‘Why we’re investing in newly qualified social workers’

At a time when many social work recruiters are insisting on a minimum of two years’ experience, Andy McNicoll meets the team behind one council’s drive to invest in newly qualified social workers.

Image: Charlie Milligan

This is a tough time to be a newly qualified social worker (NQSW). Among the local authorities and agencies that are hiring social workers, many will only consider so-called “practice ready” applicants with two or more years’ frontline experience.

But some councils are bucking this trend and actively investing in newly qualified recruits. One is the south London borough of Lambeth, where senior managers have prioritised NQSW schemes in children’s and adult services in recent years, a move that has helped cut a reliance on agency staff.

‘The buzz, energy and enthusiasm’

The NQSW scheme for children’s social services is run by Lambeth’s social work practice unit and led by Janet Cousins and social workers Sandra Simpson and Dee Tracey. So why do they think investing in young social workers, rather than insisting on experience, pays off?

“One thing that stands out is the buzz, energy and the passion NQSWs have. We want to catch that and build on it,” says Cousins.

“That isn’t always there if someone feels they’ve ‘been there and done it’ for a few years or only wants to work here because they’re fed up in their current job.”

Simpson agrees: “That enthusiasm makes a difference to the children and young people too. If they see someone who is energised, it makes a difference in how they build their relationship with you.”

Tracey points out that supporting and developing young social workers can also help build loyalty. Staff who have come through the scheme often stay with Lambeth for a long time, rather than upping sticks every year or two.

“That’s good for us as employers, but more importantly that stability is good for young people,” Tracey says.

Induction and preparation

The ‘grow your own’ social work scheme runs three recruitment intakes a year. Competition for places is high. The team estimate that around 200 social workers apply for around 20 vacancies on offer in each wave.

NQSWs whose applications are successful are given a 10-day induction programme prior to starting. They get training on a range of topics including child development, home visits, record keeping and professional boundaries and ethics.

Each of the NQSWs is given a buddy, an experienced social worker that they can turn to for advice. They also get training about listening to the voices of young people, delivered by care leavers.

“The young people are really forthright,” says Cousins. “They want our social workers to know that young people know when you’re lying to them. They know when you’re giving them excuses. And they know when you care.”

At Lambeth, NQSWs start on a reduced caseload of 20 to 25% of the normal level. They are also given their own desk for the first few weeks to stop them having to contend with the daily stress of hotdesking.

To ensure managers are prepared for their new arrivals, each is given profiles and CVs of their new NQSWs. These include any training needs and previous work experience so that teams can plan any support in advance.

Learning from past mistakes

Yet this level of support hasn’t always been in place and the NQSW scheme has had to learn from past mistakes.

Eugene Patton is a social worker in Lambeth’s families and child protection team. He came through the NQSW programme in January 2011.

Having completed a placement in the borough while at university, Eugene knew the environment prior to starting. But many of his NQSW colleagues weren’t so lucky and Patten remembers being unimpressed with Lambeth’s preparations.

He recalls NQSWs being asked to hotdesk, meaning they’d frequently be forced to sit away from their teams. Sometimes they would have to sit on different floors in completely different services.

“It was a nightmare. It felt that nobody had thought about the logistics,” he says. “When we arrived it was a bit like: ‘oh, you need a phone’, ‘oh you don’t have a desk’. It didn’t feel like there had been a timetable to help people make that transition as easy as it could have been.” 

Patton is glad that Lambeth acted on the criticism. He sees a “massive change” in how his team have been prepared for the arrival of NQSWs compared to his intake, and is doing his bit to help.

“I’ve volunteered to be a buddy for someone because I remember how it feels,” he says. “Child protection goes bloody quick and sometimes you just feel like you’re being swept along. If you’ve got someone that knows that, they’ll take five minutes to make sure you’re alright.”

Tracey, who leads on the NQSW programme, admits that the scheme has improved in recent years. The social work practice unit was formally established in 2011 and senior directors have fought to provide the team with the resources to help them create a “strong” NQSW support package.

The impact on teams

Denyse Ratcliff, team manager in the families and child protection team, took on four NQSWs through the scheme last year.

She still hears a minority of managers questioning the logic of employing an NQSW that “can only handle 15 cases when we can get someone that can take 25”, but feels it’s a shortsighted view.

“The NQSWs have been great for us,” Denise says. “I look at them now and they’re like different people to how they were a year ago. It takes effort to give them the confidence and support but I love it. They love the job. They’re fresh, not worn out like us!” she laughs.

Lambeth is trying to boost support for more senior social workers too. When we meet, they are in the middle of finalising a new scheme designed to “plug a gap” in support for seniors who want to go into deputy team manager roles.

“If we’ve got really good senior social workers that we can spot potential in, why wouldn’t we want to help them?,” Cousins says. “It’s the same with NQSWs. With the right support, who knows, maybe these social workers can be our managers and directors one day?”

Check out more articles from our ’24 hours on the social work frontline’ series

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