by Rob Mitchell, service manager (adult social work) at Calderdale Council
Two years ago our service had what I would call a ‘traditional’ approach to recruiting social workers. We’d generally look for experienced practitioners with at least three to five years’ on-the-job experience. Then something happened that made me pause and rethink our approach.
We had a protracted recruitment period where so-called ‘experienced’ social workers were just not cutting it at interview. Applicants would meet the shortlisting requirements but they were not evidencing that they held values which were congruent with the profession and reflected where I wanted adult social work in Calderdale to go.
Our stock question at interview asked the candidates about the five principles of the Mental Capacity Act. The responses were extremely disheartening. Very few knew the principles. More importantly, even fewer could apply them to practice.
I noticed we were building up a bank of vacancies that we just couldn’t fill with quality applicants. This led to overuse of agency staff and mounting pressure on caseloads for my existing social work teams.
A new direction was needed
As Principal Social Worker I wanted to deliver a new culture for adult social work, one steeped in social work values, user participation and human rights. I knew that to get there we needed to take a brave step in the face of our recruitment issues. So, we decided to ringfence a bank of vacancies for newly qualified social workers (NQSWs).
I remember feeling really nervous about how social work team managers would react. At that point there was some real confusion about whether or not the NQSW assessed year in employment (ASYE) would be mandatory. We were anxious that by ring fencing the posts we would be setting a precedent out of alignment with national policy and practice.
We went ahead and, as a first step, realised we needed to change our recruitment process. I set up a supported interview process which had at the heart of it a very good team manager who was also a qualified practice educator.
She worked hard to create a friendly environment for newly qualified applicants which recognised that many may not have had any previous experience in a statutory setting. For example, she offered all applicants the opportunity to spend a day shadowing a team so that they would feel more confident talking about statutory social work at interview.
Developing the workforce
I also worked closely with our workforce development team to develop a supported year offer from a local Higher Education Institution (HEI). The programme was built around principles of peer support, action learning and applied critical thinking.
Our first cohort of NQSWs included eight practitioners. They were on another level in terms of their innate understanding of human rights and personalisation. They really got the observations made by Lord Justice Munby one year earlier that the local authority should be a servant to people, not a master, working in genuine co-production with people.
That first year we worked to provide a learning experience for the NQSWs through offering protected caseloads, a named mentor and a direct link with the HEI to support reflective practice. By handpicking cases which would meet identified learning outcomes, we supported the NQSWs to build a personalised professional development pathway.
None of this would have been possible without the support of the existing experienced social workers. They quickly recognised the benefits of the NQSWs and, in support of the approach, held the bulk of complex, high risk cases.
It was the experienced staff who then pushed for me to further invest in NQSW opportunities.
By working creatively with new funding we recruited a further five NQSWs last autumn. This summer we’ve gone for it in a big way with 16 newly qualified social workers. Calderdale children’s social work service has also recruited 14 NQSWs. It means that as a local authority we will be supporting 30 new social workers embarking on the best career ever this autumn.
We’ve had to build a new career development pathway for the NQSWs as they’ve graduated post-AYSE. This has challenged our thinking about our whole approach to implementation of the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF).
The idea of progression through time served within client specific teams is obsolete. We’ve removed these elements from our social work job descriptions. In my view, this needs to be recognised nationally. All our graduating NQSWs are undertaking either further post qualifying education either consolidation, AMHP, Practice Educator or BIA training, as they build expertise in their particular fields of interest.
I am fortunate to work for a good local authority whose culture is to value learning and trust in the social work profession. Values can’t be taught and trusting professionals to create the right recruitment climate and practice culture to bring them to the forefront of practice is the key to modernising social work.
Rob is on Twitter @robmitch92