For many children and families’ social workers there’s a rung missing on the career progression ladder.
After getting frontline experience, becoming a senior or advanced practitioner is the obvious next step but that move can look daunting. How do you learn about coaching other social workers? What’s the best way to influence senior leaders? How do you get experience of supervision?
It’s a problem Lincolnshire County Council is tackling head on through Bridging the Gap, a dedicated programme that is fixing that broken career ladder.
Bridging the Gap was born after the council’s annual survey of its social workers revealed many felt daunted by the prospect of becoming an advanced practitioner.
“People told us the gap was quite big,” says Sam Clayton, the principal child and family social worker at Lincolnshire. “They’d qualified, done their ASYE and spent their second year getting their head around the job and doing more complicated work.
“But then they felt there was a big gap between that and the advanced practitioner role. They wanted promotion but the gap between the roles seemed scary.”
Fostering social worker Lorraine Wallace was one of those social workers. She finished her ASYE year in 2012 and had gained plenty of frontline experience but was daunted by the idea of becoming an advanced practitioner. “I wanted to become an advanced practitioner but I would question whether I was ready,” she says.
Bridging the Gap proved to be the solution. In 2016 Lorraine was invited to join the first wave of Lincolnshire social workers to join the six-month development programme.
“One of our heads of service told me about Bridging the Gap and suggested I do the course,” she recalls. “Being identified as someone who higher management would like to see progress further really boosted my confidence.”
The offer seemed even better once she learned the detail.
The Bridging the Gap programme included training on coaching others, influencing skills, presentation skills and carrying out supervision. It would widen her understanding of the whole service through networking and a group research project.
And she would get a one-to-one assessment that would offer her insights into her personal strengths and areas for development.
“We wanted the programme to improve social workers’ confidence, develop their networks with other social workers and get them thinking about social work in a more strategic way,” explains Faye Cooper, principal organisation development advisor at Serco, who worked with the council to develop the programme.
Unlike the usual dribs and drabs of training, Bridging the Gap gives social workers a coherent development programme that requires commitment from both participants and their managers.
“There’s a proper learning agreement so social workers know what is expected of them and their managers know to give them the time they need to do the course,” says Sam.
The group research project runs through the core of the programme. The research topic is agreed by the three or four social workers in the group and at the end of the programme they present their findings to senior managers.
What social workers say about Bridging the Gap
– “I would highly recommend the course to anyone who is feeling ‘stuck’.”
– “I do feel more confident, and have taken on a more leading role within the team.”
– “I lack confidence at times, and the course has enabled me to focus more on my own strengths.”
Lorraine’s group project explored how advanced practitioners were being used across the council.
“We wanted to see if advanced practitioners were being used to the best of their ability,” she says. “We found some were not but wanted to be, so through the research we bought that to the attention of managers.”
A massive difference
Other service improvements also resulted from the research carried out during the first run of Bridging the Gap, which Lincolnshire now runs once a year. A study of special guardianship orders led to a revamp of kinship viability assessments while an exploration of whether to place siblings together or apart prompted revisions to training.
For participants, Bridging the Gap’s benefits have been big. “It’s not automatic that you do the course and become an advanced practitioner but it’s given people skills to do their existing job better too,” says Sam.
“It’s given them confidence, some have been inspired to do post-qualifying training and others have gained a better network to call on when they have a sticky case leading to better care plans for children.”
Lorraine, meanwhile, landed an advanced practitioner job within three months of finishing Bridging the Gap. “Bridging the Gap made a massive difference to me,” she says. “It made me feel ready to be an advanced practitioner and very eager to fulfil the role.
“It changed who I am and what I wanted to do.”