“It’s a really supportive culture – people care about people, which is really important for the work that we do. There’s always a push for people to progress. You know you’ll get good opportunities.”
This is Emma Cox, manager of Essex County Council’s centralised adult safeguarding triage team, talking about the strength of the authority’s approach to supporting and developing its social workers and other social care staff.
Emma’s career is testament to that. She joined Essex in 2014 to do her assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE), before training as a best interests assessor (BIA), becoming a senior practitioner and then a manager of what was a brand new team.
Her colleague Billie Weedon, also a team manager in adult social care, has had a similar experience, having done a student placement at Essex before going on to do her ASYE, and then completing her training as a BIA, approved mental health professional (AMHP) and practice educator.
‘The training opportunities are vast’
“I feel lucky to be part of Essex,” she says. “There’s a grow-your-own culture and the training opportunities are vast.”
Essex’s investment in training the next generation of social workers is evident in the fact that it is currently supporting 147 students, 152 practitioners on its ASYE programmes and 65 staff training to be practice educators.
While elsewhere, the end of the ASYE may result in a break in development opportunities, this is not the case in Essex.
“As soon as you finish your ASYE you are encouraged to look at what path you want to take,” says Emma. “For me it was BIA. I was due to start my practice educator but then the pandemic struck but I hope to pick that up now.”
Maria Govoreanu, who is currently doing her ASYE and works on Emma’s team, is already thinking in this way. “I’m already looking to the future and [Emma] knows I want to progress in my career. I’m quite adamant that I want to have all sorts of experiences that are available to me,” she says.
Clear progression routes
Billie adds that Essex employs capability frameworks – based on social work’s Professional Capabilities Framework – that give practitioners “very clear roles and outcomes and a focused progression route”.
“You’re very clear about where you are in your career so there are very good pathways if you want to take a practice-focused approach to your career but also if you want a more strategic focus to your career.”
As well as the opportunity to develop into senior practitioners, practice educators, BIAs or AMHPs, or move into line management, Essex also gives staff the chance to take on practice leadership roles, covering specific topic areas, such as domestic abuse.
It is an approach felt equally by children’s services social workers, such as senior practitioner Katie Leach.
“At the moment I’m completing my practice educator training,” she says. “A lot of my colleagues are doing different modules at universities to work towards master’s qualifications.”
She adds: “We’ll probably get one or two emails a day on different opportunities for learning, from universities, online seminars or workshops.”
Essex Social Care Academy
The source of these opportunities is the Essex Social Care Academy (ESCA).
Set up in 2012, it supports professional development for social workers at all levels and their social care colleagues, across children’s and adults’ services.
“We have bulletins that go out to the workforce twice a week to highlight new things that are happening,” says Will Chaney, ESCA team manager for adult social care. “We’ve embraced Teams, and have an ESCA channel that goes out to adults’ and children’s staff.”
This one-profession approach is one of the key advantages of Essex’s approach.
“The great thing about having one academy is that it means there’s a lot of common ground that we can deliver to both workforces,” says ESCA head Paul McGee, who is also Essex’s principal social worker for children and families.
While this covers topics of common interest such as supervision and crossover practice areas such as the Mental Capacity Act and autism, ESCA also invites children’s practitioners to train in adults’ topics and vice versa.
“Both workforces get access to CPD beyond their function,” Paul adds. “We do get staff who change function so that stands us in good stead for that.”
And bringing together practitioners from adults’ and children’s benefits both groups, says Will. “You get richer conversations when you learn from each other. You will spend a lot of time in one function but it’s very useful to learn from other areas, not just between adults’ and children’s but also in different areas of children’s or adults’.”
Adapting to Covid
It would have been easy for professional development to take a backseat when Covid struck, with services under heightened pressure and face-to-face learning impossible. However, ESCA responded quickly by moving training online without any reduction in what was offered to practitioners.
“We didn’t cancel any training. We moved it online and delivered a significant quantity of training in really interactive and engaging ways,” says Jan Williams, ESCA’s children’s team manager.
This involved adapting the length and make-up of sessions to ensure they worked as effectively online as face-to-face.
In a number of ways, ESCA’s offer to Essex practitioners has been enhanced. Firstly, online learning has been easier to fit, flexibly, into practitioners’ busy schedules.
“What we have found is that, as Essex is a massive county [face-to-face training has] taken up a lot of travel time for people,” says Paul. Moving training online has led to “staggering attendance”, including in reflective practice sessions that would require small groups if done face to face.
ESCA has also broadened what it offered to take account of the impact of the pandemic on practitioners’ emotional and mental health.
“This has been critical during the pandemic,” says Paul: “There’s been an increasing focus on the needs to focus on staff wellbeing.”
Paul himself is a qualified yoga instructor and has delivered online sessions for staff. Jan adds: “When we’re talking about CPD, it’s CPD in its broadest form, not just practice training, but our escapes programme, which is like an online magazine, podcasts, videos. We’ve also done light-hearted content, online parties, to enable staff to have some down time.”
Essex children’s and adults’ services departments have also worked closely with the council’s strategic lead for workforce wellbeing to support self-care among staff during the pandemic. This has included giving them protected time during the day – beyond their lunchbreak – to support their wellbeing.
Billie says this has been of real benefit to her. “Things like the wellbeing hour have been really beneficial for me. I’ve been able to go for a run this morning. Essex has a caring culture – it really cares,” she says.
ESCA has also provided staff with practical training in working under pandemic conditions.
Will says: “There have been a lot of support sessions, led by our PSWs, directors and public health leads, to provide a safe space for staff to deal with some of the hugely challenging issues, like how you do direct work during a pandemic, and helping them navigate the vast amounts of information available.”
Supporting your peers
Within children’s services, practitioners also gain development opportunities through Essex’s work to support for struggling councils through the government’s Partners in Practice programme, which many practitioners get involved with.
“That’s seen as part of your development from senior practitioner up,” says Paul. “When supporting other organisations, it’s really important [for their staff] to hear from peers going through the same day-to-day challenges. And the learning is mutual.”
ESCA’s ability to deliver this level of CPD is dependent on a learning culture that has the full endorsement of directors Nick Presmeg (adults’ services) and Helen Lincoln (children’s services).
“Culturally that’s been one of the strong features of Essex, its real focus on professional development,” says Paul. “There’s an expectation that people develop and you are going against the grain if you’re happy doing what you’re doing and not progressing. That really struck me when I joined Essex four years ago.”
Expectations and opportunities
But alongside these expectations of staff is the opportunity to put them into practice. Essex has established 10 conditions of success for social work practice with children and families. These include having workers with manageable workloads, giving them appropriate practical support and having a culture of dialogue, reflective thinking, feedback, learning and support and a system-wide approach to improvement and performance.
Katie says of juggling her practice educator training with her caseload: “It’s a juggling act but one thing that Essex managers do is that if you are struggling to do the work they sit down and look at your calendar and give you practical support to help you manage.”
Billie adds: “Essex is really good at recognising your training commitments and managing your workload alongside that.”
And learning and development is seen as being everyone’s responsibility, she says: “The culture is there of supporting students and apprentices – it’s not just ‘you’re the PE it’s your responsibility’. It’s a new member of our team that we all work to develop.”
One person looking forward to doing an apprenticeship is adults’ services community support worker Emma Evans, who says: “I’m being really encouraged to go forward for the apprenticeship…There are training opportunities if you are a support worker, but I feel if you become a social worker, there’s a world of opportunity open to you at Essex.”
It’s a comment that sums up the Essex approach, which places learning and development at the heart of social work practice.
If you are interested in roles at Essex County Council, see the latest opportunities here.