‘If we can improve the profile of the region, we’ll attract more social workers’

Why regions should work together to recruit and retain social workers, particularly when individual councils are struggling

Alison O'Sullivan
Alison O'Sullivan

Yorkshire is having a moment. Four million people tuned in to watch the first episode of documentary Educating Yorkshire in September last year, while, at the beginning of this year, Lonely Planet named the region one of the top places in the world to visit in 2014 – behind India and Australia – and, in July, the Tour de France will begin in Leeds.

These developments will be welcomed by those behind the Children’s Social Work Matters recruitment and retention campaign, which aims to attract high-quality children’s social workers to Yorkshire and the Humber. The campaign and its website were launched in 2011 following concerns about the impact of high vacancy rates set against increasing referrals in the region. And it has been a success in many ways, according to Alison O’Sullivan, director for children’s and adult services at Kirklees Council, who is leading the project; but they are still struggling to recruit more experienced staff.

“We have some excellent newly-qualified staff coming from courses, but we also want to attract experienced staff from other places,” says O’Sullivan, as the campaign enters its fourth year. The Children’s Social Work Matters website started off primarily as a PR exercise, a way of convincing people to apply for and become social workers, of raising the profile of the profession regionally. Now, says O’Sullivan, the focus will turn to creating a private online space where existing social workers from all 15 authorities across Yorkshire and the Humber can access and share knowledge, in the hopes this will foster strong professional networks and improve retention within the region.

Rising applications

O’Sullivan is confident the first phase of the campaign can be hailed as a success. “Authorities have reported up to a 200% increase in applications. We don’t have the detail to directly attribute that, but we do know there’s been an increase in traffic since there’s been more information about jobs.” She also notes that the campaign comes near the top of Google searches for key terms such as “social work in Yorkshire”, which was one of its aims, and the website attracts around 4,500 unique users per month.

All 15 local authorities have agreed to fund a further two years of the campaign, which is part of a wider regional improvement programme, from April 2014 – at a cost of £8,000 each. “There’s a clear value for money argument there because we know it’s been effective in helping us with recruitment,” says O’Sullivan. Other initiatives ongoing across the region include a joint management training programme and Step Up to Social Work.

Helping Doncaster

The average vacancy rate in children’s social work teams across Yorkshire and the Humber is 8%, according to Department for Education statistics – well below the England average of 14%. But that varies wildly from council to council, with Sheffield reporting no vacancies at the time the data was collected in September 2013, while at the other end of the scale 31% of Doncaster’s children’s social worker posts sat empty. The troubled council has been subject to numerous government improvement measures in recent years, culminating last year in a public fight to prevent the government from outsourcing its children’s services department.

O’Sullivan says this is one of the reasons the campaign is so important; it is not just a regional jobs board or an online forum, it is a pledge to pull together in the face of brutal budget cuts, negative inspections and other challenges.

“It can be difficult, authorities that are going through a difficult time run the risk of becoming isolated because they need to focus so much on fixing things in their authority. I think it’s even more important in those circumstances to make sure there are other connections with neighbouring authorities or the region. All authorities go through challenges at different times. If we can pile in behind people, then when your authority finds itself in need of support you’re more confident you’ll get it.

She says they were able to use the learning from Children’s Social Work Matters to help Doncaster with their recent recruitment campaign. “The region wanted to make sure Doncaster got the best possible staff. There is a real sense of everybody trying to wrap around when somebody’s struggling and help. And everybody gains; if we can collectively improve the profile of the region, we’ll attract more social workers.”

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