With high vacancy levels and an agency rate of more than 50% in 2014, Central Bedfordshire council needed to define itself as an employer of choice.
Fast forward to 2017 and the judges of the Social Worker of the Year awards found a council that had invested significantly in staff learning and development, plummeting agency rates – down to less than 15% at February 2018 – and a vacancy rate slashed by two-thirds to 18%.
To achieve this, the council invested in an Academy of Social Work and Early Intervention which combined children’s social work development with early years professionals. It also restructured into teams of six to seven social workers with a predominantly non-case holding team manager.
Average individual caseloads are down by half, from around 30 to 16. This, with its “excellent” assessed and supported year in employment programme for newly qualified social workers and a ‘whole systems’ approach, earned the council the accolade of Best Social Work Employer at the awards ceremony last November.
“The necessary conditions are having a supportive council, a simple, focussed structure, not overcomplicating peoples’ jobs, having a clear focus of what you are there to do and having the leadership and quality supervision,” said the council’s then assistant director Gerard Jones, who has since stepped up to director of children’s services at Leicestershire council.
Invest to recruit and retain
High agency rates were not down to haemorrhaging staff, but difficulty to recruit into the council’s expanded teams. “It’s one thing to invest, it’s another to get the people and management,” said Jones.
The council took the step of recruiting newly qualified social workers but kept agency staff on to both keep caseloads low and to allow space for staff to become experienced.
Both Jones and Sue Harrison, director of children’s services, acknowledged the proximity of larger neighbouring authorities, and to London, as a challenge for recruitment. However, they felt it was important for Central Bedfordshire not to compare itself with competitors as part of its recruitment offer, but highlight aspects unique to the area, such as affordability.
Competitive pay rates help, they said, but reputation and giving social workers the right conditions and tools are considered the main draw. Technology, flexible working and learning and development resources are all examples of how the council invested in its work environment, aided by the ‘political support’ of the wider council.
Academy and integration
The academy – executed by learning and development manager Ray Halford and his team – provided the council with the opportunity to ‘grow its own’.
Jones said it was built around a vision of a strong professional ethos and support to social workers.
“When I came [five years ago] we needed to get the permanent workforce, and we used the academy as a ‘brand’ for the way we wanted to work, which was [to have] very strong continuing professional development.”.
Discussion with managers inspired the integration of social work development with that of early help professionals. “We’ve always had a really strong early help offer, but it wasn’t integrated into the whole academy process, so people in early help have an opportunity to access basic courses right through to degree level. We brought all those things together into a single process.”
“Early help is integrated into the council’s multi-agency safeguarding hub, so it was important for the nature of that team’s work to be integrated into the academy. You need a vision of integrating services,” Jones explains.
Central Bedfordshire cultivates a high support, high challenge approach which promotes visibility of senior leadership, but without a micro-management approach, Harrison said. Consultant social workers are in place in every service area. The non-case holding individuals sit down with social workers to go through an assessment, do joint visits and provide support in relation to audits.
“Watching the numbers” is a core factor in the performance management of social workers, said Jones. Team managers are led in a monthly performance session to go through key indicators.
“It tells you about the trends in your service, how you’re deploying your resources and what’s working. Intelligence about your outcomes is important.”
When Ofsted visited the service in mid-2017, which resulted in a ‘good’ rating, it highlighted a ‘compliance culture’. “I took that as a compliment because people are doing what they should be doing – what Ofsted worried about was over control,” said Jones.
But this wasn’t at the expense of autonomy, he stressed, pointing out that “you only get so far with micro-management”.
Harrison, who joined in 2014 after working for Blackpool council, said: “Some things we’re religious about – we know every week how many visits have been missed.”
“It’s not that you want to catch people out, you just want to know how it is. I do audits, and I ring social workers, and they like that.”
Harrison chairs a staff board which has a representative from each team. She talks of the “resilience membrane, where you’ve got experienced leaders helping to create an environment where social workers can flourish.
“We try to get that pressure right but on the other hand we want our social workers to take responsibility for their own resilience and to have the space to be real practitioners of why they went into social work, which isn’t just to remove children, it was to make a difference to their lives.”
The council looks to invest in a total career for staff. It offers opportunities for social workers to complete their masters (in collaboration with nearby Bedfordshire university), and an Aspiring Managers programme for those considering a leadership role.
Jones said: “It’s about the next stage in their career. You can spend money recruiting social workers, and in a year’s time, when they’ve got past their ASYE and they’re moving into the second stage, they start to look around and think ‘where next for me?’.
“The academy doesn’t work on its own without a culture of ongoing learning because it is just the training arm of a culture of high standards of professional practice in early help and social work.”
The council has a career pathway document to support one to one career planning meetings with the social worker, while the academy’s early development programme for post-ASYE social workers gives individuals rolling six month career and learning and development planning reviews.
Alongside the academy, there is a range of learning resources for continuing professional development that all staff can access. In addition to Aspiring Managers, developmental programmes include coaching and mentoring, lunch and learn programmes linked to audit findings and master classes delivered by heads of service.
Support measures include meditation and yoga sessions and an employee assistance programme. The council provides an external counselling service, which some staff have acknowledged as helping to keep them in the profession.
“What we’re good at here is making opportunities for our own people – so they don’t have to go somewhere else for different experiences,” said Harrison.
“We want to inspire the best and brightest to come into our profession, because it’s wonderful.”
Social workers are ‘enabled’: Central Bedfordshire council employees share their views
Natalie Donnelly, a newly qualified social worker knew she wanted to work at Central Bedfordshire council when she was placed there as a student.
“It’s a learning culture and you can be open and honest. Having that reassurance was important. The caseloads are low and manageable, so I really got to know my children and the families, and I continue to do lots of direct work.”
Those placed on the council’s ASYE academy scheme learn within the work environment, she said, compared to some students who were based in the classroom. “You feel part of the team, you feel integrated into the work that you’re doing, you’re not segregated.”
Community Care spoke to Donnelly, fellow newly qualified social worker Amy Boorer, Dave Thomas, practice educator and ASYE assessor and senior practitioner Jason Sedgman (a 2017 awards silver winner) to ask them about working for Central Bedford.
All praised the council’s investment in learning and development as “second to none”, with constant opportunity to go on courses and develop practice through information resources at their fingertips. Boorer said: “For your ASYE you get 24 days to do what you want in terms of learning and development, it is really flexible.”
“Your practice advisor will go through a plan with you to assess what you want to work on and what you need developing in. They will give you cases or pieces of work that you can do to address those needs.”
Central Bedfordshire council has worked hard to highlight its flexible working capabilities and culture, said Sedgman. “We’re enabled. We’re lucky enough to have tablets, so can type up assessments in between. You’re not tied to a desk anymore.”
Hot desk facilities exist at each of the council’s four offices, which also have car parking, so social workers are not tied to one location if they need to be outside of their primary office.
Thomas, a former award winner (Practice Educator of the Year in 2014), also praises the council’s academy as “holistically supportive”. “I think that enhances what the social workers have got at their fingertips for resources and support. The academy is not just insular for social work, but what it does for social workers is key.”
Open door policy
Sedgman appreciates the confidence placed in the council’s social workers by management teams: “If anything, I’m quite surprised by the level of confidence and trust that senior management have. I think we’re given the support to bring things forward, and our views and our opinions are trusted and respected, not just by managers but senior managers.”
Thomas added: “If you get your supervisions regularly, your manager knows what’s going on and you’ve got an open-door policy so if a problem’s occurring you can let your manager know. It’s a fluid process, and it works.”