London Councils recently announced a pay cap on agency social workers working in children’s services in an attempt to get on top of spiralling costs and concerns about quality control.
However, on a mild, spring afternoon, looking out over a busy Southwark street, Nick Hollier, Bexley’s deputy director of HR and corporate support and one of the leads on the project, is keen to point out the cap is only part of the story.
“We recognised that we had a big issue with agency pay rates and we were all leap-frogging each other because there is a lack of supply. It got to a point where there was no longer any correlation between pay rates and the quality or experience of staff.”
Need to do more to develop staff
The other problem was that not enough newly qualified social workers were becoming high quality, experienced social workers, he says.
“We weren’t doing enough for the learning and development of staff – both permanent and agency staff.”
The driving aim behind the London Council’s Memorandum of Cooperation Working together to improve the workforce of children’s social work professionals (which currently has 31 out of the 33 local authorities signed up to it) is to get permanent and agency social workers back on a level footing.
Andreas Ghosh, head of HR in Lewisham and fellow lead on the project points out it is incredibly divisive to have agency staff sitting next to permanent staff doing the same job but earning so much more.
Agency should not be a career route
“We want the choice to become agency or permanent to be far more finely balanced. There are good and valid reasons for becoming an agency social worker but it shouldn’t be a career route. Particularly in this sector where the people we work with, vulnerable children and families, get better outcomes if there is stability and permanency in the workforce.”
Hollier says it means thinking about agency staff differently.
“Quite often boroughs create this differential because we are trying to improve the attractiveness of permanency – so we don’t apply the employer standards to agency staff, we don’t give them as much supervision or let them access training.
Part of the workforce
“But what we are saying to London boroughs is they [agency staff] are a part of your workforce and you have to look after all of the workforce and apply best practice to all of them.
“Ultimately all of us are contributing to the supply chain. We need a recognition that people do move around; that you might train someone up only for them to move on but that can be helpful. Agency and permanent staff can share strategies or policies that are successful in other boroughs and help share good practice.
“In the end all of us need high quality agency staff so we should all try and help achieve that.”
While London is not the only area to cap agency pay, with consortiums in the Midlands and East Anglia doing so, it is arguably a more difficult task in a city where the sky-rocketing costs of living have exacerbated children’s social worker recruitment woes.
“We had to make sure we set the cap at a rate where directors of children’s services would still be confident they could get enough agency staff to meet their caseloads,” Hollier agrees.
In this London Councils has the advantage of a long history of members being prepared to pool data and this was used to not only set the pay cap at a reasonable level but has also been crucial in dispelling myths that had sprung up.
“In the past we would quite often be told ‘such and such is paying this amount’ so we would feel we would have to offer the same or more. But once we pooled some standard data we discovered that wasn’t the case so we could be far more robust,” Hollier says.
Recruitment agencies also had a vested commercial interest in the status quo continuing but Hollier says they have been able to have a ‘mature’ discussion about the issues with agencies.
“They told us there was a real issue in getting references for agency staff, so we said ok, we’ll deal with that as a part of the memorandum as well.”
Ofsted requires uninterrupted references for each agency social worker dating back two to four years. But when every agency social worker is often signed up to five or six agencies, team managers are often getting a huge number of requests for references on top of their busy day job.
As part of the memorandum London Councils developed a template for references that should, Hollier hopes, also improve the quality of agency social workers.
“We’re asking people to be honest about their references and put some thought into it. An agency doesn’t observe the social worker on the job so how are they supposed to know if there are concerns if we don’t tell them? And if we are recording concerns then we need to be ensuring that we have tried to do something about those concerns in terms of developing the social worker.”
While the pay cap and the referencing template have been essential quick wins to consolidate support for the memorandum, Hollier and Ghosh are adamant that improving social worker training and development is an equally important goal.
“There is all sorts of research and surveys showing that, in this sector, pay is important but not necessarily the most important factor as to why people do the job. It’s about the work itself, the caseloads and the terms and conditions.”
Hollier and Ghosh would like to see the work they have begun with the memorandum continued on a national scale and applying to both adults’ social workers as well as children’s. They are both keen to try and consolidate the different approaches to pay caps that have sprung up around the country and they highlight the potential advantages of pooling data on a national scale.
But for now both are happy with the success achieved so far. “When we started this there was a degree of scepticism. We had people telling us ‘we’ve been trying to crack this for 20 years and we’ve never done it’. What’s helped has been the collective sense of a win/win which has been very positive,” Hollier concludes.