“I could easily go away, do agency and get double what I am getting paid now but I see the value in the richness of the experience and the learning,” says Clare, a consultant social worker in Oldham Council’s assessment and intervention team in children’s services. “I value the teaching and learning I get, and how I can give back to the families.”
Clare is one of several practitioners benefitting from Oldham’s commitment to upskilling its workforce.
Oldham has a dedicated support programme for newly qualified social workers, where they receive a bespoke assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) that is inclusive of a learning, development, and support offer. Beyond the ASYE, there is a dedicated progression programme providing opportunities such as completing post qualifying modules at Salford University.
The council offers practitioners opportunities to become a practice educator or mentor for ASYE practitioners and also commissions specialist training. There are also opportunities to become a ‘champion’ of practice in specialist areas.
Permanent staff can access a year-long accredited foundation course at the Centre for Systemic Social Work in London, as well as access to systemic practice focused learning sessions. These are delivered in a bite-sized format to help further embed systemic practice.
Clare believes that these opportunities have helped her to progress in her career.
Culture of learning
She joined Oldham six years ago, completing her ASYE and progressing to consultant social worker in Oldham’s social work academy. At the end of August this year, she moved into her new Frontline consultant social worker (CSW) role in the assessment and intervention unit.
“It seems like a massive jump, but in the interim, the support and training that I’ve been provided through working on complex cases, shadowing my peers, and mentoring others has been vast,” she says.
Clare points to a culture of peer-to-peer learning and supportive managers that exists in Oldham. Social workers are encouraged to identify areas of practice they want to develop and are supported to shadow peers and take up secondments to deepen that learning.
Prior to starting her new role, Clare recalls how an annual appraisal meeting with her manager helped to push her out of her comfort zone of only working with teenagers to also supporting younger children and babies.
“I recall being in supervision and my manager asking me: ‘What would you like to learn next?’ It became very apparent that I was working with teenagers a lot because that was something that I enjoyed doing. There was a bit of a push for me to develop a knowledge of child development and working with younger children – now I like working with younger children.”
Through practice reviews and feedback, which she describes as strengths-based and development-focused, Clare was able to progress.
“I was always allocated buddies, because I really enjoy the teaching aspect of social work – I am very passionate about it [social work] and I love theory. So, my manager was always encouraging me to support an ASYE, mentoring or do peer support. That helped to build my confidence. When I wanted experience in reflective supervision, my manager supported me to do that to increase my skillset.”
These various types of experience have helped her to be a better social worker.
“I think back to when I was an ASYE and having my manager send those care plans back to me to improve. I see the value in how that pushed me to be better. Now, when I am completing those care plans, they are so robust for that child.”
Oldham also offers 12-month secondment opportunities – something that Ben, head of service in the children’s assessment and intervention service – believes is helping Oldham to retain its workforce.
He recalls encouraging one practitioner to take up a secondment in one of Oldham’s long-term teams (now called safeguarding and care planning teams).
“It was really good in terms of building up her confidence, experience and knowledge,” he says. “She came back and eventually went up through to senior practitioner and on to team manager. And I coached her through that.
“I think the culture within Oldham has really been around recruitment from within as a means of building that stable and steady workforce. I think what’s recognised, in terms of staff retention and having a solid workforce, is making sure that there is the opportunity for people to develop and grow. Because if people feel stagnant, then people start looking elsewhere.”
Supporting staff progression
This is something that Stephanie, head of Oldham’s social work academy and principal social worker in children’s services, is acutely aware of.
Advanced practitioners are encouraged to specialise, have ‘champion’ roles and play a greater role in supporting systemic training, or group reflective supervision.
“People were feeding back that they wanted to go into an advanced practitioner position but then weren’t given the opportunities to learn management skills, when this was the next step in their career,” says Stephanie.
Oldham listened and practitioners now have access to Frontline’s Pathways social work leadership programme.
Stephanie adds: “We now ensure that there are multiple opportunities to step into an advanced practitioner position. Once in a senior or advanced practitioner role, opportunities for development are vast, and include the development of management skills. Appraisals and regular supervision, for all our staff, consider skills and areas for development. When looking at future career goals, plans are implemented and reviewed as to how opportunities can be or are provided.”
As well as being offered a range of learning opportunities, social workers need to have the time to access this training while managing a caseload.
“When you’ve got a whole caseload of families that you’re working with, your priority and your commitment is your families and not always necessarily yourself and your [career] progress,” says Lauren, a CSW in the safeguarding and care planning team.
As a result, social workers are offered protected time.
“When managers are looking at your workload, they are not just looking at the numbers but the complexity and how social workers can fit in the learning without feeling overwhelmed,” says Stephanie.
Clare believes that acknowledgement is vital. “Just being given permission from your manager to take time off to train is amazing and something we don’t speak to enough.”
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