(Stepahanie Kerr and Majidah Akbar in Sheffield enjoy their new autonomy; pic:
Sheffield Council is piloting an innovative role for advanced social workers who take on the most difficult cases. Kirsty McGregor asked two professionals why they took up the challenge
The shortage of highly experienced social workers at the frontline has long plagued employers. Unlike teaching, nursing and other public service professions, management is usually the only route to higher pay, as noted by the Social Work Task Force in 2009 and reiterated by Professor Eileen Munro in her review of child protection.
The Social Work Reform Board is developing a national career structure to include a new role of advanced professional, on a par with practice educators and managers.
Alongside this project, the Children’s Workforce Development Council is piloting an advanced social work professional (ASWP) role.
Sheffield Council is among 60 English authorities taking part in the scheme. “We felt we needed to identify ways to retain good-quality social workers in practice,” explains Matthew Sampson, assistant director of children’s fieldwork services. “Too many were jumping into management.”
Eighteen months in, and the ASWPs at Sheffield’s children’s services are bubbling over with praise for the scheme.
Most tell a familiar story. “I had been doing the job for 10 years, and I was stuck in a rut,” says Majidah Akbar, who joined the council as an ASWP in October 2009. “The role seemed perfect because I would be able to stay in practice with a complex caseload, but with the pay to match.”
Sheffield chose a similar model to the one being developed by the Reform Board. It employs team managers, social work consultants and advanced social work professionals, all paid at the same rate.
The CWDC kept the pilots flexible, so authorities could design the ASWP role to meet local needs. In Sheffield, ASWPs hold a caseload of up to 13 complex and often high-profile cases.
Sampson says the council was looking for people who could manage a raft of difficult situations, work autonomously and sell their expertise to partner agencies.
Sheffield decided to limit ASWP places to seven, partly to maintain the idea that it is a specialist role (“Not all social workers can become an ASWP,” says Sampson) but also because they deal with the small number of most complex cases.
On top of their caseload, ASWPs are expected to teach students on placements and advise less experienced social workers, although they do not formally supervise or manage any other members of staff. “If someone asks for guidance I give my view, but I don’t give case supervision,” explains Akbar. “I’d never override a team manager.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Akbar says colleagues have readily accepted the role. “There’s no tension with managers because, if something goes horribly wrong with a family, they can ring us and ask us to give our overview,” she says. “We support them.”
What is less certain is how service users feel. Akbar tends not to tell families she is an ASWP: “I think it frightens them more.”
But Stephanie Kerr, who also joined in 2009, argues that families often embrace her status, particularly if they have had long-term involvement with social services. “Some know why I have been allocated to the case and they are happy to have someone more experienced and advanced working on it.”
Kerr qualified in 2003 and had been working as a deputy team manager in another authority before joining Sheffield as an ASWP. She says it was difficult at first, because she did not know anyone at the council. ASWPs are supervised by assistant service managers rather than team managers and are not within a team, so it can be quite an isolated role. To counter this, Sheffield set up a peer support group where ASWPs could discuss practice issues. “It has helped them to develop an identity as a professional group,” says Sampson.
Kerr says she likes the autonomy, which allows her to “get on with things” as well as instilling her with a sense of pride that her abilities are recognised. On the face of it, the ASWP pilot in Sheffield has succeeded in attracting and retaining at least two experienced children’s social workers. A decision on whether to roll out this status nationally will take place in the coming months.
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