Scotland joins social work employers with creative answers to skills crisis

The Scottish executive’s offer to reimburse up to £9,000 in
student loans for some social work graduates emphasises the lengths
government is being forced to go to address the recruitment and
retention crisis in social services.

In a sector that has traditionally lacked creativity in attracting
staff, the reimbursement plan could lead to other councils thinking
more innovatively about how to tackle the problem.

The plan, devised by the executive’s social work development team,
has been welcomed by the profession since it was unveiled at the
end of last month, with only a few reservations regarding its

Under the scheme, money will be given to social workers who take up
a post in the worst-affected specialties: children’s services,
mental health and criminal justice. A £3,000 payment will be
made when a social worker takes up their first position. A further
£3,000 will follow at the end of the first year in that post
and a final £3,000 sum will be paid at the end of the second

The other key parts of the plan -Êpiloting a fast-track system
for graduates with other relevant degrees to retrain as social
workers, and a “return to practice” scheme to encourage trained
staff back into the profession -Êhave also been well

“This is a first for Scotland,” an executive spokesperson says of
the scheme, which will be introduced in June 2004. “It will apply
to all graduates completing social work training from that date,
including students currently studying for the social work diploma
as long as they are not studying through an employer-based route.
We hope that it will make social work courses more attractive to

The scheme has excited considerable interest south of the border.
David Behan, president of the Association of Directors of Social
Services, calls the reimbursement plan “interesting and

“Any measure taken to attract a higher quality of graduate is to be
welcomed,” he says.

The director of the British Association of Social Workers, Ian
Johnston, welcomes the scheme, but is concerned that £9,000
will not be enough to attract quality graduates.

“We are an international embarrassment because of our recruitment
problems. The people in the job today are not at the professional
level that we would like to see. The reimbursement scheme works out
at £3,000 annually, which is not a lot nowadays.”

Nora Dudley, an over-11s team social worker at Bracknell social
services in Berkshire, remembers the hard life students led
studying social work at the University of Sheffield.

“I remember one of the students on my course dropping out because
she had to work a night shift to keep herself afloat financially.
She then tried to attend lectures in the morning. The reimbursement
scheme will allow students to give a higher level of commitment to
their course,” Dudley says.

However, she is unsure about the proviso that students will qualify
for a reimbursement only if they find work in areas of severe

“There should be no restrictions. This part of the scheme does not
do it any favours. What happens if you have to relocate to find one
of these jobs? Will that expense be covered?” she asks.

Another former student, Nik Flavell, who is a social worker in a
duty and referral team at Sunderland Council, praises the
reimbursement scheme and says local authorities should follow suit.

“All credit to the Scottish executive but in general the profession
relies on a small pool of goodwill. There are far easier and less
painful ways to make a living,” he says.

“Prospective social workers must be offered other incentives such
as help with housing costs. Why not offer guaranteed mortgages? The
problem with local authorities is that they are short-sighted and
do not show creativity and flexibility in recruitment and

Flavell thinks south east England has been the most proactive
region in developing ways to attract social workers from other
areas because of the higher cost of living there.

In November last year, Hampshire Council launched a scheme offering
a recruitment bonus of £3,000 for qualified social workers
with more than five years’ experience. A “golden hello” of
£2,000 was made available for those with more than three
years’ experience and £1,000 for those with up to three years’

“We also launched a starter home initiative,” says Helen Dunn,
personnel recruitment adviser at Hampshire. “We were granted equity
loans of £10,000 through the government’s starter home
initiative for 13 social workers we planned to recruit to help them
buy their first home.” The council also launched a job relocation

Dunn admits that £10,000 may not go far in buying a house in
south east England and, although the starter home scheme has
generated a lot of interest, its success has been “variable”. But
she is undaunted by this.

“Local authorities have to be creative,” she says. “This is a
competitive market place; you must compete against other

Tower Hamlets Council in east London has launched schemes to
recruit social workers from the Bangladeshi and Somalian
communities, while Kent Council is taking on local people to train
as social workers.

Faced with a 40 per cent vacancy rate in 1999, Kent improved its
salary and training packages to boost recruitment and retention
among qualified professionals.

It then advertised in the county for local people -Êmainly
graduates -Êto enrol on a “ready for practice” scheme which
would train them to become social workers over four years.

They received a bursary and salary while training and, of the 1,000
applicants, 62 have completed the course and a further 30 have been
recruited to start this year.

Kent’s vacancy rate has now dropped to just 4 per cent, says
director of social services Peter Gilroy.

“If you take the whole system and not just a bit of it and look at
the culture and staff development you start to have an impact,” he

Derbyshire Council recruited 20 new social workers last year as a
result of a campaign it launched in October 2001.

It repeated the drive last October and is hoping to recruit 30
people this year.

Under a bursary scheme, students, are given £1,000 in each of
their final two terms if they commit themselves to work for
Derbyshire for two years as a social worker. The council has also
introduced flexible time for social workers.

The Department of Health has also recently taken steps to encourage
more students to choose social work through the new England and
Wales bursary scheme.

From September 2003, the scheme, worth £3,000 a year, will be
available to existing and new students of the Diploma in Social
Work as well as those studying the new three-year degree programme.

The department is also commissioning research to identify what is
needed to attract and retain the right people to work in social
care. Part of this will be to identify the reasons why some
students leave.

One thing does seem certain: good practice is transferable and,
with the pressures on recruiting public sector workers unlikely to
go away, the need to think laterally on recruitment will continue
to grow.

“We should be like magpies in this industry -Êwhen we see a
good idea we should steal it,” Behan says. “Once, local authorities
may have been stodgy and static but they are becoming more

“Applications for social work courses were up 8 per cent in 2002
[on 2001] so there are some green shoots here.”

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