Unsung heroes

    Today Community Care and the Local Government
    Association launch a national campaign to improve the image of
    social work.Terry Philpot explains why it is necessary and how it
    may help recruitment, while on the following pages key figures from
    social care tell us what they believe is needed to solve the
    problems of recruitment and retention.

    What do social workers do? It’s well-worn question and the
    problem for most people in answering it may well be one reason why
    social work is such an easy target for the media and politicians.
    But, of course, as we know, social workers help people, they work
    with people, they empower, enable, act as gatekeepers, facilitate
    and create networks. Alas, not one of these phrases is intelligible
    to anyone but the insider.

    Everyone knows what teachers and nurses do without explanation –
    we have all been to school or have children at school, we have all
    used the health service. And while it is difficult to find a
    sympathetically portrayed social worker on TV, let alone a series
    based on the job, hospitals and blackboards (not to mention squad
    cars) fill our screens.

    But let’s look at it another way. Social work is full of good,
    human stories: the young person in care, an elderly person living
    at home, an unaccompanied refugee child, a child in danger of
    sexual abuse, someone with a mental health problem, someone
    stealing to feed a drug habit or the parents of a disabled child.
    They are just the kind of stories that the public need to know to
    understand the day-to-day realities behind the professional jargon.
    And they will know them because this week Community Care
    and the Local Government Association is launching “You can make a
    difference”, a campaign to raise public awareness about social
    work.

    Community Care has funded a series of eight posters.
    They are based on the stories of people like those mentioned above,
    telling how social work improved their lives. There is also a
    leaflet about what a useful and satisfying career social work can
    be and a website. There is also a helpline number provided by the
    Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work.

    The posters and leaflets are being sent to all English and Welsh
    social services departments (half the material going to Wales is in
    Welsh). All the councils have to do is to ensure that the posters
    are displayed and the leaflets distributed in places to which they
    have access – libraries, area offices, day centres, municipal
    offices, universities, schools and six form colleges, health
    centres and so on.

    The campaign intends not only to tell the public what social
    workers do but also to influence young people at school or
    university to think that it might be the career for them. We hope,
    too, that it will make others consider a career change or those who
    have left the profession think about returning to it. It would let
    practitioners see that their work is not only appreciated but that
    someone is actually saying so.

    Public awareness (and appreciation) of social work cannot be
    divorced from the more particular problem of recruitment and
    retention. It is particularly acute in London and the south east,
    but difficulties in staffing children’s services are reported
    almost everywhere. The average vacancy rate nationally for social
    workers is 15.9 per cent.

    Almost two thirds of social services departments report
    recruitment difficulties. The turnover rate for social workers is
    15.4 per cent. The independent sector is also affected, although
    its staff turnover is lower.

    Social work is sitting on its own demographic timebomb.
    Applications for places on social work courses are falling. Less
    than 5 per cent of social workers are under 25 years of age, and in
    most settings a high proportion are in their fifties – 7 per cent
    of child care staff are in their sixties. The average social worker
    is the same person whom the Barclay report identified as long ago
    as 1982 – a woman in her forties.

    As our female social worker, with her 18 per cent of male
    colleagues who make up the workforce, moves nearer retirement, her
    son or daughter is not thinking of following in her footsteps.

    There are numerous reasons why social work seems unattractive –
    high house prices in London and the south east affect it as much as
    nursing and teaching; media antipathy has been shown to be a matter
    of concern to workers; graduates can be attracted to better
    salaries and conditions in the commercial sector.

    So, what next? The Department of Health, whose minister of state
    John Hutton launches the campaign today, is carrying out its own
    research into the recruitment crisis. As a next step the department
    may consider a recruitment campaign. That’s a far cry from the
    official view not so long ago when the DoH was shrugging its
    shoulders and saying that they could not embark on such a campaign
    because they did not employ social workers. But the government did
    launch a campaign for a group they do not employ – teachers. The
    police are currently benefiting from the £7 million Home
    Secretary Jack Straw put into a recruitment campaign.

    A DoH campaign would be a strong indicator that the government
    not only takes the recruitment crisis seriously but also accords
    the same seriousness to social work as a valued public service. It
    would be saying what today’s campaign is telling the passengers on
    omnibuses from Clapham to Carlisle, Tiverton to Tonypandy – social
    workers do make a difference.

    The website for the campaign is www.community-care.co.uk/careers

    Your profession needs you

    • Contact your director and find out who your authority’s
      champion is and ask what you can do to help.
    • Get copies of the posters and leaflets and display them.
    • Ask non-local authority colleagues and contacts for display
      space.

     

    What is needed to crack the recruitment and retention
    problem in social care?

    Moira Gibb, president of Association of Directors of
    Social Services

    “What are the prospects?” a young person on the threshold of
    choosing a career in social work might ask. Some of the responses
    that might spring to mind are: “a job that people don’t value any
    more; a constantly critical press and at worst the possibility of
    being individually featured in the wake of a tragedy; few perks;
    the likelihood of attracting abuse and violence; a cog in the wheel
    of a large organisation; low pay.”

    These are the characteristics and perceptions which must change
    if we are to reverse the decline in the numbers of people wanting
    to enter the profession and retain the skills and morale of those
    already qualified. Service jobs in the public sector have always
    been relatively poorly paid when compared to positions needing
    equivalent abilities in the private sector, but the gap in pay is
    widening and front-line workers, in particular, need to be better
    rewarded in recognition of the demands of the job.

    Nothing speaks louder than financial remuneration as a measure
    of how much the job is valued. Social services staff ought also to
    be included in incentive schemes, like those offering help with
    starter homes for key public sector workers and subsidised child
    care options.

    In the past, vocational jobs like teaching and social work, were
    seen as making a valuable contribution and had some credibility as
    career choices in themselves, which acted as a counter-balance to
    low pay. Social work is now routinely undermined in the media,
    though paradoxically the product is in high demand. We need to be
    better at explaining the positive outcomes, the value and
    complexity of what we do and we need others in the media to be
    persuaded to present that neglected picture.

    A corollary of the low public esteem in which social work is
    held, is the increase in abuse and violence to which workers are
    subjected. There must be a concerted effort to implement the
    findings of the task force on violence towards social care staff
    and ensure that operational managers see this a priority and not a
    side issue under the heading of “health and safety”. The threat of
    violence is hugely inhibiting and is a significant factor in
    subverting good practice.

    In a profession which is so labour and skills intensive, it
    follows that staff are the greatest asset. We need to improve our
    human resources policy and practice to demonstrate that we believe
    this. Only when all these measures are in place will current staff
    feel valued and will we be able to say to potential entrants: “you
    are the strongest link – hello”.

    Ian Johnston director, British Association of Social
    Workers

    I have high hopes that the very positive sentiments expressed by
    John Hutton about social work and social care in recent weeks will
    be echoed by his colleagues throughout the government. Social care
    workers need to be, and feel, valued to give of their best. Young
    people will not consider a career in a profession which is
    portrayed so negatively in the media. There is absolutely no doubt
    that politicians have contributed to the view that we invariably
    get it wrong.

    An unhelpful view that has persisted for many years is that it
    is inappropriate for young people to enter the social work
    profession until they have had some sort of life experience. We now
    believe that this belies the fact that today’s young people have
    very sophisticated views of the world and an understanding of the
    complex nature of human relationships along with the energy and
    motivation to address these.

    While some young people interested in a career in social work
    are prepared to wait until their early twenties to start, many
    others will by then have secured their future in another
    occupation. We believe that the government could usefully establish
    longer training courses which enable young people to develop a
    broad based set of skills in conjunction with professional social
    work training.

    The increasing emphasis on gatekeeping and social control
    activities such as child protection and the application of
    eligibility criteria for services have also discouraged people from
    entering the profession. This has gone hand in hand with the
    erosion of traditional counselling and community development skills
    which are much more popular with clients. The limited opportunity
    to work in a preventive way has exacerbated this trend. I would
    like to see a return to a more balanced workload.

    A review of the secondary education curriculum to identify
    subjects that promote social care issues and values along with
    investment in information about social care careers would also be
    helpful. BASW’s agenda includes:

    • better pay, working conditions, career development
      opportunities, family-friendly employment policies;
    • flexible working arrangements; amendments to pension
      entitlements that encourage part-time working grants for people
      re-entering the profession along with special retraining
      opportunities;
    • a reinstatement of trainee social worker arrangements; n
      secondment schemes that enable mature students to retain their
      salary whilst undertaking training;
    • additional and more flexible distance learning arrangements
      along with a requirement for all social work training courses to
      enable all students to complete the training on a modular basis;
      and
    • the waiving of tuition fees for social work students.

    Owen Davies, national officer, Unison

    Why do fewer and fewer people want to work in jobs in social
    care? This question has regularly been asked in recent months. The
    answer is staring us in the face but it’s beginning to look as
    though avoiding the truth is becoming a national pastime. Seminars,
    taskforces, working groups, and soon a second “workforce summit”
    called by John Hutton – have all been organised to identify causes
    and suggest solutions.

    Given what Unison members have been saying for a number of
    years, it is difficult to forgive those who have only woken up to
    the problem so late in the day. And it’s a bit tempting to remind
    them of all the missed opportunities over the years.

    Unison members point to two fundamental causes for the crisis –
    poor pay and poor image. Rubbishing social workers, always looking
    for scapegoats rather than explanations when things went wrong, was
    one of the hallmarks of the last two decades. While over-stressed
    staff tried to keep services running in ever more under-staffed and
    under-resourced workplaces, they had the extra burden of knowing
    that, if something went wrong, they could expect no sympathy, no
    understanding of their difficulties.

    They could count on a witch-hunt and cheap headlines from
    newspapers more interested in a scandal than a cure. Is it really a
    surprise that fewer people are now choosing social work as a
    career, that people prefer to work in leisure centres than in
    children’s homes?

    And to justify the cuts in council funding, we were treated to
    an endless stream of anti-public sector propaganda. It came from
    central government figures who claimed to know how to make local
    government more efficient while they were cooking up the poll tax,
    privatising the railways, and coming up with an endless stream of
    “big ideas”, each more disastrous than the last.

    And the big idea for social care, Compulsory Competitive
    Tendering – turning over services to the private sector – did not
    improve quality. CCT just made care cheaper by cutting the wages of
    the workers who provided that care. So why are we now surprised
    that people choose jobs on the supermarket checkout where they earn
    more than they can working in low-paid home care services?

    So Unison’s answer is that we must fund a big increase in the
    wages paid to all social care workers, whether employed in the
    public, private or voluntary sectors. High quality services can not
    be provided on the cheap.

    Sue Banks, Clare Jeeves, Andy Tocher, Trevor
    Edinborough, (final year students, Nottingham Trent University: BA
    Social Work/DipSW Programme)

    Anticipated financial problems put off potential applicants,
    particularly mature practitioners, with family responsibilities.
    This reduces the diversity of entrants to the profession.

    Successful applicants have to budget for a loss of earnings of
    between £40-£50,000 over the three-year programme.
    Students face an end of course debt of about £12,000. The
    ability of standard university students to offset debt by working
    is restricted for social work students because of the requirement
    to work full time on placements

    Students feel dismayed that they spend time on placement, in
    multi-disciplinary settings, with police officers, nurses,
    probation officers – all of whom receive funding whilst training.
    At the end of the course, apart from the burden of debt, newly
    qualified students face professional uncertainty, a social services
    sector undergoing constant revision and reorganisation, chronic
    staff shortages, excessive workloads, and a poor public image
    within a blame culture. The question of how the public regard
    social work is as important an issue as money: statements of
    confidence have been conspicuously lacking from this government,
    and the previous administration. The public have never been asked
    if they remember a good social worker!

    The first solution would be to establish a clear National
    Training Strategy that acknowledges comparisons between social work
    and the police, nursing, teaching and probation in terms of access,
    opportunities and support for those in training.

    Secondly, there must be a level playing field between the
    graduate and undergraduate routes to qualification in terms of
    financial support, bursaries, tuition fees, car allowances.

    Thirdly, professional social work courses must be exempt from
    tuition fees: a minor loss of income for the government but a
    significant move in terms of widening access and opportunity.

    Students on placement should be paid – this would acknowledge
    that students contribute to the output of an agency and add to its
    effectiveness (such is the case with all sandwich courses or
    work-based placements in commercial and industrial programmes).
    This is standard practice in many European countries.

    Social work students are required to have access to personal
    transport, and need financial support to provide it

    All experienced practitioners should be required to offer
    student placements, with practice teaching a function of job
    descriptions and remuneration arrangements.

    Finally, a clear commitment is needed from government about the
    value of social work and social care, however organised and
    structured, as part of the Third Way vision of New Labour.

    Daphne Statham, National Institute for Social
    Work

    There is no magic wand that will sort the current crisis in
    recruiting social care staff. We have to look to a multi -layered
    strategy. There are three things we could start with. Most of the
    people in social care are over 30, and are women with family
    responsibilities. Funding arrangements for training that recognise
    this fact are essential as is having a range of patterns of
    training that fit the responsibilities of the workforce.

    The drop in applications for DipSW places has not happened in
    the work-based route being pioneered in Suffolk through its
    partnership with Unison and Ruskin College. The programme fits the
    workforce’s life patterns and commitments. Secondly, social care
    majors in “people skills that are highly valued in service
    industries where the capacity to forge a high quality relationship
    with the customer in brief encounters is central to good
    business”.

    Skills in relationship, process and working in a holistic way
    are also valued by service users. They have acquired a status in
    policies for health, housing and neighbourhood regeneration. NISW’s
    workforce studies found a high commitment among social care staff.
    The key to retention and to encouraging people to return is
    managing to keep this commitment and structuring the job so that
    people are doing what they are good at and trained for.

    Social care staff are concerned that they usually have just 15
    minutes to see service users – not much can be done about their
    sense of social well-being in that time. The time social workers
    spend in direct contact with service users has decreased from about
    33 per cent to about 20 per cent over the past 15 years.

    Finally, something has to be done about the political and media
    climate. The National Task Force on Violence found that many social
    care staff thought that the brick bats they got from this direction
    “softened them up for violence”. This climate is hardly likely to
    encourage recruitment at times when the competition is tough.

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