House prices and living costs may be high, but the variety of work and the support in place to help social workers survive in the capital more than compensate, writes Rowenna Davis
Seven and a half million people across 33 boroughs speaking more than 300 languages. This is London; the most diverse and dynamic city in the UK. With almost 390,000 jobs in health and social care, the capital offers thousands of opportunities for practitioners, whatever their interest or specialism.
“It’s one of the most exciting places to work,” says Marian Harrington, who has been involved in social work in the capital for more than 30 years and is chair of the London region of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services. “The whole world is arriving and moving through our doorstep. With so many boroughs to work in, there are plenty of opportunities for diversification and promotion without uprooting yourself.”
With so many authorities to choose from, Harrington says localities are forced to keep on their toes. “Recruiting and retaining staff is more difficult when you have so many authorities competing with each other,” she says, “But it does mean we have more incentive to focus on supporting staff properly, offering them more opportunities for training and promotion as well as the chance to try different types of work.”
Camden Council in north London clearly manages to keep its staff happy. In 2009-10, the turnover rate in Camden’s adult social services was just 6.2%, while its use of agency staff was 4.7%. Shabnam Ahmed, for example, has been at Camden 12 years, starting as a review officer, but then qualified as a practitioner.
She continued working while Camden funded her degree and allowed her time off to study. She is now applying for a practice teaching qualification.
“Camden is a strong, connected and progressive borough,” says Ahmed. “It’s never stagnant. If you want to progress this is the place for you, because the ethos is entirely about development. It’s why I haven’t moved in 12 years.”
In the past two years, Camden has piloted two innovative projects that other boroughs have noticed.
The first, Better Care Choices, was launched last year as part of the personalisation agenda. Some 120 service users were presented with a new system of care assessment. In a move towards total transparency, they were told how much their care cost, and asked whether they’d like to commission it differently using the same money. The aim was to encourage service users to think differently about their care to give them more control and independence over their services. At the end of the process, 72% of users felt they had a say in their care, and the scheme is now being rolled out across the borough.
The second pilot focused on reablement. After a stay in hospital, most service users would have a standard care package put in place on their return home. This pilot provided more intensive support for a shorter period of time to encourage users to become more independent. Help is offered from occupational therapists, nurses and physicians as well as social workers.
“At the beginning there might be more intervention, but the goal is to withdraw support slowly as they become reabled – 39% who went through this process were able to exit the care system,” Ahmed says.
At the other end of London, Croydon is piloting excellent work with mental health and older people, while Lambeth and Greenwich are making huge strides in staff development. Hackney, featured opposite, is known for its progress on the Reclaiming Social Work model.
Inner London presents major challenges in housing and homelessness, says Harrington, who is strategic director for adult and community services at Westminster, and there are problems associated with an isolated elderly population. In the fast pace and anonymity of the city, more older people are isolated without family support. Social services have to step in to fill the gaps.
The city poses problems for practitioners too. House prices and the cost of living remain high, and many have to commute from the suburbs if they want to buy rather than rent. But although there are extra challenges of living in the capital, there are also more support mechanisms.
As Dean Lawrence points out (see below), wages tend to be higher in London, and there are schemes available to help practitioners. The Intermediate Market Rent scheme allows key workers to rent or buy a new home 20% below the market rate on average. With such support mechanisms, the opportunities of the city are open to anyone brave enough to take the chance.
More information on the Intermediate Market Rent scheme
Dean Lawrence: ‘If you come to London you will get a job’
Dean Lawrence joined Hackney in east London as a consultant social worker in children’s services six months ago. Originally qualifying in Manchester, he spent 18 months practising in the North before moving to London in 2001. Hackney is the third London borough he’s worked in.
He says: “Before coming to Hackney I spent seven years in a specialist child and adolescent mental health services team. I always swore I’d never go back to the front line because of the stress and the paperwork, but I had heard a lot about the Reclaiming Social Work model in Hackney, which sounded excellent. Now I’m here I really believe in it. The model emphasises real social work, allowing you to spend time with families. I’m glad I took the risk.
“The principle of the reclaiming social work model promotes systemic practice and a more collaborative approach to casework. In most local authorities, social workers are responsible for a case and all the tasks that need to be undertaken with it. As a consultant in Hackney I manage a small unit that has a social worker and a children’s practitioner. A systemic family therapist is also attached to our team. We work collectively on cases and we have weekly unit meetings. This model allows me to play a managerial role without giving up my casework with families. I would be reluctant to go back to more traditional models of social work.
“What keeps me in London? The progressive work that goes on here and the range of jobs – you can’t find that anywhere else, even in other big cities like Manchester and Birmingham. If you come to London you know you’ll get a job and there are many different projects to work on and resources to access. There are a lot more voluntary organisations, and this helps in practice, because there are more specialists to refer users on to. .
“Another reason I came to Hackney is the development opportunities. Of the four boroughs I’ve worked in, Hackney has offered the highest calibre training. It offers systemic family therapy training to social workers and consultants, as well as accredited courses in social learning theory.
“Finally, money is an incentive. Social workers’ salaries have raised more in London than outside. I am paid £45,000 a year here – I’d get probably be paid £10,000 less for a similar management job elsewhere.”
London key facts
● There are 33 local authorities in London.
● London has 11 excellent adult social care departments 19 good and two adequate.
● Of the 28 local authorities that are classified as “highly diverse” in England, 24 are in London.
● London’s employment rate is 68 five percentage points below the national average – a gap which has increased in the past 12 months. Worklessness is a major challenge in London with about one in three Londoners – 1.6 million people – out of work (including students).
● Today there are nearly 390,000 jobs in the health and social work sector, some 10% of the jobs in London.
● During the latest recession health and social work was one of the few sectors in London to increase its workforce – by 16,000 between 2008 and 2010. Looking forward to 2020, the sector is likely to see modest net job growth of about 0.2 percentage points (or 11,000 net jobs).
These figures were compiled with the help of Adass London and the London Development Agency www.lda.gov.uk
This article is published in the 27 May issue of Community Care magazine under the heading London is the place for me