Support for newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) in England has significantly improve over the last two years, thanks largely to work by the Social Work Task Force and The College of Social Work, and the development of the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE). This has seen an increase in NQSW employment, particularly in the public sector, where ASYE programmes are more easily accessed.
For some local authorities, this can mean a higher number of NSQWs working within teams and departments. Many NQSWs will breathe a sigh of relief, on graduation, that more social work jobs are apparently becoming available. But it is worth remembering at this stage that the circumstances have to be right to ensure that the experience of the NQSW, and the social workers around them, is positive.
In line with the requirements of the ASYE, an NQSW should have a reduced caseload to ensure that they are given the time to maximise their development. However, this reduced caseload does not prevent the arrival of new cases, so the rest of the team may need to increase their caseload, or increase the waiting list, to accommodate this.
Community Care’s latest findings suggest many teams have one NQSW, which would allow the increase demand to be spread across the rest of the team, while allowing the NQSW to be adequately supported in their first year of practice. However, this balance may not be achievable in teams or departments where there is a higher proportion of inexperienced staff.
I am aware of some teams that, for lengthy periods, have had a greater number of NQSWs than experienced social workers. Not only does this mean that there are fewer experienced social workers to carry complex cases, but also fewer experienced social workers to provide the NQSWs with informal peer support and supervision. In one such team I am aware of, the number of experienced social workers was supplemented by locum/temporary social workers, which can create its own problems.
For NQSWs to have a positive ASYE experience, there needs to be a balance. The demographic has to be suitable for both social work development and the appropriate management of complex cases to ensure that the team and/or department is being run effectively. This is shown in the fact that Birmingham council is working to reduce the proportion of NQSWs in its children’s services teams to an average of 20%.
Given that the starting salary for NQSWs seems to vary significantly throughout the country, it would be interesting to know whether organisations that pay their social workers a salary at the lower end of the spectrum are experiencing an imbalance between NQSWs and experienced social workers. These organisations may be attracting NQSWS, however, if the salaries do not significantly increase with experience, there may be issues with retaining the experienced social workers that are needed to support NQSWs.
The success of the NQSW’s first year and their ongoing career development relies on the retention of experienced social workers, who can support and supervise them while ensuring the team or department remains operationally effective.
Nikki Burton is a social worker and member of The College of Social Work’s professional assembly.