Scottish services losing experienced social workers, leaving NQSWs without support, warns SASW

Social work body raises warning in response to comment that only newly qualified social workers are applying for jobs in Scotland

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Scottish services are losing experienced social workers, leaving newly qualified practitioners without support and putting the quality of services at risk.

That was the warning from the Scottish Association of Social Work (SASW), in response to comments made last month that experienced staff were not applying for social work vacancies in the country.

“Anecdotally, we are hearing that the only people applying for social work roles are NQSWs,” said Anne Tavendale, learning and development manager at the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC), at a session during Social Work England’s Social Work Week.

Though the SSSC was not able to comment further on the issue, SASW’s national director, Alison Bavidge, raised significant concerns about the imbalance in experience in social work teams.

NQSWs ‘missing out on informal mentoring’

“We are hearing that there are teams where a large number of members are social workers who are newly qualified or at an early stage in their career,” she said.

“This presents difficulties in creating an environment and culture that provides the, often informal, coaching and mentoring support that newly qualified practitioners need which has always been a key part of induction to the profession. Loss of experience in teams may, over time, affect the quality of service. It will increase pressure on all team members and the line manager, who needs to support their staff and quality assure the work of the team.”

The value of such peer support to NQSWs was made clear in a five-year study on their experiences published by SSSC last year. This found that:

  • 93% of participants agreed their colleagues gave them good advice compared with 78% who said the same about their manager.
  • 85% said their colleagues were good at explaining complex information compared with 68% who had the same view of their manager.
  • 84% said they could express their emotions to colleagues compared with 66% who felt that supervision was a safe space in which to do so.

The SSSC is due to launch a supported year for NQSWs across the country next year, following piloting by a group of 10 employers. This is designed to provide practitioners in their first year of employment with formal as well as informal peer support, along with protected caseloads and learning time, continuous learning opportunities and professional supervision at least every four weeks.

This will mirror approaches in England, with the assessed and supported year in employment, Wales (the consolidation programme) and Northern Ireland (the assessed year in employment).

For SASW, Bavidge said that, beyond the problems with the mix of experience within teams, Scotland had “a crisis of recruitment and retention” within the profession.

A quarter of graduates deregister after six years

A 2019 SSSC report found that three-quarters of practitioners were registered six years after graduation, while a 2022 study for leadership body Social Work Scotland proposed caseload limits to mitigate the increasing burdens social workers faced.

This report also warned that ‘moral distress’ experienced by some social workers – in which they identify ethical courses of action but are unable to pursue them because of resource constraints – was fuelling decisions to leave the profession

Bavidge added: “We have identified a number of worrying trends, in relation to working conditions and wellbeing of those social workers who are established in their careers and practicing in Scotland, including that the overall stress scores for social workers in Scotland are much higher than the UK average, and that one in four practitioners leave within the first six years of practice.

“SASW are pushing government to urgently act to ensure the workforce is better supported.”

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