Councils are struggling to recruit forensic social workers (FSWs) because of the lower rates they pay compared with NHS trusts, a report on the role has found.
The study also found FSWs, who work with offenders in secure hospitals and the community, lacked opportunities for career progression and that there was a need for greater clarity over their role and the skills required, particularly in relation to the social supervisor function.
Commissioned by Health Education England’s new roles in mental health social work group, the report made 15 recommendations to enhance the FSW role, including redressing salary differences, establishing a post-qualifying framework and enhancing training.
The report, by independent mental health social worker, researcher and trainer Jacob Daly, was based on a one-month scoping exercise in February and March that canvassed 27 organisations and involved analysis of job descriptions and job specifications, a review of relevant literature, and surveys answered by 22 FSWs and 18 practitioners.
The report found local authority FSW salaries were lower than those in the NHS, which used Agenda for Change pay scales, leading to councils struggling to successfully recruit practitioners. Part of the problem was that councils had abandoned additional allowances they previously paid FSWs. Salaries were lower still in the private sector.
The report found that where there were longstanding vacancies, existing practitioners’ workloads increased, prompting staff to move to higher-paid roles in better working environments.
In its recommendations, the report called for salary disparities to be addressed, identifying them as a “significant hurdle” for forensic social work services run by local authorities in recruiting and retaining staff.
Department of Health and Social Care mental health social work lead Mark Trewin, who chairs the HEE’s new roles group, said austerity went some way to explaining the disparity between council and NHS salaries. The health service has been more protected than councils from budget cuts over the past decade.
“The report identifies some issues around differences in pay within integrated teams. The NHS has the Agenda for Change, while local authorities have different pay scales and have suffered from budget cuts,” he said. “We want social workers to be a key part of forensic services across the social care, NHS, voluntary, community and social enterprise and independent sector workforce – so we need to resolve these issues.”
The report also found the removal of additional payments has been interpreted by those on the front line as “minimising the particular nature of the work that forensic social workers do, the emotional impact that this work can have upon professionals, and the element of risk involved”. It said this has led to “ill-feeling on the front line” by many FSWs employed by local authorities.
Drivers of satisfaction
However, the report also found that pay was just one of a number of factors in recruitment and retention, with others including isolation, loss of professional identity and the perception that FSWs may not be valued by other professionals.
“These are all complex issues that cannot be explored in isolation,” said the study. “Organisations that addressed these issues, however, demonstrated higher levels of satisfaction all round by social work staff in the areas being explored in this scoping exercise.”
The report also found FSWs lacked career progression opportunities, with practitioners reporting few vacant posts, including for management roles, as experienced practitioners stayed in post. This meant FSWs had to travel long distances for new roles, which also reduced the pool of applicants for employers.
It said trusts and councils should work together to create opportunities for practitioners to move and develop their skills, including through secondments.
Greater clarity over role
The report also highlighted the need for greater clarity over the FSW role. It found wide variety among 52 job descriptions analysed by the author, with employers in the North generally requiring higher levels of skill and knowledge than those in London and the South, which managers suggested may have been linked to recruitment difficulties in the latter regions.
This was in addition to the significant diversity in the settings and employment contexts of the role – with practitioners based in the community or low, medium or high-secure hospital settings, and employed by the NHS, local authority, private and voluntary sector employers.
Employers used a number of different frameworks to identify the skills required of the role, highlighting a “complex landscape of advice and guidance” for FSWs. This includes a specific framework for FSWs launched in 2016, the professional capabilities framework, NHS performance indicators and the knowledge and skills statement for social workers in adult services.
The report said this needed to be addressed by the development of a single post-qualifying framework for the career and skills development of FSWs, which could be embedded in any setting and provide coherence for the role. To succeed, it said this framework would need to have “universal currency”, with Social Work England needing to play an important role in developing it.
It also identified key areas for enhanced training for FSWs, including in relation to the Care Act 2014 for practitioners in NHS trusts where previous partnership arrangements with councils had dissolved. The report also called for the pooling of training resources across trusts and councils to ensure more efficient delivery of learning.
Trewin said the report had identified that the changes to integrated arrangements between health and social care can lead to social workers feeling more isolated in some situations.
“We have heard reports that this can lead to issues about role clarity in some cases – however we have done a lot of work with social work and NHS leaders on this issue as part of the new roles project and will be producing a report at our September 30th webinar that we hope will help this situation,” Trewin said.
Focus on social supervisor role
The report placed a particular focus on the role of social supervisor, which involves reporting on the care, rehabilitation and risks relating to people who have been discharged from secure hospitals after having been detained under the Mental Health Act (MHA).
While this role has traditionally been carried out by FSWs, including by practitioners who had been working with the person in hospital, the report found there has been an increase in service users being discharged to the care of community mental health teams.
Participants suggested that the social supervisors allocated in community settings were more likely to be Care Programme Approach care co-ordinators (CPACCs), a role that can be carried out by a range of professionals and with different responsibilities to that of social supervisor.
The study found the two roles had been conflated, adding: “The collapsing of the two roles has created some ambiguity and confusion for parts of the FSW sector and suggests a need for distinguishing between these two roles so as to better serve each of their individual distinct purposes.
While the report concluded that the social supervisor role should not only be performed by FSWs, it said they were “uniquely placed” to do so.
It called for a review of Ministry of Justice guidance on the social supervisor role and also said there needed to be clear arrangements where one authority was carrying out the function on behalf of another.
On the general point for the need for greater role clarity, Trewin said: “What [the project] found is there needs to be further clarity and guidance on the social supervision role and we really need to work out the relationship between health and social care.”
He said the report would act as an evidence base to develop the FSW role.
“NHS England is about to set up forensic community teams and we want to make sure we are working with them and providing them with a positive vision for social care within forensic services, so this report is quite timely in that sense,” he added.