The new director of children’s services in Kirklees has said paying social workers more money will not fix the council’s problems.
Steve Walker, who was appointed to the role in July as part of an improvement partnership arrangement with Leeds where he is also DCS, told Community Care he shared Unison’s concerns about working conditions and both parties needed to agree a timescale for reforms.
Kirklees has been in a prolonged dispute with Unison since its children’s services were judged to be ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted last November. This culminated in a two-day strike last month.
Unison has said pay for social workers is one of its lead concerns.
In January a Unison steward and social worker in Kirklees claimed staff in the council were “among the lowest paid in the Yorkshire and Humber region”.
Other issues raised by the union were caseloads, supervision and high numbers of agency staff. It recently threatened that social workers would strike again in September if improvements hadn’t been made.
Walker and Erin Hill, the council’s lead for children’s services, said that while the council would look at how much social workers are paid in Kirklees, increasing pay is rarely the solution.
Walker said: “If it was just as simple as offering more money, I think Kirklees would have been full of lots of social workers, but they have tried that in other authorities that have been in trouble and it has not solved the problem.”
He said a social worker would not leave a job with a manageable caseload, good supervision, a good team environment, a good career pathway and “the pleasure of doing good social work every day” to go to an authority without those things for “£3-£4,000 a year” more.
Hill added: “Its recruitment AND retention. Increasing pay by astronomic amounts may well attract people; it doesn’t necessarily follow that we would have got to the root of the problems around social work practice in Kirklees.
“It’s right that we look at it, just like we’ve looked at all things the union have raised with us in the past, but it’s not the only thing,” she said.
Walker apologised for high senior staff turnover since Ofsted’s inspection, and said he and other members of staff seconded from Leeds would be in Kirklees to work on the improvement journey for the next two to three years, where he will spend two-and-a-half days a week in physically in the authority.
“I think there’s been an awful lot of interim leadership in Kirklees, [which] have ‘done to’ and have not worked with staff. The approach we have taken in Leeds is to work with staff,” Walker said.
He said the priority for the council would be establishing conditions for social workers to do best practice, invest in training and development for social workers, and work with staff to configure a new computer system.
Walker and Hill both said the problem to overcome with Unison is to agree a timescale for improvements now a settled senior leadership is in place.
“All of the issues we agree on. I absolutely get that we still have not seen the mammoth reduction in agency staff, yet we are seeing overall reductions in the number of agency staff. It will be a gradual process, what I don’t want to be doing is setting arbitrary timescales and declarations,” Walker said.
In Leeds, Walker oversaw the council’s journey to ‘good’ in 2015 from an ‘inadequate’ rating in 2010. He pointed to a recent example in West Berkshire where the authority went from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’ as another model to follow, but that took two years.
“There’s a real commitment to address [Unison’s] issues. I think what we need to do is sit down and agree with the union a timescale for doing that. Where we are really clear is what we want to do, and what we have been asked to do, is to help Kirklees come up with an improvement plan and strategy and then, whether Leeds are still directly involved or not, that is the plan which the authority is working to.
“That will include caseloads, it will be about good quality supervision and support, it will be about a good career structure, good training and development opportunities, having an IT system that works, all of those things,” Walker said.
Hill admitted “frustration” with Unison over a lack of clarity about what it wanted they want the council to do differently.
“It’s not the case that Unison have raised a series of issues that we dispute…are they valid? Certainly.”
“Occasionally it was the case that I wasn’t quite clear what Unison were asking us to do which we weren’t already, and perhaps that is where some of the frustration has arisen. I do think that the only solution to this is for us both to be more open with each other about how long things are going to take, about what we’re doing and what issues they have raised,” Hill said.
Walker said he hoped to avoid further industrial action by showing the progress the council had made. The formal improvement partnership with Leeds started after the July strike, and he added the council had secured funding for an improvement programme, and already bought in a new computer system.
“There are no quick wins, and I can absolutely accept and understand that we have been waiting a long time for things to get better, and I can only apologise for that. I am clear about the fact we now have the foundation from which to go forward. Now that we’re here it won’t make the winds any quicker, but it means where we will be is focused on the right stuff and we will do that with them,” Walker said.
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