How support workers helped reduce social worker caseloads

Peterborough council says its controversial move to hire support workers has meant caseloads fell for social workers

Photo: robu_s/fotolia

Employing support workers to hold “low level” child in need cases has helped reduce social work caseloads in Peterborough, the council has said.

Average social worker caseloads in children’s services have reduced from 26 to under 20 under the pilot scheme, which was introduced in April and will run until March this year. The support staff, who are not social work qualified, hold around 15 cases each.

The plans caused controversy when announced last year. At the time a council report said two social worker posts could be cut for every three support workers appointed, leading to unions warning some social workers felt “undermined” by having “unqualified” staff doing their jobs.

However, the council says no social worker posts were deleted and it is hoping to increase social work numbers if a bid for funding to introduce a family safeguarding model to services is successful.

Recruitment and retention

Nicola Curley, Peterborough’s assistant director for children’s services, said the progress made on cutting caseloads could help with recruitment and retention.

“You need to attract social workers to your area, there’s only so many of them, one of the reasons they either don’t come or don’t stay is very high caseloads and they don’t want to work in that kind of environment,” she said.

“We haven’t reduced any social work posts, and one of the issues around that was we were always clear is we would only reduce social work posts if we were able to do that safely and that was appropriate in terms of our demand.

“The volume of work hasn’t changed significantly. When we then wanted to look at family safeguarding, that model is to increase your social workers, certainly in the initial phase. There’s no point [in reducing] social workers. Actually what we’re going to do is boost them.”

Very positive

Under the pilot scheme, support workers sit in a team with six qualified social workers, including two advanced practitioners and a team manager. After cases pass through assessments they are allocated by the team manager based on the level of support that is needed.

Non-social work qualified staff take on about 40% of child in need cases – described by Curley as “lower need” – while more serious cases are taken on by qualified social workers. If cases escalate, they are reallocated to a qualified social worker in the same team to keep continuity for the family.

Curley said it was key that support workers received the same level of supervision as their social work colleagues, as well as ongoing training. She said feedback from staff on the pilot has been “very positive”, adding: “Our audits are independently saying what we’ve got is increased and focused visiting to those kind of children and the child in need meetings are much more frequent and purposeful.”

Peterborough Unison branch secretary Mark Burn said since the scheme was introduced it has not “replaced or removed” social workers, and staff weren’t expressing discontentment with how it worked. Unison were initially critical of the scheme.

12 Responses to How support workers helped reduce social worker caseloads

  1. Clara January 26, 2017 at 2:15 pm #

    This was already in place in an another LA that I worked in as a Senior Social Worker Assistant. Ofstead came in and said that this was not working and therefore the council reduced the SSWA Roles.

    My caseload often reflected 25-40 (per child), so i find the caseload of 15 a bit surpising. This did work, but Ofstead changed how it was organised.

  2. martin January 26, 2017 at 9:40 pm #

    Family support staff holding Child In Need plans is nothing new. Working in Calderdale Family Intervention Team, we have been lead on CIN plans for over 3 years now. With weekly home visits, practice oversights and regular supervision, the families receive a higher level of intervention than a qualified Social Worker has time to provide. The system does seem to work.

    • Sharon B January 29, 2017 at 9:19 pm #

      Too right it does !!! It works well cos we have such a fab team of workers who are very knowledgeable and good support from managers

  3. Rosaline January 27, 2017 at 4:25 am #

    This is a worry. Children in need cases present with a number of functions to be dutifully filled by qualified social worker and the complexities of worries in these cases require thoughtful analysis. The support workers need guidance and support throughout their employment, after the pilot has ended, a reflection in 12 months would be interesting to review.

  4. Nick Johnson January 27, 2017 at 10:14 am #

    Support workers offer a great addition to the work – it was a Family Support Worker who first recognised the injuries to Jasmine Beckford

  5. Catherine J Hunter January 27, 2017 at 5:05 pm #

    This is not a good move in my opinion. Let’s not underestimate the social work profession. We did not undergo training for nothing. Support Workers main function is to support Social workers and not to lead and manage cases. I believe Support Workers have an important role to play and I am not undermining their skills. Thresholds in CIN cases typically have an tendency to go up and down. Support Workers may not recognise some of the signs for escalation. They would have to be closely guided and supervised. If anything were to go wrong who would they blame.

  6. Ms C Steele January 27, 2017 at 10:52 pm #

    I’ve been a support worker within the LA for over 10 years now and have far more experience than many of the newly qualified social workers coming in. I hold my own case load and support the social workers with their case loads. It works well. No one is underestimating the social work professional and they will always be needed for statutory work but please also don’t underestimate the value of support workers in ensuring that social workers case loads are manageable and families receive the correct level of support for their need.

  7. Drew January 29, 2017 at 9:25 pm #

    This sounds like a good way of ensuring children are being seen and the local authority is aware and involved. This wasn’t always happening in Peterborough. Obviously in an ideal world where there were lots of skills social workers it would be fantastic and no need for this kind of approach but it isn’t that way hense nearly every LA in the land trying to recruit on and ongoing basis.

  8. paul owen January 30, 2017 at 10:19 am #

    We’ve had non-qualified workers holding cases for many years, I’ve been here for 16+ and there have always been non-qualified workers, Look up Social Work Assistants, Assistant Care Managers etc. A large proportion of qualified workers began as SWA or ACMs and then went on to qualify. Some of those who began as SWA and Family Aides are now qualified and in senior management positions.

    I’m rather fed up with qualified staff putting down our current non-qualified colleagues, some of whom are holding 36+ cases. I do wonder how many of the writers have been in the profession for any length of time and I do fully agree with Mrs Steele regarding the knowledge of the longer term non-qualified workers. It’s far from unusual for the newly qualified workers to ask the ‘support staff’ for advice. It should also be noted that there has been a huge turnover of qualified staff, in my area it’s around 85% with many posts being held by agency or newly qualified people.

    Catherine, no one underestimates the social work profession (other than Ofted, EHCP and the government). However as per my earlier comment, non-qualified workers have held cases for years and have done a fantastic job. Regarding the qualifications, I know of ‘non-qualified workers’ who have undertaken, NVQ 3 and 4, Access, BTECH HNC/HND and Counselling Diploma, they may not have the full Social work degree but have a huge wealth of experience and knowledge. Regarding escalation and changes in cases, that’s what Signs of Safety, Mapping and supervision (if you can get any) is for.

    Rosaline. Why is this a ‘worry’. Until Ofsted etc decided that CIN cases should be held by qualified workers it was a standard procedure that CIN (and LAC/CLA) cases would be held by SWA workers while the qualified staff worked the CP and Court cases. Of the cases that involved child death/major injury, as far as I am aware, all were held by qualified staff.

    Ecclesiastes 1:9

  9. Lucy B January 31, 2017 at 10:25 pm #

    I work for a LA where we have a really robust support team for our SW’s. Our teams are not called support staff but offer that role, many of them have so much to offer to compliment the whole team, a vast range of knowledge, knowledge of local areas, families, cultures and complicating factors. They have less turnover in their team and are often the constant factor for families. I think that with support and guidance from SW’s they deliver a service that is rightly outstanding. Families benefit from more time spent with them helping them to problem solve and making decisions so that they are less dependent on professionals in the future. Our team, certainly does not undervalue the SW profession, but compliments it with some amazing skills and knowledge. We access amazing training and have 4 weekly SV following signs of safety…. it works WELL!

  10. Ruth Cartwright February 1, 2017 at 12:33 pm #

    I remember Family Support workers 30 years ago! They need to have good training and support and access to social work expertise. Most of the ones I worked with were very good and could recognise danger signs when a situation needed a social worker to become involved – this is vital. They should also be well paid for the level of responsibility they hold. The risk is that some support workers do not refer on when appropriate or do not feel able to do so because of workload pressures. It should be really clear what is a support worker’s province and what is a social worker’s and the SW profession should not be diminished. However this can be a difficult balance to strike and some employers may think this is a cheap way of getting support which really should be covered by SWs. This has happened to quite an extent in adult services.

  11. Jacqui February 1, 2017 at 3:40 pm #

    I have worked under Nicola when she was at my LA and she was very supportive of the children’s practitioners, as we call them here. The people who are worried about it are not thinking about the excellent levels of experience and qualifications that we have, and there are a lot of SW’s who are worse at their job than unqualified workers, some of whom have lots of experience. I have been in this job for over 12 years now and still love it, but when you get people that think they are better than others it gets my goat.
    Why would we not recognize any concerning signs?? Why would we not report them and take the action needed? We don’t need a SW degree to do that.
    There are good and bad in each level of worker, but don’t dismiss us all just because we don’t have that piece of paper.