When Ofsted visited Shropshire’s children’s services, it found a council delivering a ‘good’ overall service and which had, despite some recruitment and retention challenges, demonstrated “effective workforce planning and development” which led to an “increasingly stable workforce”.
Inspectors praised a strong commitment to a learning culture, positive staff feedback and a comprehensive workforce strategy, which promoted social work professional development across all levels of experience.
The strategy was overseen by Siobhan Hughes, principal social worker for children in Shropshire.
“Sometimes local authorities can be in competition with each other in trying to attract social workers, so you think ‘We’ll put our wages up and that’s how we’ll get more people’. Our workforce strategy is [about] understanding who comes to work here, and who stays.”
A large part of the council’s success as identified by Ofsted was the workforce strategy, which Hughes says was developed alongside a list of practice priorities identified by an audit of social work practice.
For Hughes, the strategy for social workers is to get them all equipped with the skills around those priorities, which included knowledge around assessment, core groups and writing plans.
“We wanted to make sure we’d got opportunities for everyone to have a consistent level of skills and there [be] opportunities to expand your practice and knowledge and lift it up,” Hughes explains.
She says now the council has a solid ‘good’ baseline the opportunity is there for practitioners to begin to innovate.
“If you’ve got a specialist area, or you really want to understand knowledge, theory, and applying that to social work practice then you can have that opportunity,” Hughes explains.
Creating progression opportunities
From this point of getting safeguarding services to a good baseline, the important thing is showing social workers they have a future, Hughes explains.
In a council with a small number of social workers and managers, chances for progression are less than in other, bigger authorities, so Hughes says the council has created more practice educator posts, as well as more senior and advanced practitioner roles.
“If people want the opportunities to do something a wee bit different, we’re open to that,” she adds.
“We have good retention rates of people who have been with us as students. We have looked at how we create more opportunities for students…We are getting more practice educators and ensuring there are opportunities for student placements with us.
“If our students stay long term, that’s what we want, [so] once you get through your Assessed and Supported Year in Employment; how do we keep you within the organisation?”
These are all steps taken to show social workers they have a future inside the organisation but the “key” to retention, in Hughes’ eyes, is supervision.
“What people are saying back to us is that the opportunities for supervision are good; that’s important,” Hughes says.
The council operates a relationship-based social work model, and has recently launched a 4×4 model of supervision centred around reflective practice. However, its important for the council to be flexible: “Not every worker needs to be supervised the same, so you need to be able to supervise individually.”
The success of this has been backed up by Ofsted, which said – while further strengthening could be done – management oversight was “clearly evident through regular and effective formal supervision”.
Supporting social workers
For Hughes, it’s now about the future and supporting social workers. The council is involved with a raft of innovations – teaching partnerships, Frontline, Step Up To Social Work – and she hopes the council, and its relatively small number of staff, will continue to develop.
Service users are joining the council’s steering group to improve practice. The service ended the year running an impact project working with service user groups, and every manager up to the chief executive will be going on a visit with a social worker.
“We have very clear priorities and I think for any workforce or quality assurance strategy; there’s no point in trying to do too many things at once. If you focus on a few priorities and trying to do them well then you can move on to the others.”