Upsides to a social work career in Wales

Over the past five years Wales has made dramatic improvements in the areas of staff retention, practice placements and training for social workers. Rowenna Davis reports


Social services in Wales have been undergoing a quiet revolution. In 2005, the Garthwaite report highlighted the difficulties facing Welsh local authorities with low morale, poor retention rates and prolific use of agency staff. But since then they have improved results by developing their own innovative policies.

“The myth that everyone is leaving social work in droves because they’re unhappy isn’t true at all,” says Ellis Williams, lead director for workforce issues for the Association of Directors of Social Services (ADSS) Cymru. “Last year just 29 social workers [excluding retirees] in Wales left the profession out of a total of over 3,000.”

Although Wales is still subject to UK-wide legislation passed in Westminster, the strategic direction for social services has been devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government. The biggest difference between the two systems is that Wales has retained the concept of integrated social services rather than splitting children’s and adults’ care at local authority level.

“Where the position of the director of social services has been deleted in England, in Wales it’s been strengthened,” says Williams, who believes this gives social workers a stronger voice in the nation. “We thought it was important to maintain coherence.” He also says there is a “strong collaborative element in government with ADSS Cymru”, adding: “We are all part of one Wales.”

Vacancy rates halved

So far the system seems to be working. Average vacancy rates across Wales have halved to 7.7% since 2005 and latest figures show just 73 (whole-time equivalent) agency workers filling gaps in social services across the country. Wales has put in place a sophisticated national analysis system that monitors and predicts the number of social workers in operation, their career paths and council vacancy rates. This helps guide targeted investment.

There is also a clear expectation, as part of a deal with universities, that Welsh local authorities find practice placements for students while they are taking their degree, rather than it being left to the universities and students themselves to proactively search for opportunities. These placements are a guaranteed part of any course, and often lead to full-time employment.

Take Lucy Bagnall, a 23-year-old social worker at Bridgend in south Wales. After a bursary from the Care Council for Wales funded her degree and she’d completed her work placement, she was immediately offered a job at Bridgend and started working at the council three days before she officially graduated. Since then she feels she has been fully supported.

“I can’t even name all the training opportunities I’ve had,” she says. “I don’t feel overburdened, but I get experience. Seeing a child initially in a bad way and then getting settled is incredibly rewarding.

“Of course there are decisions to make that are really difficult – the other day we had to take a baby from a hospital because her mother couldn’t look after her – but the team here are understanding and supportive. We look after each other.”

University links

Links with local universities are maintained after recruitment. In the north of the country, Wrexham Council is working with its local university, Glyndwr, to provide fully funded postgraduate qualifications for all its social workers (see case study).

In addition, throughout Wales a new national training scheme is being introduced for all managers specifically responsible for frontline assessment and case management teams. A batch of 20 managers will start the course in May, followed by a second group in September and it’s expected that, in time, all frontline team managers will complete the qualification.

The country is also working on a nationally recognised career structure that allows social workers to progress to senior and consultant levels without having to leave frontline practice.

Such initiatives are attracting social workers from across the border, including Angela Watwood, who moved from Hampshire Council in 2009 to become head of community care commissioning at Pembrokeshire Council. “I wasn’t looking for a new job, but the more I looked into it the more excited I got,” she says. “Everyone at Pembrokeshire is supportive and interested, and the voluntary sector and the NHS work closely with social services. That’s the thing about Wales – being small, it’s extremely well networked.”

Pembrokeshire is piloting some interesting initiatives including Coastal – a European-funded project to help people from disadvantaged communities return to employment – and a Good Neighbour Scheme that encourages rural communities to support older people.

Other pioneering schemes are being introduced across the country. One example is intensive family support teams, which aim to reduce the risks of families with substance-misusing parents breaking up.

Meanwhile, social workers are expected to play a key role in a new shift of health funding from hospitals to the local community. With former social worker Geoffrey Pearson due to report on the future of social services over the next 10 years in November, progress in Wales looks set to continue.


Case study of a social worker

Marie LeBacq is the chief officer for safeguarding and support in Wrexham Council’s children and young people’s service.

I was born in England, and qualified as a social worker in 1981. I’ve had quite an unusual career, chopping and changing between research and practice. Then in 2007 I came to Wrexham as head of safeguarding, and after a year I was promoted to my present position, which is equivalent to assistant director in English authorities.

I decided to apply to Wrexham when a friend who had worked with the council said it was very supportive. I thought not speaking Welsh would be a problem but it wasn’t. We encourage and support social workers to learn the language. Sadly I still don’t speak it – although I’d like to. Social workers in England shouldn’t be put off.

It sounds obvious, but the most noticeable difference about Wales is that it’s smaller. That means it’s easy to build up a national picture quickly, and that all the local authorities, the Welsh Assembly and the key agencies can meet together regularly. It means people are more approachable, and consultation processes often have more engagement.

Wrexham is a relatively small authority of 130,000 people, right on the border with England. The town is very much the hub of the authority, which makes delivering services easier. The agencies are closer together and it is easier for families to access than other communities that are more widely spread.

There are plenty of opportunities to progress here too. We’re currently developing a post-qualifying certificate with our local university, Glyndwr. We’re hoping to offer all our social workers funding to take this qualification, which will be specifically designed to address areas of postgrad training. At Wrexham we’ve also introduced level 4 social workers, so once you’ve qualified for a few years you have the option of staying in practice or becoming a manager.

Wales is a great place to work, and Wrexham particularly so. People are approachable and open to new ideas. We’re used as a pilot authority for all sorts of things. We want to continue to provide opportunities for development work because we strongly believe in finding the best and most innovative ways of helping the people in our care.


Facts on Wales

● The population of Wales is approximately 2.98 million

● 37% of Wales’ population is aged over 50 (compared to 34% UK-wide). The number of people over 50 in Wales is expected to increase by a further 28% by 2031, bringing the total to 1.42 million

● Average mix-adjusted house prices in 2009 were £154,459 in Wales, compared to £206,435 in England, £163,231 in Scotland and £173,398 in Northern Ireland

● In 2009, total Welsh unemployment rose to 6.9%, a level last seen in 1996

● In 2009, just 54.9% of people in Wales’ most deprived areas were in some form of employment, compared with 75.2% in the most deprived areas of England.

● There are 2,135 asylum seekers living in dispersed accommodation throughout Wales. Almost 60% of them are based in Cardiff.

● Vacancy rates for social workers have halved from 14% in 2005 to 7% in 2010.

Sources: Office for National Statistics and the Home Office

This article is published in the 25 February issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Stronger voice helps in Wales

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