At one point during her time in Swindon’s children’s services, Anna Blackmore-Dawes was the only permanent member of staff on her team.
Despite that, and the challenges a revolving door of agency staff created for her, her commitment never wavered, and now the council has come through a testing period she is looking forward to the future.
Anna has worked in Swindon for nine years, starting in adults’ services, she did her degree placements here, completed her assessed and supported year in employment here, and now works in the disabled children’s team.
After all this time, she still feels positive about working in Swindon and sees a service “on the cusp of something exciting and new”.
A major motivating factor for Anna to remain in a council where staff were always changing was the consistency of management support.
Her Step Up placements, both completed in Swindon, were with a practice educator who would later become her manager when she qualified, and she’s always received regular, useful supervision.
“I also get live supervision, so my line manager has been out and observed me in practice, there is buy in to do group supervision, and both managers are just available. I don’t think I’m troubling them if it is out of supervision time and I want to talk something over with them.”
Progressive work/life balance approach
Anna is also a walking example of the council’s progressive approach to a positive work/life balance to help retain staff. When she realised how many hours she was working, Anna approached her manager and was backed to do compressed hours.
She now does four longer days a week, which suits her working style as it gives her more time to do case notes in the office and more flexibility to spend time with families out of traditional working hours.
This has since been taken up by another colleague, and her team also uses nine-day fortnights with its agency staff.
It is this supporting culture the service wants to build on as it goes forward, and it is going through extra lengths to get social workers into this environment.
Permanent social workers will get three retention bonuses over three years, totalling £7,000, and new starters are being offered £8,000 in relocation expenses (subject to eligibility criteria).
But it is fully aware that enticing social workers through the door is one thing. None of the retention bonuses come with pay back or loyalty conditions, an awareness from the council that to make social workers stay you need to create the right working environment to make them want to.
‘Less time on the computer’
Mark Green, the integrated service manager, explains what the vision for what working in Swindon means for social workers: “Less time on the computer and laptop recording what we’re doing and improving the quality of work through more direct contact with the children and families we work with.”
The past six months has seen a wide-ranging structural change in Swindon. A brand new – and permanent – senior leadership team has come in. On the frontline, social workers have shifted into a pod model. As a result, practitioners now work in smaller, more supportive teams. They also get more supervision and advanced practitioner support. And, crucially, lower caseloads too.
“We’ve done a lot of work about being clear on what our practice vision is, what our practice standards and core standards are and what training we’re going to provide to achieve that goal,” Mark says.
Social workers in Swindon will work in a restorative way alongside families, which he feels is more achievable in the pod model the council is embracing.
After getting the structure and approach ready, the council’s next step is to focus on staff development. A social care and leadership academy which will oversee all learning and development is set to be launched in September this year, and Anna has already felt the benefit of the council’s training offer.
“The team I work in have gone on whole team training which is very useful because when you come back to work everyone is talking about the same thing using the same language.
“I think it has been good we have been afforded that time to spend that time together on training days,” she explains.
‘Not just about the money’
Mark, like Anna, is a long-term Swindon employee. Currently in his 13th year, he sees the recent changes as both necessary and exciting for making it a good environment for social workers to practice and stay.
He explains how the recruitment and retention offers is to “acknowledge how much we value them” but the council isn’t just looking to solve issues with money.
“It’s not just about the money, although that is important. I attended a social work forum earlier in the week and we know having a good work/life balance, lower caseloads and feeling you’re in a position to establish good working relationships with families to enact change is just as important as any income you might get.”
The mood in Swindon is perhaps best summed up by one of its newest permanent employees. Lee-Anne Farach, who joined recently as the new director of social care, said she was excited about what the council was trying to do.
“It’s about providing the services for children and young people and it’s also about the focus on practice, that’s what we’re about, it’s about good quality practice, working with the children and young people, it’s not about anything else,” she explains.
And with this comes a clear vision for social workers: “Smaller teams, better supervision, smaller caseloads and the ability to provide those excellent services.”