the preventative and safeguarding service, participating staff are “showing every sign of wishing to remain” on the project.
Councils in the North East are also forming partnerships to raise standards. Yorkshire and Humber recently put together a successful joint bid for the Joint Right Control pilot. Along with seven others across the country, this will pull funding from the Department of Work and Pensions and the Job Centre into personal budgets, an area that has traditionally only been funded by social care.
“This is just one of the examples of how councils in the North are connecting for better results,” says Farran. “We are committed to working collaboratively to promote personalisation as the core principle to transform adult social care. We welcome anyone who wants to join us to achieve our ambitions.”
Innovation is also evident at Doncaster and North Tyneside. In Doncaster, a social work health check pilot is set to be launched, which will evaluate the mentoring and support available for social workers and identify any gaps that need filling.
Meanwhile, North Tyneside is delivering an emergency break system for carers in partnership with the voluntary sector, giving users space to rest and recover without fretting about their dependents.
“We listen to users and try to develop services around their needs,” says Mullen, “We have a reputation for being caring and professional people who look after our service users and our staff. That’s how we’d like to be perceived.”
From south to north: Matthew Price, AMHP, North Tyneside
Matthew Price used to work in financial services in the south of England. In 2000, he embarked on a major career change. After completing his social work training in Southampton in 2002, he took up his first post in a community and mental health team in Surrey. Two years later he moved to the North East, where he is now a social worker in the community mental health team at North Tyneside.
“Having worked in the North and the South, I can compare the two. Resource-wise there is a lot more available up here. In the South East one of the main obstacles we faced in mental health was the cost of housing, which makes it incredibly difficult to provide supportive accommodation. There is also a greater continuity and stability of teams here. In my experience, if you stayed at a council in the South for two years you’d outstayed everyone else.
“Personal finance was also an issue. I gained a slight increase in salary for doing the same job in the North, and the money goes a lot further here. My quality of life has also improved – I live in Northumberland and commute. I’ve never been able to have a dog before.”
“The training opportunities here have been excellent. When I arrived at North Tyneside I was aiming to do my postgraduate certificate in mental health social work. A course was starting just a few months after I joined, and they let me take it up straight away. In 2005 I became an approved mental health practitioner; I’m now qualified to assess people under the Mental Health Act.
“There seems to be a great deal of work done with the voluntary sector up here. We have several housing projects that provide supported accommodation respite services. A number of voluntary services run that. We try and tailor each service to each person’s needs and give them a choice of being served by the voluntary sector.
“Multidisciplinary working is very important here. At North Tyneside, our adult social work staff are co-located with the NHS Foundation Trust. We’re still managed by the council but we work with nurses, psychiatrists and occupational therapists in a multidisciplinary team.
“I’ve always preferred working in this way – it means all the professionals are on hand to give advice and it means we’re much better at handling risk. There are no vacancies on my team.”
North East key facts
The North East of England is home to 2.6 million people, making it the smallest region in England. Those aged 65 and above are the only age group projected to grow in size in the North East over the next 15 years. Meanwhile, Yorkshire and the Humber has 5.2 million people of whom 16% are over 65 – this is expected to increase.
Unemployment rates are currently at 6.7% in the North East and 6% in Yorkshire.
The average annual wage in the North East is £21,290. It is slightly higher in Yorkshire and Humber at £24,000.
● House prices
Median house prices in the North East remain the lowest in England and Wales at £122,000. In Yorkshire and Humber it is £126,196. The England & Wales median house price was £174,955.
This article is published in the 29 April issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Why the North East is warmer than the south