How well do you feel social workers from overseas are supported to work in the UK?
- Badly (48%, 270 Votes)
- There is support in place but there is also room for improvement (40%, 225 Votes)
- Very well (12%, 70 Votes)
Total Voters: 565
In the past few years, councils in England have been investing increasingly in recruiting from overseas to address the mounting vacancies in their social work teams.
Recent Social Work England (SWE) figures showed that the number of international social workers applying to work in England had risen from 611 in the 2019-20 registration year to 1,684 in 2021-22 – a 175.3% increase.
Chris Armstrong, business director of recruitment agency Morgan Hunt’s social care branch, has been supporting social workers relocate from Zimbabwe and South Africa, two of the most common countries of origin for overseas practitioners, for the last three years.
“Every year there has been a huge increase,” he says.
He attributes this to the workforce pressures generated by Covid-19, but also to authorities sharing positive feedback across their networks about the international social workers they have hired.
“The values of social workers I work with are second to none,” adds Armstrong. “Their natural empathy and solid, strong and passionate direct work are unbelievable.
“Their resilience is also absolutely unrivalled because they go through the wringer to find a job in the UK. A South African social worker, for example, has to do multiple interviews with us while dealing with rolling power cuts, which happen three times a day. That resilience shines through when they start practising.”
Experts by experience
For Dr Muzvare Hazviperi Betty Makoni, who supports international social workers through her organisation, Social Care Empowering Training and Consultancy, overseas practitioners’ key asset is their experience of direct work with families.
“They have a very therapeutic approach because they haven’t had a paperwork-based job like us,” says Dr Makoni, a social worker and longstanding campaigner for the rights of women and girls, globally.
“They can bring those skills into crisis situations – good skills of direct work with children, good, respectful communication, relationship building.”
Their own exposure to “violence and poverty” in their home countries also makes them “experts by experience”, she adds.
The silent story of immigration
Overseas practitioners’ commitment to their roles is also ensured through the hefty financial investment they make to come to the UK. However, this comes with significant costs that go beyond the financial.
“The economic part of migration has been a silent story,” says Dr Makoni. “It is also one that is very painful.”
Alongside interviews and assessments for their role, candidates need to register with Social Work England before they get to the UK, which requires a £495 non-refundable scrutiny fee in addition to the registration fee of £90 a year.
With relocation costs and visa expenses, the total investment they have to make before they even arrive – excluding housing expenses – approaches £2,000, according to Armstrong.
Most councils offer a relocation package – worth up to £8,000 – to alleviate some of the financial pressure. But practitioners often don’t have access to it until they have moved.
Social Work England’s scrutiny fee is designed to fund the costs of checking the person’s application, including verifying their identity, qualifications and knowledge of English.
However, it represents a substantial cost in a country such as Zimbabwe – the biggest source of international social workers in England – where take-home pay for practitioners is around £200 a month, says Dr Makoni.
It will take practitioners six months to save up to pay the fee, she adds, but she is aware of other cases where the process has carried more risk.
“I had a situation where a woman had to be a commercial sex worker to get this money,” she adds. “It was very tragic. What else can you do?”
“You need the scrutiny fee, the registration fee, and police clearance. We could have some empathy – social work is the profession of empathy.”
She suggests allowing practitioners to make the payments in quarterly instalments rather than all at once, or encouraging employers to pay it as part of their relocation funding.
Overseas applications more complex – Social Work England
Social Work England’s fee rules – which are signed off by the education secretary – require the £495 to be paid in its entirety, and the regulator says this reflects the extra work it takes for it to check an overseas application.
“We welcome social workers from overseas,” says executive director for regulation Philip Hallam. “Our recent Social work in England: State of the nation report highlights how the global migration of skilled professionals is helping to address staff shortages and making the workforce more diverse”
He adds: “Social work education can be very different across the world, so when assessing an application we need to be confident that an overseas applicant’s education, training and experience meet both our education and training standards and our professional standards.
“Our rules and regulations deliberately do not allow for flexibility to ensure the public is protected and can feel confident that every social worker on the register has met our requirements for education and training.
“Our regulatory rules require us to charge people who qualified overseas for an upfront ‘scrutiny fee’ because applications are more complex to assess than UK applications and cost more in terms of staff resource.”
The importance of a good manager
Chido* relocated from Harare, Zimbabwe in 2020, and was forced to separate from her one-year-old baby while she got settled.
She praises the “amazing communication” between her and Morgan Hunt for helping her through her relocation. The recruitment company assisted with her registration, visa application process, and even with finding accommodation before she got to the UK.
“A lot of it hinges on communication because there’s a lot of confusion when you’re back home on things like certified documents,” she says.
However, despite a smooth relocation, Chido found herself under lockdown for her first months in the UK, isolated and missing her family. Thankfully, she was able to lean on Dr Makoni and her local authority for support.
“I remember crying daily, but Dr Makoni was a real help – she created a wonderful group chat of Zimbabwean social workers in the UK. Someone would bring up a similar experience, and you’d be like, ‘okay, so it’s not just me’.
“My manager and team were also fantastic – I can’t thank them enough. They gave me the space to talk. They were mindful that, even when I was working with children, I was a mother without her child. So, we would have regular check-ins about how that affected me and what they could do.”
She was also able to hit the ground running when she started practising because of a prior in-depth, three-month training period.
Training – “recognising that we have different levels of resources afforded to us, so there should be allowances for differences” – and kindness are her essential tips for any local authority recruiting from overseas.
“I can’t stress the importance of a good manager,” she says. “I understand they’re busy; but when I’m new to a country, you’re my point of call. When I email my manager, I know who will pick up that email – that makes a difference. When you’ve got kind managers, inside and outside of the office, that is amazing.”
The first six months in the UK
International practitioners’ financial struggles don’t dissipate when they settle, either. With a take-home salary of around £2,000, they have to pay rent and utilities, buy essentials, furnish their home, find a car and send money to their family.
“They are starting on a negative compared to their colleagues,” says Dr Makoni.
According to Armstrong, the most common reason for an arrangement falling through is social workers not feeling well enough supported in the first six months.
Caseloads tend to “skyrocket”, warns Dr Makoni, with some councils immediately allocating complex cases to international practitioners , without allowing them the time to get accustomed to their new professional, cultural and geographical terrain.
To avoid that, Morgan Hunt steers clear from working with councils that don’t put “a lot of commitment” into the initial induction period.
“The day-to-day practice is very different [here], so there’s a real steep learning curve when they first arrive to get up to speed,” says Armstrong. “They need a lot of support through that initial period.
“If you put the work in early and you support people the first six months, not only will they be in a better position to pick up a caseload and give a much better service to service users, but you will also retain them because they’ve been supported.”
Both he and Dr Makoni also stress the importance of social workers having a support network to lean on as they try to settle in a new country and learn a new culture.
“If you’re having challenges, or dealing with issues in your personal life, you don’t want to tell your manager because you’re trying to ensure that they’re impressed by you,” Armstrong says. So that’s where we come in.”
Dr Makoni, who runs a WhatsApp group chat with around 500 social workers from overseas, also encourage managers to direct any arriving practitioners to her network. The organisation is designed to be a safe space with people with similar experiences who can provide expert peer support.
‘To perform in what is a really challenging role, social workers need to feel settled’
Since October 2022, working with Morgan Hunt, South Gloucestershire Council has recruited 19 social workers from South Africa and Zimbabwe.
After arriving, practitioners are supported in the council’s development hub, where they receive several months’ training and shadow various teams before being allocated to one.
Petros Careswell, the interim service manager for the development hub, says this avoids the common mistake of placing social workers straight into a team with a full caseload.
“That not only puts them under significant pressure, but we were also worried about outcomes for children and young people and families when the social workers aren’t fully familiarised with social work in our context,” he adds.
“We felt it was important that we take the time to not just train them, but build them up in a measured way to a full caseload. They’re working with families but won’t have a full caseload by the time they leave the hub. That way, they can learn and then take that knowledge forward into their permanent roles.”
South Gloucestershire has also acknowledged the strain that finding accommodation can put on arriving practitioners.
Before relocation, it provides the practitioner with briefings on good areas to look for housing and arranges accommodation for a month on a part-funded basis to allow their social workers the time to find a permanent residence.
“We acknowledged from the start that, for social workers to perform in what is a really challenging role, they need to feel settled and personally secure,” says Careswell.
“We try to be as flexible as we can with our workers, for example, if they need to go and view a house in a working hour.”
This kind of support is also helpful for future recruitment.
Overseas social workers who see former co-workers relocate successfully to an area, with sufficient support, will think, “we can go somewhere where we are valued” and follow, says Dr Makoni.
*Name has been changed