They joined Wiltshire in 2009 and 2010 respectively and have progressed from newly qualified social workers to advanced practitioners. Neither came with management ambitions, but both are passionate to be the best social worker they can be.
Helen explains: “I’ve always wanted to stay as a social worker because I enjoy direct work with children. Wiltshire identifies your strengths and helps you to develop these by offering related opportunities.”
An example of this is Helen’s role as her team’s lead “children’s champion”. It’s a position that involves working with senior managers to look at the quality of direct work done with children.
“I’ve had really good learning and development opportunities” explains Helen, who is a practice educator and has recently been selected to become a consultant social worker, supporting the council’s first cohort of Frontline social work students.
“I’m currently undertaking four days of training as part of my Frontline role, and my team has been excellent in supporting me by reducing my caseload,” she explains. “This has enabled me to have time out of the office to do the preliminary work in preparation for my new role; the team has been really supportive.”
Working with families
Rachael’s story is similar. She says her practice has developed as a result of supervising and helping social work students with their practice. She has also been encouraged to pursue and develop her interest in working with families with unborn children.
“I really enjoy doing the work that I do,” she says. “It is difficult, but one of the reasons I haven’t moved into a management role is that I feel this would take me away from working directly with children and families, and that’s the work I really enjoy.
Aside from the development opportunities, a major contributing factor to Helen and Rachael’s decision to stick with Wiltshire is the consistent management support.
In their combined 19 years of service, both Helen and Rachael have only had three managers each; something that is rare in a profession notorious for high turnover. That management consistency has given them space to develop trusting working relationships with supervisors; a huge bonus in highly pressured environments.
This support doesn’t end at monthly supervision either. Rachael says it’s available “every day” through a supportive management structure which includes assistant team managers, team managers, aspiring managers and even senior managers who are “always available”.
Communication is key
“There is formal supervision but also a lot of informal supervision, and I will talk to my manager every day about one of my cases. Managers in our team are happy for us to come and chat at any time,” Rachael says.
Helen adds how, despite Wiltshire’s size and multiple bases, there is a close bond between staff. It is, she says, a place where “everyone knows everyone”. “We do lots of training together; from ASYE to senior social workers, everyone knows everyone,” she says. “You can email a senior manager about a query or issue if you need to, they come to our meetings regularly and want to know what issues we face in our work.”
This community feel is vital for a service spread over a large, rural county. Social workers sometimes have long drives, but they can drop-in to other offices to hot desk and are always made to feel very welcome. There are flexible work locations across Wiltshire and social workers are provided with free car parking across the county and the equipment and confidence to work flexibly across different offices or from home.
“You’re not wasting lots of time doing lots of journeys,” says Helen. “I have a day at home a week, so I know I have the day to write everything up, and then spend the rest of the week doing my visits.”
Improving staff retention
Social work teams are also provided with admin support, which lessens the paperwork burden on practitioners through minute taking, writing letters, organising appointments, and liaising with partner agencies. This all helps social workers maintain a healthy work-life balance.
To support wellbeing and to improve retention, the council have recently offered social workers the opportunity to move onto a nine-day fortnight working pattern. “Managers also encourage time off in lieu, regular breaks and leaving on time,” Rachael adds.
Work-life balance support is rooted in the council’s belief that great support for children and families is only possible with a supported and stable workforce. This belief has been critical to Helen and Rachael committing to Wiltshire where they are supported to grow, but also to help children and families do the same through the council’s unique ‘One Child, One Worker’ approach, which Rachael explains is all about social workers building strong relationships with families and working with that family through from referral to closure.
“Whether that be a child is adopted, or a child has gone from child in need to child protection, back to child in need and then closed, the whole approach is about maintaining close relationships with the child and families supporting them to achieve change, and that doesn’t really happen when there are too many changes of social worker.”
The innovative practice and management support which ensures the commitment of social workers like Helen and Rachael has recently been recognised in a recent Ofsted inspection (June 2019) which rated Wiltshire’s families and children’s service as “good” across the board.
In the report Ofsted notes: “The local authority has improved its services for children and offers a consistently good response to families and children in need of help and protection.” Furthermore, children in care and care leavers also receive a good service.
Lucy Townsend, director of families and children’s services, states: “This is a great accolade and shows the dedication of our hardworking staff who demonstrate tremendous commitment to ensuring our children and families are given the support to succeed.”
Lucy was also very pleased to read in the report that “Staff report that they enjoy working for Wiltshire and have a career path that meets their aspirations. Mentoring for staff gives more depth to this approach and is having a positive impact on staff retention”. Lucy adds: “Staff are our greatest asset and my priority is to continue to invest in staff like Helen and Rachael”.
Wiltshire will be showcasing its work at an open day for families and children’s social workers at its Trowbridge hub on Saturday 21st September 2019. The event will include guest speaker lectures and workshops led by experienced social workers. Experienced social workers looking for their next role or those looking to return to social work after a break, are encouraged to come and meet the team.
Further information is available by contacting Grace Perry on 01225 713308 or via firstname.lastname@example.org