Pay rise not solution to social work problems at strike-hit council, says new chief

Social workers would not choose a pay rise over manageable caseloads, good supervision, a good team environment and the ability to do good social work, a DCS has said

Photo: md3d/Fotolia

The new director of children’s services in Kirklees has said paying social workers more money will not fix the council’s problems.

Steve Walker, who was appointed to the role in July as part of an improvement partnership arrangement with Leeds where he is also DCS, told Community Care he shared Unison’s concerns about working conditions and both parties needed to agree a timescale for reforms.

Kirklees has been in a prolonged dispute with Unison since its children’s services were judged to be ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted last November. This culminated in a two-day strike last month.

Unison has said pay for social workers is one of its lead concerns.

In January a Unison steward and social worker in Kirklees claimed staff in the council were “among the lowest paid in the Yorkshire and Humber region”.

Other issues raised by the union were caseloads, supervision and high numbers of agency staff. It recently threatened that social workers would strike again in September if improvements hadn’t been made.

Walker and Erin Hill, the council’s lead for children’s services, said that while the council would look at how much social workers are paid in Kirklees, increasing pay is rarely the solution.

Walker said: “If it was just as simple as offering more money, I think Kirklees would have been full of lots of social workers, but they have tried that in other authorities that have been in trouble and it has not solved the problem.”

He said a social worker would not leave a job with a manageable caseload, good supervision, a good team environment, a good career pathway and “the pleasure of doing good social work every day” to go to an authority without those things for “£3-£4,000 a year” more.

Hill added: “Its recruitment AND retention. Increasing pay by astronomic amounts may well attract people; it doesn’t necessarily follow that we would have got to the root of the problems around social work practice in Kirklees.

“It’s right that we look at it, just like we’ve looked at all things the union have raised with us in the past, but it’s not the only thing,” she said.

‘Done to’

Walker apologised for high senior staff turnover since Ofsted’s inspection, and said he and other members of staff seconded from Leeds would be in Kirklees to work on the improvement journey for the next two to three years, where he will spend two-and-a-half days a week in physically in the authority.

“I think there’s been an awful lot of interim leadership in Kirklees, [which] have ‘done to’ and have not worked with staff. The approach we have taken in Leeds is to work with staff,” Walker said.

He said the priority for the council would be establishing conditions for social workers to do best practice, invest in training and development for social workers, and work with staff to configure a new computer system.

Walker and Hill both said the problem to overcome with Unison is to agree a timescale for improvements now a settled senior leadership is in place.

“All of the issues we agree on. I absolutely get that we still have not seen the mammoth reduction in agency staff, yet we are seeing overall reductions in the number of agency staff. It will be a gradual process, what I don’t want to be doing is setting arbitrary timescales and declarations,” Walker said.


In Leeds, Walker oversaw the council’s journey to ‘good’ in 2015 from an ‘inadequate’ rating in 2010. He pointed to a recent example in West Berkshire where the authority went from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’ as another model to follow, but that took two years.

“There’s a real commitment to address [Unison’s] issues. I think what we need to do is sit down and agree with the union a timescale for doing that. Where we are really clear is what we want to do, and what we have been asked to do, is to help Kirklees come up with an improvement plan and strategy and then, whether Leeds are still directly involved or not, that is the plan which the authority is working to.

“That will include caseloads, it will be about good quality supervision and support, it will be about a good career structure, good training and development opportunities, having an IT system that works, all of those things,” Walker said.


Hill admitted “frustration” with Unison over a lack of clarity about what it wanted they want the council to do differently.

“It’s not the case that Unison have raised a series of issues that we dispute…are they valid? Certainly.”

“Occasionally it was the case that I wasn’t quite clear what Unison were asking us to do which we weren’t already, and perhaps that is where some of the frustration has arisen. I do think that the only solution to this is for us both to be more open with each other about how long things are going to take, about what we’re doing and what issues they have raised,” Hill said.

Walker said he hoped to avoid further industrial action by showing the progress the council had made. The formal improvement partnership with Leeds started after the July strike, and he added the council had secured funding for an improvement programme, and already bought in a new computer system.

“There are no quick wins, and I can absolutely accept and understand that we have been waiting a long time for things to get better, and I can only apologise for that. I am clear about the fact we now have the foundation from which to go forward. Now that we’re here it won’t make the winds any quicker, but it means where we will be is focused on the right stuff and we will do that with them,” Walker said.

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9 Responses to Pay rise not solution to social work problems at strike-hit council, says new chief

  1. Kim August 24, 2017 at 2:47 pm #

    I am somewhat in agreement although I believe on the whole that social workers are significantly underpaid for their role, responsibilities and daily tasks (which are constantly never ending). This needs to be addressed to retain social worker and to change the future of the profession.

    That said, having recently resigned from my position (following maternity leave) my primary reasons for not returning to social work is the unmanageable caseloads, constant red tape / bureaucracy (which often leads to children’s needs not being prioritised) and the complete lack of management support / oversight and good supervision. I feel very saddened to have left a profession that I worked so hard to get into! However, I now have to prioritise my child / family and unfortunately social work (in its current state and with its current demands) is not a profession that will support that.

    • JD August 24, 2017 at 5:06 pm #

      Paying more will not help the process driven way we are expected to work as opposed to having time to build effective relationships, but it is about the broader package and the need to significantly improve working conditions. This includes stopping the culture of blame and bullying when a SW cannot achieve all of the task on their caseloads when they are already working in excess of 50 hours per week.
      Perhaps one answer would be to pay a salary and overtime, because I understand most departments survive on unpaid overtime from fully committed, conscientious SW’s.
      Also stop the wasteful National Assessment And Accreditation of child and family SW’s and empower the SW to say No to excessive caseloads, No to an expectation to work unpaid overtime, No to the bullying culture, No to ….
      This is the way to enable SW’s to practise effectively!

  2. In the know August 24, 2017 at 6:09 pm #

    Kirklees social workers, like others in the region, constantly have Leeds shoved down their throats as the standard they should be striving to achieve. Leeds are the best payers. It is impossible not to make the connection. Truth be told, Leeds aren’t all that either.

  3. Terrier Agency August 25, 2017 at 10:40 am #

    There definitely should be some changes, considering the level of work social workers do.

  4. A Man Called Horse August 25, 2017 at 11:00 am #

    Pay absolutely rubbish for Social workers. There is no other job with that amount of responsibility that pays such poor pay. Also austerity is continuing with pay capped at 1% You want that to end get out and demonstrate. Understand that cuts will continue as the Tories have a mission to sink or shrink the state. They want a small public sector, low wages and desperate compliant workers. The Tories want low taxes and the victims of this are all around you. The next time I receive a referral about people living in poverty being a Safeguarding issue I will ask them to make the referral directly to the Tory Government. Stop taking rubbish from the Tories fight back and walk out if that is what it takes. I’ve said this before the Tories hate Social workers.

    Money might not solve all problems but its usually fat cats who say that who are used to cream.

  5. Paul August 25, 2017 at 1:59 pm #

    Pay by itself is not the solution but neither is it a barrier. In part the pay you get reflects the value that your employer has of you and the work you do. You are more likely to get better work conditions if your employer values you. It is also hypocritical of a director to comment on pay when they themselves will enjoy both better pay and better work conditions than the social workers whose pay they are determining.

  6. Jacqueline Johnston August 25, 2017 at 5:49 pm #

    Social Work is rapidly becoming a fiasco. There is absolutely no job satisfaction as there are too many barriers to “getting the job done”. A rise in wages would not change this but it may take Social Workers out of the feeling of being a second rate profession.

  7. jessie August 26, 2017 at 6:50 pm #

    Wonder what Mr Walker earns from both of his roles with Leedds and kirkleees? rich comeing from him whilst we struggle to meet our own personal needs?

  8. Kim August 29, 2017 at 5:07 pm #

    It is concerning that Steve Walker feels that the approach they have taken in Leeds is to ‘work with staff’. This was not my personal experience of Leeds in fact it was the complete opposite. I, along with many other colleagues, were berated and made to feel inadequate in respect of not being able to manage all the paperwork needed on caseloads as high as 60 in some cases and in my personal case 46 whilst management told unions that the caseloads were only 20! I, alongside other colleagues, were continually told that we were unable to write in a ‘timely manner’. There were no concerns about my work with family’s nor children, indeed I was commended on this, but because I found managing an unmanageable caseload impossible I was told that I was not effective as a Social Worker. Social Work has become more and more about writing reports and less and less about working with children. If we are unable to spend time working ‘with’ children and families I fail to see how we can possibly keep children and young people safe. This is a sad and sorry state of affairs I feel. My written work is good, I was told so, however it is impossible to write court reports, conference reports, meeting minutes, case notes, and assessments all at the same time. But, here is the thing, statistics are based on assessments being completed in timescales, it doesn’t matter that every other written work is completed, it matters that assessments are completed, and sadly if not all are then that is when workers are ‘weeded out’. What a sad and sorry state of affairs Social Work is. So much emphasis is put upon a written assessment that families are not even remotely interested in and some cannot even read or understand! What families and children need more than anything else is workers who actually work with them! Something needs to change because Social Work is going to hit a massive burn out. Workers work at night and weekends just to try and keep up! When are we all going to stand up and say NO MORE!