When Ofsted branded West Berkshire’s children’s services ‘inadequate’ two years ago it pointed to the council’s struggle to recruit and retain social workers as a major problem.
Turnover was high across the services but the instability was worst in child protection, where half of the social workers and managers were agency staff. Inspectors found the churn was damaging for children, with the constant change of social workers delaying progress on cases and making it hard for families to build up trusting relationships with staff.
The council urgently needed solutions. How could it get its name out there as a place social workers would want to work?
Months after Ofsted’s verdict West Berkshire announced it would offer a £15,000 bonus to social workers who joined and stayed with its child protection teams for three years. The size of the retention payment, thought to be a record in social work, hit the headlines. The council could consider its name well and truly out there.
Ofsted returned to monitor the council’s progress in December. The results of that visit, published last month, praised the improved stability in child protection teams – with agency rates down to 17% in October 2016.
So are large cash bonuses the solution to the social worker recruitment and retention issues facing councils across the country?
Not quite, says Rachael Wardell, West Berkshire’s director of people. She points out that the retention bonuses haven’t been paid out on yet – the first payments are due later this year – and they were far from the only changes the council made to improve stability.
“Those were the really eye-catching headlines, but the whole package was much broader. We reviewed our parking and care allowances, we reviewed our hotdesking policy,” she says.
“There was lots of practical stuff around what our social workers need, what the rewards and benefits look like, how we tend to them as employees.”
Another new policy saw West Berkshire offer existing social workers with three years’ service a two-month paid sabbatical to help combat burnout. Supervision was also improved so that social workers had access to clinical supervision. On top of regular sessions with their line manager, staff could also bring in support from outside line management arrangements and access the principal social worker to provide additional support.
These changes built on efforts that were already in track when Ofsted visited back in 2015, such as the council’s decision to set up a social work academy for newly qualified social workers.
This gave new social workers a protected first six months in a special team to work on active cases, a move Wardell says helps them gradually build their skill, confidence and caseloads before joining regular teams.
Then there were the retention bonuses. The payments were only offered to social workers moving into four child protection teams. Practitioners working in adults services or other children’s teams didn’t qualify.
Wardell acknowledges the decision led to difficult conversations: “I just had to hold the line and say – these are the roles that are the most challenging, that we struggled to keep people in, and if you want these benefits you need to do those roles.”
One change she feels has already had a noticeable impact is the offer of sabbaticals. The break is unconditional – a social worker is free to do whatever they want with it. The only outcome the council wants is that they come back refreshed.
Wardell says social workers who’ve taken up the offer have been noticeably energised by the break, although the improved staff support on offer in services means some practitioners haven’t felt the need as they “don’t feel at all burnt out”.
“What it suggests is – if you haven’t got the supervision, team management arrangements and all of the other factors in place, then your staff will say they are really worried about burnout and they might need a break. Whereas if you’ve got those things in place actually people are able to practice safely, confidently and not burn out.”
Ofsted’s monitoring report found the increasing stability in the council’s workforce was supporting practice improvement. The reduction in turnover of managers had strengthened monitoring of cases and the regularity and quality of supervision.
Wardell says the council is now in a far better place to deliver “really good relationship-based work”. She says the proportion of children and families who’ve worked with one or two social workers, rather than several, has doubled since Ofsted’s visit in 2015 and progress is being seen in other areas too.
“We’re seeing more reunifications; we are seeing more children coming off of plans sooner. We are seeing a reduction, which is bucking the national trend, in our numbers of looked-after children,” she says.
“You cannot say that’s directly related to the stability of social workers, but it’s interesting that those areas have improved at the same time as stability. I think a lot of that effective, close work with children and families builds on a stable relationship between the social worker and the family.”
As for the retention bonuses strategy, the true test will come when the minimum three year period social workers committed to comes to an end. Last year it was revealed some staff who claimed a similar retention bonus in Manchester, this time involving a one-year commitment, left within months of it being paid. Is Wardell concerned about the same happening in West Berkshire?
“Doing it over three years rather than just one does enable you to put all of the other things in place and at that point we hope people would say ‘I’ve developed a commitment to the local authority, to my colleagues, I feel well supported’,” she says.
She concedes there’s no guarantees and some social workers may leave. But feedback staff gave to Ofsted during the recent monitoring visit, and in a peer review the authority carried out last summer, gives her cause for optimism.
“One of our social workers was quoted as saying ‘I’ve never felt so safe at work’. That sort of thing money can’t buy. You can’t pretend it’s there when it isn’t, but once your social workers feel they are in a safe environment, it will take more than just money to entice them away,” she says.
“If you want to keep your staff you need to think about it from the right perspectives. You need to start with what stability means for children and families and to understand that you’re seeking people who want to commit to building relationships. You need to listen to what your staff tell you about what will keep them or what will drive them away. It isn’t just a money thing, it absolutely is a full suite of things.”
While West Berkshire is taking the first steps in its improvement journey, the speed of which the workforce has stabilised suggests Wardell and her colleagues might be on to something.