Putting social workers first: how a focus on the workforce can create good children’s services

One council’s processes to ‘know’ its social workers and how that relationship building is paying off

Photo: magele-picture/Fotolia

Donna Chapman, workforce and learning manager at Shropshire council children’s services, believes the relationships between social workers, managers and directors is key for successful retention at the frontline.

For her, a good workforce strategy is an “architecture” for success, but not the whole story.

“It’s about first and foremost building relationships with your staff and actually knowing them,” she explains. Knowing them comes from audits, health checks, welcome interviews, exit interviews and an open culture that invites people to make suggestions.

Social workers in Shropshire have experienced several changes due to the introduction of these mechanisms.

The council was rated ‘good’ by Ofsted inspectors late last year, with praise for its work to update the “comprehensive” workforce strategy, which was cited as promoting development for the council’s social workers.

Retention trends

Chapman explains how the council’s workforce data showed Shropshire succeeded at recruiting newly-qualified social workers, but commonly they would leave at two or three-years qualified.

“I know regionally that’s a theme, and we started to ask why that is, why people leave, and we looked at that in our exit interviews and data” Chapman explains.

What leavers wanted was “opportunities” and “somewhere else to go other than management”.

After a discussion with a director about viewing this as an invest-to-save opportunity, the council created the advanced practitioner role which, along with the consultant social worker role working with Frontline students, gave social workers an upward trajectory for promotion.

“[Some advanced practitioners] have very small caseloads, they might just have two complex cases, there’s one that just supports legal work, and we have another that supports the [Assessed and Supported Year in Employment] programme.”

“It has just created that additional level of career pathway to move in to, and that’s helped because people can see that they’ve got somewhere to go,” Chapman says.

Understanding from the start

Understanding the social workers who work for Shropshire starts when they join the council.

“We have an internal children’s services induction first. We set a recruitment schedule for the year and we encourage managers only to appoint staff within that induction window each month.

“[The induction] rolls every month so managers aren’t waiting particularly long to start staff – and in an emergency staff might have to start outside of that window – but what it enables us to do is meet each member of staff that comes in to the organisation.

“We are then able to set expectations, standards around what we expect from them…but what we’re also doing is building those relationships with them and helping them understand where they fit within the organisation.”

Other changes have been more practical. They include:

  • specialist equipment for the disabled children’s team to get the best out of their practice;
  • flexible working policies to support social workers to work in the community, spend less time driving around England’s second largest county and tackle more complex work out of the office environment; and
  • an investment in voice software to help support practitioners who struggle with writing reports quickly.

“We’ve invested in the Dragon Speak software for their laptops; quite a simple thing to do, but it is something that has enabled a number of different practitioners, social workers and independent reviewing officers to make their work life a bit better,” Chapman says.

While only a small percentage of the workforce use the software, for those who do it has been “invaluable”.

“If we spend those little amounts of investment, what we will do in time is see the retention of our social workers really stabilise,” Chapman adds.

Relationship-based practice

Another aspect of what Chapman sees as successful workforce planning is a strongly embedded theoretical model – in this case relationship-based practice – which applies to social workers and their teams, not just the service users they are working with.

“Those relationships and that use of self is as vitally important with the service user as it is every member of the team and the wider partnership to ensure the safeguarding system itself is stable.”

A continuing professional development model that is strong but not rigid, therefore allowing the organisation to listen to what is needed and respond, is necessary for a developing workforce, Chapman says, as is a “double-loop” of learning.

“We do the audits, we do the quality-assurance framework, we then have a conversation about what needs to improve, we do the improvement work and then we go back and do the audit and check that the learning has been embedded.”

Chapman believes, if you put the staff first the good practice will follow.

“I don’t think for a second anybody gets out of bed to do a bad job, I think we have to create an environment in which people can succeed and that is mirrored in the way we expect our social workers to work with our service users.

“As the employer we have a responsibility to treat them in the same way and give them that environment.”

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2 Responses to Putting social workers first: how a focus on the workforce can create good children’s services

  1. Tracey February 22, 2018 at 8:14 pm #

    Ooh perhaps Cambridgeshire should read this and move away from the constant threat of being on ‘performance’ way of managing and ‘supporting’ staff they currently use. A little support and recognition goes a long way in staff retention

  2. Dr Steve Rogowski February 22, 2018 at 8:23 pm #

    Its relationships with clients, service users etc that count. Often you have to confront managers rather than build relationships with them or vice versa.