The national campaign to bring up to 8,000 former social workers back into the profession to bolster the workforce during Covid-19 has resulted in the recruitment of 18 practitioners during its first two months.
Over 1,000 people expressed an interest in returning to work as temporarily registered social workers through the Social Work Together campaign and 95 councils expressed an interest in recruiting through it.
But of those to express an interest, just under 2% are now in the workforce, through recruitment is continuing. In response to the figures, social work leaders said they were likely to reflect demand not being as great as anticipated from employers, and the fact that much recruitment – including of people from the temporary register – has happened through local campaigns.
However, concerns were also raised that people potentially returning to practice may have had knowledge and skills gaps and, with a surge in demand for services expected as the lockdown lifts, any issues with the campaign needed to be addressed.
Expected workforce depletion
The temporary register, run by Social Work England, was established in March through the Coronavirus Act 2020 in order to deal with an expected depletion in the workforce, through sickness and self-isolation, and any spikes in demand for services as a result of the pandemic. Just over 8,000 practitioners who had left the register within the past two years were automatically placed on the temporary register.
The Social Work Together campaign, run by the Local Government Association in partnership with the regulator and government, was set up at the start of April to match returning practitioners to roles.
Social Work England, which released the figures on recruitment to Community Care, said it was “so grateful to all the former social workers who have expressed interest in returning to practice during the pandemic.
The regulator echoed the words of chief executive Colum Conway, in an interview with Community Care last month, in which he said the temporary register would be needed “for the long haul” to deal with the expected spike in demand following the easing of lockdown.
“The Social Work Together campaign was launched to enable a quick response to address any immediate needs, and as lockdown measures are eased, the campaign will remain active longer-term to provide a pool of suitably qualified and experienced social workers ready to mobilise in support of anticipated increased needs for children’s and adults’ services,” it added.
This message was echoed by the LGA, the chair of whose community wellbeing board, Ian Hudspeth
Ian Hudspeth, chair of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said: “As we move into the next phase of our pandemic response, the campaign will continue to provide training to those with an interest in returning to this highly-valued profession and help meet potential long-term demand for providing vital support to children and adults in need.”
He also stressed that the campaign was “complementary to and [working] alongside local recruitment campaigns run by councils themselves.
‘Unsurprising’ level of recruitment
A lack of demand from councils explained the relatively low level of recruitment through the Social Work Together campaign, said Association of Directors of Children’s Services workforce development policy committee chair Rachael Wardell.
“This initiative has helpfully increased the number of available social workers,” she said. “However, most local authorities have responded to any workforce shortages by redeploying their existing staff to fill gaps because they are already familiar with local arrangements and systems.
“Therefore, it is unsurprising that relatively few social workers have been recruited by local authorities through this route. Moreover, councils have not seen the level of absences due to staff getting ill, isolating or shielding that we initially feared.”
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She echoed Social Work England and the LGA’s view that the capacity may well be required after lockdown to deal with the expected surge in demand, and also pointed to the potential impact on the workforce of the government’s test and trace strategy.
“During lockdown, referrals to children’s social care initially reduced but they are starting to pick up again and we expect a considerable increase in demand as restrictions begin to ease and children have greater contact with schools and other settings that are likely to identify and raise safeguarding concerns,” said Wardell.
“We are also concerned about the potentially significant impact of ‘test and trace’ on local staffing levels if high numbers of social workers are required to undertake 14 days social isolation after being in contact with people who test positive for Covid-19.”
‘Knowledge and skills gaps’
While the campaign had been helpful in addressing staff shortages and building capacity, there had been practical challenges in bringing temporarily registered practitioners into the workforce, said Claudia Megele, chair of the Principal Children and Families Social Worker Network.
She said: “Based on feedback from social work colleagues nationally some practical challenges for local authorities remain. For example, some of the colleagues who have joined have been out of statutory frontline practice for some time and this may present a gap in knowledge and skills. Also, it seems that some colleagues who have rejoined the profession may be in high risk categories in relation to Covid-19 and therefore, may not willing to engage in frontline and face to face practice.”
Megele added: “With the expectation of a surge in demand and complexity of cases, and notwithstanding the goodwill and great examples by practitioners and social work leaders, these are some of the practical challenges that remain on the ground.”
The need to learn lessons from the campaign to date was also raised by British Association of Social Workers (BASW) England national director Maris Stratulis.
“It is really important that the sector learns why ‘The Social Work Together’ campaign has had minimal impact, on a positive it could be that workforce contingency planning in local authorities has been flexible and responsive and there has been limited pressures in terms of staffing resources and capacity,” she said. “Alternatively, it could be a mismatch with candidates and roles.
“If this campaign has not delivered the desired outcomes and is not fit for purpose then the campaign needs to be revisited, especially in the context of a potential second Covid-19 peak which could have a significant impact on workforce capacity and the delivery of social work and social care services.”