Operation London: directors “concerned” as councils seek to poach social workers from the capital

With its 'Operation London' campaign Sandwell is about to become the latest council actively trying to lure social workers away from the capital

Are social workers fleeing to the seaside? Picture credit: REX/Richard Sowersby

Absence, defection and a shortage of experienced social workers: no council is a stranger to the growing challenge of recruiting good social workers to permanent posts.

But London’s social services now face an additional strain as a growing number of local authorities outside the capital are hoping to entice social workers away from the expensive and hectic city.

In recent months councils including Devon and Norfolk have launched recruitment campaigns targeting London-based social workers and offering them attractive relocation packages.

And they are soon to be joined by Sandwell Council, which is preparing to launch its ‘Operation London’ social work recruitment drive after the summer holidays.

Relocation, relocation

The move from city to suburb is a well-trodden path but Helen Jenner, the Greater London chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), believes that these councils’ targeted recruitment drives may be speeding up the process.

“In London we do a lot of training of new social workers who then move out of London,” says Jenner, who is also the director of children’s services at Barking and Dagenham Council. “That has been a natural choice for people but now these authorities are encouraging people to do it sooner than they would have done so that where they might have stayed in London for five years, now they are staying for two.

“It’s a gut feeling people have that this is happening. We don’t have any clear data but it’s an issue we’re very concerned about.”

As well as the attraction of a quieter pace of life and a lower cost of living, Jenner is concerned that councils in trouble will offer higher pay after a poor Ofsted rating to encourage applications, adding to the continued competition from private companies and agencies that makes it difficult to keep social workers within councils.

The recruitment drives from outside of London are just another complication in the already fraught process of recruiting enough social workers to keep caseloads manageable.

But for the councils running these recruitment drives, the move is seen as a way of plugging the social worker gaps they already have.

Supply and demand

Samantha Perry, lead HR business partner at Devon County Council, says: “We took this approach as our analytics showed a significant proportion of visitors to our site came from this area.”

She says Devon felt “a campaign run before Christmas would be timely for social workers commuting into London who may start to think differently about where they wanted to live and work in the new year and figures showed there was an increase in traffic to our site during this time from a London audience”.

To woo social workers to the county, Devon has been offering a new supervision framework to give professionals time to reflect and be challenged. It also provides a manageable caseload as well as relocation support of up to £10,000.

Sandwell’s director of children’s services, Simon White explains what he dubs “Operation London” is partly motivated by a bid to widen the pool, in order to stop Midlands councils poaching each other’s social workers.

“We’re tired of the Midlands stealing each other’s staff so they are going on a merry-go-round from Birmingham to Walsall, from Walsall to Sandwell and so on,” he says.

“Like all councils we find it easy to recruit newly qualified social workers but harder to recruit very experienced social workers. We think we’ve got an offering which people will find attractive.

“We’ve redesigned our service so that caseloads are manageable and we’ve put a lot of time into personal development and succession planning.”

Extra social workers are vital

White says he only wants to benefit from what he considers will inevitably happen anyway.

“Looking at house prices in London I know that a lot of social workers, if they are thinking of having a family or getting on the property ladder, decide they’re going to move out,” he says. “Some are going to the outer London boundaries, some go to the West Country – if people are thinking of moving and leaving London anyway we’d like them to think of coming to the Midlands.”

However, while for some it is about highlighting their qualities and offering attractive employment situations to bolster a healthy work force, for other councils like Norfolk, it is a matter shoring up a struggling service to safe staffing levels.

Councillor James Joyce, the cabinet member for safeguarding children at Norfolk County Council, says: “These extra social workers are vital if we are to make the improvements we know are needed in children’s services and that is why we were determined to make this investment at a time when we are facing such significant budget pressures across the authority.”

But says ADCS’s Jenner, London’s directors of children’s services are already looking at how they can respond to campaigns designed to lure away their social workers: “We are going to see if we can collect some more data so we can see if it’s a London-wide issue. We want to make sure we act before it becomes a real problem.”

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