‘Opening children’s social work up to the market place will not generate stability or continuity’

Continuing his series reflecting on the state of children's social work, Ray Jones looks at the major issues affecting workflows, workloads and the workforce

'In a market place, contracts are likely to be determined by price.' Photo: Global Warming Images/REX

By Ray Jones, professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London

This is the third in a series of reflections on the current state of children’s social work. This week, I am focusing on the workforce. The quality and stability of the social work workforce and whether it has the space and time to practice well has the most direct impact on the quality of social work, and how children and adults experience it. But all is not well with the workforce!

Emphasis on risk and targets

There are a number of significant issues. Firstly, the pendulum of practice has swung to an extreme. The balance between seeking to assist families to care well for children has been undermined by an overwhelming emphasis on risk and removing and ‘rescuing’ children from families.

Many families are moving from deprivation to destitution – dependent on insecure and heavily rationed help from food banks and charitable clothing stores, in awful private sector rented housing. Housing benefit changes have relocated families away from support network. The response to the economic situation has been to cut the help available through, for example, Sure Start.

At the same time, targets have been set to get more children adopted and adopted more quickly. Target chasing in this area is having a clear impact on social work practice.

Culture of fear and accountability

Secondly, and in part a consequence of the factors noted above, over the past six years there has been a considerable increase in child protection activity, impinging on social workers and all agencies and professionals working with children and families.

Section 47 child protection investigations are up by 60%, child protection plans up by 50%, and care proceedings applications up by 104%. The consequence is that workflows have to be rapid and cases closed down quickly if at all possible, otherwise workloads become large, workers stressed and corners cut.

All of this is within the context of a culture of professional fear fed by serious case reviews, with the government wanting more reviews – each to be publicly available – allocating ‘accountability’ (blame), with Ofsted looming on the horizon to give its damning ratings of ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’.

Recruitment, retention and the growing agency workforce

It should not be a surprise, therefore, that the workforce has become less stable, with higher turnover and difficulties in recruitment and retention. I consistently hear about and see the high quality of newly qualifying social workers and the expertise and commitment of experienced workers. But there has also been a growth of agency workers and an interim workforce at all practice and management levels.

There may be a number of reasons why social workers chose to be short-term agency workers rather than contracted employees of an organisation. There is no doubt that being able to demand a higher wage as an agency worker (albeit set against loss of other employment benefits such as paid holidays and pension contributions) can be attractive, especially when the government is overseeing year-on-year cuts in the pay of local authority workers.

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Agency workers may also value that they can move between roles, taking a breathing space between jobs, as a means of relieving and feeling in control of workload pressures and stress. And some value the opportunity of a broader experience than working longer-term within one setting and agency.

‘Lack of trust, commitment and direction’

But for children and families, and for long-serving colleagues, the coming and going of interim social workers leads to disruption and loss of continuity, and if there are agency managers there is likely to be organisational churn. Different managers set different priorities and have different styles; the organisational culture can become one of insecurity and lack of trust, commitment and direction.

I have experience of areas where 45-60% of children’s social workers are short-term agency workers. I was recently told about a council where 85% of children’s services managers, across the hierarchy, are interim and agency managers.

Healthy balance

It does not have to be like this. In some areas, it is not like this. In some areas, all – or almost all – managers are permanent appointments, with annual social worker turnover in a natural range of 10-12%, and with a healthy balance of newly qualifying and experienced workers.

What makes the difference? Organisations are more likely to have a stable workforce if they have leaders who:

  • stay close to their frontline teams and workers,
  • have the confidence to listen as much as tell (if not more so), allowing views and experiences to flow up the organisation,
  • can take critical comment
  • build a culture of celebration, without ignoring issues of poor performance, behaviour or capability.

These are not just my assumptions or personal bias. These are the findings of a major programme of Audit Commission and Social Services Inspectorate joint area reviews of all councils in England and Wales in the early 2000s. It made sense then. It makes sense now.

Valuing the frontline workforce

Honest, open and trusting (HOT) learning organisations, where everyone feels and is listened to and can contribute to shaping thinking for the future and giving feedback about the present are empowering and enriching.

Facilitating learning and development also helps people feel valued and respected. Opportunities for continuing professional development (CPD), with the expectation that these opportunities will be taken up, are likely to hold on to the interest and commitment of workers. Linking career progression and rewards to CPD is a way of recognising workers who are enhancing their competencies and knowledge.

Too costly? Not when set against the costs of frequent advertising and recruitment and the higher cost of agency workers, and well worth it in terms of the quality of service which would be achieved.

The market does not generate stability or continuity’

But the situation will become much more tenuous and fragile if the next government continues the current drive towards opening children’s social work up to the market place, with private sector outsourcing companies positioning themselves to grab contracts.

The market does not generate stability or continuity. Contracts are likely to be determined by price with costs reduced by driving down the skills mix and terms and conditions of the workforce. This is the biggest current threat to children’s social work and to the welfare and safety of children.

Dr Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London. A social worker and former director of social services, for two days each week he oversees child protection improvement in areas rated as ‘inadequate’. 

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