Opportunities and support for social workers in Scotland

Reaching cases on remote isles and a rise in substance misuse are among the challenges, but social work in Scotland is well-regarded and well-supported, writes Julie Griffiths

Reaching cases on remote isles and a rise in substance misuse are among the challenges, but social work in Scotland is well-regarded and well-supported, writes Julie Griffiths


It was only four years ago that the Changing Lives report, the result of a Scottish executive review, found social work services were “under great pressure, lacking in confidence and not delivering to their full potential”.

Perhaps as a result there is now a sense that Scotland is a better place for a social worker to practice than south of the border.

Improvements were made as a result of Changing Lives, such as the creation of a local practitioner forum in each local authority area. This enables social workers to share best practice and difficulties as well as helping to promote a sense of cohesion among the profession.

Andrew Lowe, vice president of the Association of Directors of Social Work, says another plus is the more positive relationship between social work and the public, media and politicians.

Lowe, who is director of social work at Borders Council, points to the different ways politicians have reacted to tragedies north and south of the border. In the aftermath of Dundee toddler Brandon Muir’s death, first minister Alex Salmond stated that social workers should not be blamed.

“The criticism that Haringey received from Ed Balls [then children, schools and families secretary] after the tragedy of Baby P was a marked contrast to this,” says Lowe.

Not that ADSW is complacent about positive relationships. A year ago, it launched its Social Work Changes Lives campaign, aimed at improving public understanding of social work. The results show that 47% of respondents rated social work positively compared with 38% the previous year – not bad against a backdrop of the recent very public tragic cases.

Another positive for Scotland is the chief social worker post in each council, which means someone at the top table has an understanding of what it is like to be on the front line of social work. The post holder has close links with the chief executive and writes an annual report to the council.

But challenges remain in Scotland.

Delivering services in remote and rural areas impacts on working practice, training and time.

In Orkney, for example, a social worker visiting a family in one of the northern islands may require three days because of the travel involved. Boats, taxis and overnight stays are par for the course.

Duncan MacAulay, the council’s interim social services director, says this means social workers need to be particularly autonomous: “Going back to the office to check things out with colleagues is not an option. Social workers need to be able to think on their feet.”

The out-of-hours rota, in which all social workers are involved, means there is a need to maintain generic knowledge and skills. The council provides regular training sessions to ensure they can work outside their area of specialism.

Technology is helping address some of the challenges that remote working and training can pose. The council has just developed two CD-Roms on adult and child protection and plans to make greater use of video conferencing.

There are challenges elsewhere in Scotland too. Stephen Smellie, chair of the social work issues group at Unison Scotland, believes workload will be a major challenge. He is concerned that there is too much acceptance of the inevitability of cuts at a time when demand for services is growing.

“Over the past 15 to 20 years there’s been a huge increase in the misuse of drugs and alcohol and the accompanying problems of more violence and mental health problems,” says Smellie.

“There are also more elderly people living at home. And all of that is before we take cuts into consideration.”

Vacancy rates in Scotland are already significant. The last figures for social work services posts published last year for 2008 show the national average is 8%.

North Lanarkshire Council is addressing this through an innovative “grow our own social worker” programme in partnership with the Open University. To date 105 staff have completed the scheme with another 30 going through the course. Staff must stay at the council for two years after qualifying.

Linda Holms worked as a deputy manager of a residential unit for 11 years when she decided to retrain as a social worker at the age of 45. Now 50, she has been in a community care older adults post for just over a year. Holms says undertaking training was a big step for her.

Now, though, she has no regrets and says there was “lots of support” throughout the programme, which involved rotations in different areas of social work, to ensure a breadth of experience.

“The council has given me a huge opportunity and I’m very grateful for it,” says Holms.


Case study:  Marissa McKinnon, “It’s a very varied and satisfying job”

Marissa McKinnon is a social worker for Edinburgh Council, working with people who are 16 and over with complex longer-term needs. She has been in the post for three years and sees a mix of older adults with dementia, physical disabilities and people with learning disabilities.

“It’s a very varied and satisfying job. I like seeing someone getting services that suit them and making a difference to their life,” she says.

Before taking up her Edinburgh, post McKinnon worked in Highlands Council where she worked in a role similar to the one she has now and, before that, in children and families.

McKinnon believes Scotland is a good place to be a social worker. She says there is a feeling that the Scottish government is more supportive of social workers than Whitehall.

And, at council level, the chief social worker post gives those on the front line a confidence in management.

“Our chief social worker Michelle Miller is very supportive. She knows what social workers are dealing with. She’s very approachable and has good links with frontline staff. I don’t know that would happen if she was not a qualified social worker,’ says McKinnon.

McKinnon says that supportive management means that there is a good understanding of what constitutes an appropriate work load at Scottish local authorities. She believes this is not always the case elsewhere in the UK.

“I heard of one social worker in a city in England who had 40 families on their caseload, which could amount to 100 children. When I was in children and families, I had 12 families, which is a much more manageable number.”

McKinnon is co-chair of the local practitioner forum in Edinburgh. She describes the forum as “really helpful”.

“In Edinburgh, you have to be a live caseload holder to be involved in the forum, which doesn’t allow managers to join and that’s quite liberating,” she says.

Career opportunities that McKinnon has taken up include mental health officer training. As part of it, she will go on a six-month secondment later in the year and she is due to complete her training in June 2011.


Scotland: key facts

● The estimated population of the country on 30 June 2008 was 5,168,500, which was an increase of 0.5% on the previous year.

● In 2008 some 20,000 more people arrived in Scotland – mainly from England – than left.

● Births are also on the up with the number exceeding deaths by 4,000 in 2008, the highest natural increase since 1992.

● The population is ageing. In the 10 years from 1998 to 2008, the number of children under 16 reduced by 9% while the number aged 75 and over increased by 13%.

● The average price of a home was £157,800 over the three months to 30 April 2010. This was a 0.7% rise on the previous quarter but over the past year Scottish house prices have fallen by 3.3%.

● There are 32 local authorities in Scotland.

Source: the General Register Office for Scotland and Scottish House Price Monitor from Lloyds TSB

This article is published in the 24 June issue of Community Care magazine under the heading The beauty of working in Scotland

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