Workforce planning: Scotland steals a march on England

Scotland appears to be streets ahead of England on workforce planning. Jackie Cosh examines why recruitment and retention is so much better handled north of the border

Scotland appears to be streets ahead of England on workforce planning. Jackie Cosh examines why recruitment and retention is so much better handled north of the border

As Alex Salmond prepares to stage a referendum on Scottish independence, the English wait with eyebrows raised to find out how the Scots really feel about being in Westminster’s shadow. In social work, the relationship between Scotland and England is much less fraught with tension.

Those responsible for reforming social work in England over the past few years have often looked north of the border for ideas and with good reason it seems, because Community Care‘s annual investigation last month into social worker vacancy rates and the use of agency staff in UK councils found Scotland consistently outperforms its neighbour.

English councils reduced their average vacancy rate from 11% in 2010 to 9% in 2011, but this still laggs behind Scotland’s rate of 7%, down from 8% in 2010. The biggest difference is in the use of agency staff: in England, councils have reduced the proportion of agency staff in social work teams from 11% to 8% over the past year. In Scotland, it fell from 5% to 0.4%.

As the tablebelow indicates, data from the English and Scottish regulators also reveals that newly qualified social workers in Scotland are more likely to find employment after graduating.

Scotland’s good record in workforce planning stems from 2003 when, after concerns about staff recruitment and shortages in some areas, the then Scottish Executive introduced recruitment and retention measures such as one-off payments for staff to remain for an agreed number of years, and a fast-track initiative to bring in extra social workers.

Later, a structured framework for training of social work services staff – the Continuous Learning Framework – was introduced and a national strategy for the development of the social services workforce was brought in to plan for the next five years.

Ruth Stark, manager of the Scottish Association of Social Workers, says Scotland has a more supportive work climate, so people are happier to stay in post. “We have low turnover of staff in Scotland; people stay for a number of years,” she says.

The Scottish Social Services Council’s research has found that most employers and social workers feel their organisation is proactively involved in workforce planning. “As a sector skills council, the SSSC supports employers in Scotland to develop their approach,” says chief executive Anna Fowlie. “Over the past few years we have worked with employers across the country to identify the kinds of workers and skills we will need to meet current and future demands and to supply them with the right information and data about the sector, including a workforce planning guide.”

Community Care‘s investigation revealed that some of the highest vacancy and agency rates in the UK were at Newham Council in London. On average, 21% of posts were vacant and 42% of staff were employed through an agency, although the council pointed out that the figures were recorded during a redesign of its services. Compare these figures with Edinburgh, where the vacancy rate was 2% and the council had, at that snapshot in time, all but stopped using agency social workers.

Edinburgh’s chief social work officer, Michelle Miller, says the council worked hard to drive down the use of agency social workers, partly because they cost more but mainly because permanent staff provide a more consistent, high-quality service.

“The reality is that in the past we have had to use agency staff when struggling, but from our perspective there is a benefit to having permanent staff; the relationship and nature of the job is better if there is consistency,” says Miller. “It also brings more stability to the organisation.”

The future use of agency staff in England and Scotland is likely to be affected by the Agency Workers Regulations, which came into force on 1 October. These give agency workers the same rights as permanent staff after 12 weeks in the same role and are likely, eventually, to have an effect on local authorities’ decisions on using agency staff.

“The new legislation may have an impact,” says John Nawrockyi, secretary of the workforce development network at the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services. “Councils may be encouraged to only have agency staff for a short time because they will accumulate holidays, so it could mean higher turnover of staff.”

In recent years, councils in England have been trying to improve workforce planning. Nawrockyi says: “Last year we introduced the national minimum dataset, so we are starting to measure the workforce in more detail.” He adds that the Centre for Workforce Intelligence’s supply and demand model, unveiled on 20 October, will allow councils to forecast the future need for social workers. It is hoped this will eventually feed into a national system.

In addition, local authorities are being encouraged to have Integrated Local Areas Workforce Strategies (InLAWS), which help adults’ services directors and their teams with workforce commissioning.

When comparing the two countries on vacancy rates, Stark warns that there are “a lot of frozen positions” in Scotland – and perhaps in England too – due to budgetary constraints, which could mean unfilled posts are not recorded as such. “My suspicion is that [certain councils] are not advertising posts,” she says.

However, she remains confident about Scotland’s particular ability to maintain a relatively low level of vacancies. Simply put, she says: “Scotland’s a good place to work, so people are attracted to staying here.”

Edinburgh ensures there are enough trained staff

 David Orr (pictured) is a social worker in Edinburgh’s youth offending service. After graduating from Edinburgh University in 2004, he took time out to do voluntary work overseas before returning to the UK and signing up with an agency while he looked for a permanent post.

Orr said it was easy to find work, but admits that much of this was down to the area of social work he had chosen to go into, youth justice, where there were more vacancies. Agency work also provided a good stepping stone back into social work after a break.

“I wanted to use agency work as a bit of a dipstick to establish what it was like to work in a local authority. Also, I had been out of social work for a while so wanted to skill up again,” he says.

Orr spent 10 months as an agency social worker before finding permanent work at Edinburgh. “There were suggestions of full-time positions being made available where I was working but this was delayed,” he says, “and meanwhile another position I was interested in came up in Edinburgh. I couldn’t afford to wait around so I went for that position and got it.

“In social work there can be a lot of instability and problems with recruitment and retention, but I think it is fair to say that conditions in Edinburgh are favourable; they make sustained efforts to ensure that there are enough trained staff.”

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This article is published in the 27 October 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “A national divide”

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