A council recently judged ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted has signed up 80% of its social workers to a ‘golden handcuffs’ retention bonus, despite a director attracting controversy for claiming some practitioners are “unable to do the job”.
The one-off bonus, equal to 20% of annual salary and available to all children’s social workers in West Sussex, is paid immediately as a lump sum on condition that staff stay for 18 months. If they leave it is clawed back.
This week, the Department for Education issued a statutory direction appointing Hampshire council’s chief executive John Coughlan as a commissioner overseeing improvements at the South East authority.
It followed an inspection report published in May that uncovered “chronic instability” within West Sussex’s children’s services, which it blamed on changes in senior leadership and an ill-conceived service redesign.
‘Assertive action’ threat
Recruitment and retention bonuses have long formed part of the social work landscape, especially in children’s services. A Community Care investigation in 2016 found 53% of councils offered some form of cash incentive, with West Berkshire at the time offering a massive £15,000 for three years’ service and Derby contributing to house deposits.
West Sussex’s new retention bonus was offered to staff immediately before the inspection report was published, in an effort to head off further turmoil at the council, which inevitably often follows an ‘inadequate’ judgment. It supersedes another pay enhancement, put in place just six months earlier, which promised practitioners £3,000 in exchange for 12 months’ loyalty.
Days after the new deal was announced to staff, the council’s head of children’s social care Sarah Daly – who is leaving West Sussex – drew criticism from unions over comments made to a committee. Daly said the council would be taking “assertive action” against social workers who are not up to the job.
While the comments do not feature in an archived webcast of the meeting, with its website citing technical difficulties, councillors can be heard welcoming plans to “remove social workers who are failing”. But elected members also called for greater contact with frontline staff, rather than relying on data and charts presented by senior officers, so they would have a better feel for whether services were working properly in future.
‘Little reflection on leadership failures’
Caroline Fife, Unison’s regional organiser in West Sussex, said the union did not know exactly what action the employer intended to take against social workers because it had not been forewarned about Daly’s comments.
But she added that some social workers had already been in touch to say that they had been put on informal performance management processes since the Ofsted report was published.
“Unison believes it is far too early to be targeting social workers for the council’s shortcomings,” Fife said. “Social workers are working under ever-increasing pressure and without the resources or support to deal with increasing demand and needs.
“The council needs to focus all its attention on fixing the process, resource and leadership issues there are,” she added. “Unfortunately there was very little reflection within the select committee on the failures of strategic leadership, which Ofsted identified very clearly in their inspection.”
Fife said Unison had not been consulted about West Sussex’s new retention bonus offer and that there were fears about social workers being “tied into” the council workforce before any post-Ofsted restructure had been carried out.
“For some staff this feels designed to trap them as they have no sense of what they are committing too,” a document prepared by Unison relating to the retention bonus said.
‘A stable workforce is vital’
But despite those unanswered questions, the council told Community Care the majority of eligible practitioners, who account for 81% of the workforce, had agreed to the retention package so far. It is also on offer to experienced social workers who come to West Sussex.
“Over 80% of those eligible for this discretionary offer have already signed up for it,” the council’s director of children and family services John Readman said. “This will be of immense benefit as a stable social care workforce, with enough capacity to do their job well, is vital if we are to build the improvements needed across the whole service.”
Readman did not directly respond to a question about how the council was dealing with social workers ‘not up to the job’ but said a “comprehensive plan” was underway to raise the standard of children’s services.
“A key component of this is the work to grow and strengthen our social care workforce including ensuring they receive improved support, development and training, and that they have the right tools and systems to do their job well,” he said. “As is the case with any service in the council, where staff conduct or capability is an issue, we have a responsibility to investigate this through the proper HR procedures.”