Despite its relative affluence, the East of England has many vacancies for social workers, writes Rowenna Davies
Barbara Foster is in the habit of turning things around. Last month she moved to become head of care and targeted outcomes at Thurrock. She already had an excellent track record in Essex and helped transform Waltham Forest from special measures into a three-star authority some years earlier. The East of England is an appropriate place for such movers and shakers, and Foster says she has been welcomed with open arms.
“I wanted to come to Thurrock because it was small, it has great morale and I knew it had a strong relationship with the voluntary sector,” she says. “Everyone has been so welcoming and open, I couldn’t have asked for more. I feel like this is somewhere I can really make a difference.”
The population of 5.7 million in the East of England has been growing faster than the rest of the UK, and it’s not surprising. Life expectancy is higher, schools perform better and unemployment and house prices are lower (see fact box opposite). At a time when many councils are cutting back on recruitment schemes, the East of England remains full of opportunities, with an average vacancy rate across child and adult social services of 15%.
“Our vacancy rates are higher because we are so close to London,” says Foster who is presiding over an average vacancy rate of 38% when agency workers are included. “Many social workers in the area choose to commute into the city boroughs, but there are great opportunities here too. Agency workers that do stints here don’t want to leave.”
For those social workers who do head to the East, there is a lot of exciting work going on. The Eastern Safeguarding Project (ESP) is a new regional initiative to help safeguard children across 11 authorities in the region. In a good example of councils combining their resources and expertise, authorities are conducting peer-to-peer reviews of each other’s work and sharing best practice and information through a specially developed website.
“All councils come together to support each other and swap best practice and training, and because we have such a diverse region there is a lot to share,” says Paul Greenhalgh, head of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services for the East of England and director of children and learning at Southend Council. “Whether you’re interested in working on urban deprivation or rural isolation, there is something for you in the East. And because we have a strong voluntary sector, social workers can trust others to get on with the preventive work so they can do the targeted work they were trained for.”
Individual councils are also taking the initiative at a local level. Suffolk, a member of the ESP, has been working hard on creating a culture of information sharing among practitioners in safeguarding services, with 17,000 staff going through an intensive development programme in the last three years.
Partnerships with the police, domestic violence and trading standards services have also helped increase the number of people making referrals. Meanwhile Cambridgeshire has been looking at creating a team co-ordinator role to provide direct support to frontline safeguarding teams, and Hertforshire has been researching how improvements in safeguarding practice can be supported and embedded across the board.
Good work is also going on in Foster’s borough of Thurrock, another member of the ESP. The council has recently been shortlisted for a Skills for Care accolade for its multi-disciplinary in-house training for foster carers; a service that has won the confidence of practitioners and local people. Another popular model at the council sees two specialist workers – one expert in domestic violence and another in substance abuse – working full time for the council to support any team that is dealing with such cases. Foster says that one of her goals is to expand such schemes if resources are available.
Because of the relatively high vacancy rates, councils in the East also have excellent schemes to attract social workers that are worth taking advantage of. Norfolk Council, which now has one of the lowest vacancy rates in the region, recruited some 40 social workers through the newly qualified social worker scheme last year, and doubled the number of student placements. Head of children’s services Tom Savory says that new staff rarely drop out.
“Feedback from staff suggests their individual training needs are addressed. We have monthly workshops on timely topics and practitioners receive support from independent mentors as well as managers. All experienced social workers can become mentors, and that often leads to opportunities to become practice teachers or assessors.”
“On a more personal note,” adds Savory, “I’ve always felt that my professional development was supported by the authority since I moved here as a social worker from London in 1996. When opportunities came up I was encouraged to apply, which is why I stayed and worked through to the job I’m in now. We welcome anyone who wants to make a positive difference to the lives of residents, children and families in the East.”
Carl Partridge: ‘I always wanted to be a social worker’
Carl Partridge, 36, is a personalisation development manager for Housing and Community Living inLuton. After working in the authority for 12 years, he says he’s never wanted to work anywhere else.
“I always wanted to be a social worker. It probably sounds a bit mad really, but my aunty started off as a home care supervisor doing the old fashioned care work – making fires and washing the windows and everything – who worked herself up to be a social worker. It was her ability to help people that inspired me to become a social worker.
“Unfortunately I didn’t get the grades to do social work at university, but I did a care-related degree. After a bit of experience in care work I eventually started out as an unqualified duty social worker on a six-month contract at Luton and then they made me permanent. It was the best grounding I could have got – we dealt with everything from meals on wheels to people struggling after a fall. The council paid for me to take my diploma in social work, and I moved to the intermediate care team. One of the reasons our vacancy rate is so low is that support workers can progress through the ranks right from the bottom. I started off on £11,800 a year, now I’m on more than £32,000.
“I really like Luton. We’re a one town unitary authority, and because we’re relatively small you know people. It’s the kind of authority where you feel like you can get things changed. When I first worked on the duty team we were too small to be efficient, so we pushed for expansion and the management listened and responded.
“Luton is a progressive authority, and we have a lot of new initiatives. We have a free falls training group that advises members of the community how to avoid trips. We’ve also got a pilot scheme running that means if elderly people contact us for minor issues like meals on wheels or equipment, we follow them up and check if there’s anything else we can do. I’m on secondment in personalisation and prevention, and we’re starting a toenail-cutting pilot with the local voluntary sector that I helped set up. Our good relationship with the voluntary sector helps make these things happen.”
East of England key facts
● The East has a population of 5.7 million, an increase of 4.6 per cent since 2003. This compares with an overall increase of 3.1 per cent for the UK over the same period.
● People over state pension age in the East make up 20 per cent of the population, compared with 19 per cent for the under-16s.
● In the East, men aged 65 can expect to live another 18.2 years and women 20.7 years. This compares with 17.5 and 20.2 years in the UK as a whole.
● In the East, 50.3% of pupils achieved five or more grades A*-C at GCSE level or equivalent including English and mathematics in 2007-8, compared with 47.7% for the UK as a whole.
● The unemployment rate in the East stood at 6.5% in the fourth quarter of 2009, compared with the UK rate of 7.8%.
● In April 2009, the median gross weekly earnings for full-time employees on adult rates who were resident in the East was £509, higher than the UK median of £489.
● House prices reached an average of £203,115 in East Anglia in 2010. This compares with a UK average of £224,064.
Unless specified otherwise, all figures relate to 2008. Figures were compiled with the help of the East of England Development Agency
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This article is published in the 16 September issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Look to the East