‘Why we’re hiring 100 more social workers to deliver the Care Act’

How Essex County Council is placing investment in social workers at the heart of its Care Act strategy

Picture: Gary Brigden

Today the Care Act comes into force. The legislation, described by ministers as “the most significant reform of care and support for more than 60 years”, will give councils in England a legal duty to provide preventive care and see each of them carrying out thousands more assessments of carers and self-funders over the next 12 months.

Local authorities have been weighing up different options to meet the additional demand triggered by the act. Most are boosting their in-house social care teams with extra staff. Many are also using third party assessors from voluntary sector or other providers. Some are developing tools to help people complete assessments online.

‘We want to decentralise the service’

At the heart of Essex County Council’s Care Act strategy is the creation of an extra 100 social work posts. The move, which will boost the number of social workers at the council by 22%, is part of a wider strategy designed to free up teams to deliver “relationship-based” practice and shift care towards smaller locality-based social work teams that are integrated with primary care.

“We really want to decentralise this service, get it into communities, set up social workers in GP settings and work in a preventive way,” explains James Bullion, Essex’s director of operations.

“We’re expanding the number of team managers and senior social workers and we’re reducing the size of our social work teams by half. We want to give social workers lower levels of casework to deal with as we see that as integral to them having time to do preventive work”.

Backing qualified staff

The council’s long-term aim, says Bullion, is for the vast majority of its directly employed care and support workforce to be made up of professionally qualified staff. It is a bold move and one that stands out at a time when the financial pressure on local authority budgets has led many councils to increase their dependence on cheaper, non-qualified staff for care.

Bullion says that the Essex strategy still sees non-qualified staff making a “big contribution” to the care and support offering. However, the council envisages this workforce mainly sitting in voluntary sector-run services that can assist with lower-level needs, while local authority-employed teams should mostly be staffed by social workers delivering intensive support and handling complex cases before linking people into services that can help maintain longer-term wellbeing.

“We see our sustainability coming from a much more proportionate service for people. We want to have social workers support people quite intensively for short periods and help them get back on their feet. We feel that the quality of that experience and the kind of practice-based social work that you could do with people is a good investment,” he says.

“We want to set up, and have set up, support arrangements with the voluntary sector and cross-referrals. We’ve also established a community agents service, which coordinates volunteers providing support in different areas. All of those services help people with practical, pragmatic help. We believe that work is really valuable but we feel that us having a workforce to deal with some of those [lower level] tasks means that we don’t have social workers doing more intensive relationship-based work.”

Review of adult social work

Essex’s strategy emerged from a review of adult social work that the council carried out last year. Practitioners reported feeling overburdened by processes that were mainly designed to keep people out of the care and support system rather than offering individualised support tailored to their needs. Social workers also felt that if they were given more time, they could work more preventively and reduce their caseload numbers naturally.

Pieces of work being pursued outside of the council’s adult social care services also influenced Essex’s approach, says Bullion. The local authority’s children’s services department had moved towards a “relationship-based” social work model for child protection a couple of years earlier. The changes led to fewer children being put on child protection plans and saved the council money. Meanwhile, Bullion and colleagues were also impressed by the potential benefits of integrating adult social work with GP practices, as set out in a College of Social Work report last year.

So how have social workers responded to Essex’s approach to the new vision?

“Like any workforce, people have been nervous about both the Care Act and integration because these are big changes for the sector. But they’ve certainly welcomed the fact that we’re valuing the profession. They’ve welcomed the change in the ratio of managers [to practitioners] and smaller teams so that there is more supervision and support for case management,” says Bullion.

“We think that this social work-intelligence led work can bring real benefits.”

How is your local authority preparing for the Care Act? We’re keen to highlight different approaches that councils are taking to help share learning in the sector. Email us with your experiences.

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