Councils battle to fill empty social work posts

Over the past year social work vacancy rates have improved in many English councils, but deterioration in others has pushed up the overall rate. Daniel Lombard reports

Over the past year social work vacancy rates have improved in many English councils, but deterioration in others has pushed up the overall rate. Daniel Lombard reports

The findings of Community Care‘s second annual vacancies survey reveal the overall rate for England remained stubbornly high in 2010.

But beneath the current English average vacancy rate of 11.3% – a slight increase on the 10.9% in 2009 – many success stories around the country emerge.

To read the full special report and to see vacancy rates in your council, click on this link.

For example, the West Midlands, with the third highest rate among all regions at 13%, has two councils, Coventry (see below) and Warwickshire, among the most improved.

They are among 79 authorities in England to have lowered their proportion of unfilled posts since 2009. The biggest decrease is seen at Haringey Council in London, which went from having one of the highest vacancy rates last year at 27%, to one of the lowest, at just over 1%.

This followed a major restructure at the council to address the safeguarding crisis after the Peter Connelly case.

However, the national rate is up largely due to the fact that 29 councils saw their rates balloon in the past 12 months, with at least two councils seeing vacancies triple.

Representatives from other professions expressed surprise at the steep vacancy rates in social work.

The proportion of posts currently unfilled in social work in England is at least 12 times higher than in teaching, nursing and occupational therapy, where vacancy rates are stable at 1% or less.

“An 11.3% vacancy rate in a workforce seems very high,” says Ian Wheeler, head of research at Skills for Health, the skills council for the UK healthcare sector.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health says differences in the way vacancy rates are calculated has a significant impact on the figures. In healthcare, vacancies are only registered when the post has been unoccupied for three months, whereas social work vacancies are declared immediately, he says.

However, Wheeler says the underlying issues go much deeper. He points to key advantages enjoyed by the NHS workforce which had strengthened recruitment and retention, including:

● Long-term workforce planning.

● The higher status of nurses and doctors.

● Improvements in pay and conditions allied to three-year pay deals.

● Strong royal colleges that influence policy and public opinion.

“Over the past 10-15 years, workforce planners in the NHS have developed a system of matching university and training places for nursing and other professions with regional recruitment needs,” Wheeler says.

“Also, nurses and doctors are not under the same scrutiny and have a much higher status in the public arena. You might hear the odd story about doctors making an error but it doesn’t seem to stick in the same way as the bad press for social workers.”

The lack of such assets was noted by the Social Work Task Force, the government-commissioned panel of experts which reported last year with 15 recommendations to overhaul the profession in England.

The final report found there was no system for forecasting supply and demand for practitioners, some pay grading schemes had undervalued their knowledge and skills, and the profession suffered from an “unremittingly negative public image, with damaging consequences for recruitment and morale”.

“If you go into those professions and feel you’re valued by the public, you’re likely to stay for longer,” says Wheeler.


COVENTRY COUNCIL: New recruitment strategy pays dividends

Coventry Council has cut its vacancy rate by half. It attributes this achievement to a major overhaul of its recruitment strategy.

It is one of the UK’s most improved employers over the past two years. Amid long-standing recruitment problems in the West Midlands, an Ofsted assessment in 2008 said attracting full-time social workers was one of the council’s biggest challenges.

But the authority reduced its vacancy rate from 24% in 2009 to 12% in 2010.

During this time it opened the doors of its children’s services to the BBC for a hard-hitting Panorama documentary, screened last November.

A rolling recruitment campaign was just one of the strategies employed to tackle the problems highlighted in the TV programme, which revealed one social worker had a caseload of 39.

Andy Pepper, the council’s head of neighbourhood services, says the rolling campaign avoided the need for expensive one-off adverts in the press and was complemented by the hiring of overseas social workers from the US.

But the process began with a major rethink. “We knew a fresh approach was required and we worked closely with our resourcing partner Tribal to develop and deliver a new strategy,” Pepper says.

Through a series of focus groups with staff and by studying the experience of neighbouring authorities, Pepper and his colleagues analysed the council’s reputation as an employer, addressing concerns that arose.

The council then built its recruitment strategy around the positive selling points identified by the research, launched a website and began contacting applicants quickly.

“Following the first advert in the new campaign, the monthly application rate rose tenfold from about two-and-a-half to 25,” Pepper says.

THURROCK COUNCIL: Cuts and exodus take their toll

The council with the highest vacancy rate in the UK has blamed its recruitment crisis on public spending cuts, competition with neighbouring authorities and an “exodus” of social workers after the Baby P case.

With 38% of posts unfilled, Thurrock Council in Essex has a rate more than three times the national average.

Of 110 posts in children’s and adults’ services, 42 were vacant as of June 2010, with a vacancy rate of 35% in children’s services and 52% in adults’ services.

A local charity that works alongside the authority in supporting looked-after children, Open Door, says service suffered after the council imposed a recruitment freeze on social work posts earlier this year.

Kersten Bower, project manager for advocacy services at Open Door, says children had reported their social workers becoming more inaccessible in recent months.

“It can be very frustrating because when you’re a young person and you’ve got a problem, it’s the most important thing in the world, and having to wait a day or a couple of days can seem like an eternity,” she says.

An Ofsted report from an unannounced inspection, published last December, found caseloads were manageable and assessments were being completed on time. However, Bower says the situation in Thurrock had worsened since the government announced in May £1.1bn spending cuts for England’s councils in this financial year.

A spokesperson for Thurrock confirms “a slowdown” in recruitment for all staff, including social workers, as a result.

The staff shortage is exacerbated by competition for social workers with nearby Essex Council and London boroughs, he says.

The spokesperson says the council’s children’s services department is working closely with partner agencies through the local children’s trust and “carefully managing” all case closures.

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