Like many social workers with a few years’ experience Julie Rooke was looking around for a more senior position. But she faced a dilemma: should she go into management and lose the frontline work with families that she loved? Or should she stay in her current role, stuck with the same pay and status?
While she was mulling over her decision Rooke heard that Hackney Council in east London was introducing the post of consultant social worker. She successfully applied and joined the council in January.
“What drew me to the role was the opportunity to continue to do direct work with families while I would gain management experience and have much more influence over decision-making,” says Rooke.
Hackney has radically redesigned its children’s services, abolishing social work teams where groups of social workers are presided over by a team manager. Now, social workers are organised in units, comprising a consultant social worker, a qualified social worker, a children’s practitioner (who may or may not have a social work qualification), a family therapist and an all-important unit co-ordinator who provides administrative back-up.
Rule book torn up
Steve Goodman, deputy director of children and young people’s services, has torn up the rulebook on how social workers are organised, with about 100 people joining Hackney’s children’s services over the last 18 months and the same number leaving.
“In the last 25 years social workers have been organised into teams,” he says. “You have a team manager responsible for supervising six or seven social workers. That team manager was making a lot of the decisions for quite complex cases with no real knowledge of the families.”
Goodman adds that he wants social workers to escape the spread of bureaucracy: “I looked at it from the local and national perspective. I’m very clear that social work in this country is moving in the wrong direction. I wanted to do something here that rescued social work and social workers from the increasingly bureaucratic environment they were expected to operate in.
“What we have done is create an environment where good social workers can flourish. Consultant social workers have a lot of personal and professional responsibility.”
While Rooke has more decision-making responsibility than in previous roles, she says that her job is now more collaborative. “I’m working with a small group of people and there’s a real sense of shared decision-making,” she says. “Myself, the social worker and children’s practitioner meet every week and we talk about our cases. There’s a real sense of shared commitment with everyone having a responsibility to these families.”
Rooke reports to a group manager with whom she discusses major decisions such as initiating care proceedings. But she now has financial responsibility for up to £500 and can make decisions such as initiating a child protection investigation or referring a client to a particular service. She clearly relishes her role and believes it is one that other authorities could copy.
“Hackney is a model that other councils should follow. Something really good is happening here – there’s a real buzz,” she says.
Hackney and other authorities, such as Hammersmith and Fulham, which last month introduced a position of principal social worker, are blazing a trail which the Children’s Workforce Development Council is now following. The CWDC has written to all children’s services directors in England to ask for their views on plans to create an advanced social worker status across all authorities. Plans are very much in the embryonic stages and questions include whether the advanced practitioner role should be related to a qualification or status whether it should be based on nationally set expectations how best to pilot the idea and what it would mean for individuals to undertake such a role.
Eleni Ioannides, vice chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services workforce development policy committee, welcomes the proposed formalisation of advanced social worker roles and says the plans will help authorities retain skilled and committed social workers and give them a clearer career trajectory.
“It will help to retain skills at the frontline and offer enhanced supervision and support to less experienced workers, in addition to that offered through more traditional line management arrangements,” she says. She adds that applying national standards and expectations to the post will ensure quality assurance: “Some advanced status workers may later develop into managers in a more confident way having developed their supervision skills. The status should also assist in continuing to enhance the perception of social work as a professional career.”
Sharon Scott is one of 10 people who recently took up principal social worker posts, on salaries between £39,000 and £42,000, at Hammersmith and Fulham Council. She agrees that roles such as these support social work’s professionalisation.
Her role is split with 70% of her time dedicated to working with families, and 30% spent on policy implementation and service development. The council says the new role, part of a broader career pathways restructure, will increase stability and supervision within social work teams.
Scott has six years’ experience as a social worker but did not feel she was ready to take on a full team manager’s role.
“The principal social worker role allows you to take on a bit more responsibility but you still have the protection of the team manager. The good thing about this role is that the pay is good and that’s something that needs to be recognised. As a principal social worker you have to manage complex casework as well as mentoring other social workers and the pay has to reflect that.”
She also believes that her role gives social workers on the rung below her something to aspire to. Scott’s colleague Yorleny Rojas believes that such posts will retain experienced and skilled social workers who might look elsewhere – she was considering returning to her native Miami.
“It’s a link between being a social worker and management. I really enjoy the frontline work with children, but I also like the opportunity to see how decisions are made and having more input in those decisions from the frontline,” says Rojas.
While the idea of advanced practitioner roles is developing in children’s services it is also gaining a foothold in adults’ services. Skills for Care is looking at different roles for social workers, including consultant practitioner roles and it hopes to publish findings from this exploratory work in the autumn. As in children’s services some authorities have already introduced advanced social worker posts but there has been no national guidance.
The interim statement on the adult social care workforce strategy, published by the Department of Health last month, made no mention of advanced practitioner status specifically but Bernard Walker, co-chair of the workforce development network for the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, hopes that such a role may eventually emerge from it. He agrees that the introduction of an advanced social worker role is overdue and believes a national framework would help authorities in their workforce development policies.
“Social work as an occupation needs to look at the experience of teaching and nursing where there have been clear incentives for people to remain in practice and specialise. It’s an issue we haven’t really grasped over the past 30 years,” he says. “The more experienced you are and the better trained you are, the better you are going to be at your job. Some of the things that social workers get involved with now as a result of personalisation will require a higher level of skill, particularly the emphasis on safeguarding and risk management.”
He does not believe it would necessarily be a costly option for authorities.
“If you have experienced people remaining in practice it may well reduce the number of managerial levels. It’s not about paying everyone more to do the same work. It’s about paying people more for their increased skills,” he says.
Back at Hackney, Steve Goodman believes that merely introducing a new senior grade is not enough to improve social work. “There’s no point having an advanced social worker post unless you change the whole system. You don’t improve professional social work simply by adding more layers.”
This article is published in the 17 July issue of Community Care magazine under the headline “Better off at the frontline”
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