Supporting early career social workers: lessons from Wales

With a five-year early career framework for children's social workers on the cards in England, Jo Stephenson explores what can be learnt from Wales's consolidation programme

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Joanne* recently completed the consolidation programme, a mandatory learning and development qualification for newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) in Wales.

“It was a good chance to consolidate and reflect on my practice and has been transformational in many respects,” she says. “But I am glad it is out of the way.”

All social workers who qualified in Wales on or after 1 April 2016 must complete the programme during their first three-year registration period.

They will do one of two courses approved by regulator Social Care Wales, both managed and delivered by partnerships of employers and universities.

The programme aims to develop skills and knowledge in applying analysis in assessments, collaborative working and applying professional judgment in complex situations.

It includes taught days at university, work-based training, observation of practice and self-directed study and reflection.

Juggling work and study

“I’m a bit of a research junkie and really like the theory element so that was enjoyable and the lecturer was great,” says Joanne, who works in adult services in South Wales.

But she says it was difficult to juggle work and study.

“You have a day at uni and then you’re back to your caseload,” she says. “You end up working nights and all through the weekend.

“My children have left home but other members of the team have teenagers and were very overwhelmed.”

Feedback on the consolidation programme

According to the latest data from Social Care Wales, there were 223 enrolments onto the rolling programme in 2022-23, with 183 achieving the qualification that year.

Feedback on consolidation is generally good, according to Tom Slater, education assurance manager at Social Care Wales.

The fact the programme can be completed within a three-year timeframe provides flexibility. “It recognises different people might be ready at different points in time,” he says.

But he acknowledges doing a qualification on top of the day job may be a struggle for some.

“That’s probably true of all social work qualifications when you’re doing it alongside a busy role,” he says.

NQSWs working for Cyngor Gwynedd Council, in the north west of Wales, generally embark on the programme after their first year in practice.

“It has been a very positive experience for us,” says workforce development manager Gill Paul.

“Those first three years are key to your development as a social worker and the consolidation process provides a structure that’s needed.”

The programme, which launched in 2012, has evolved over the years in response to concerns it was too academic, prescriptive and burdensome, with efforts made to ensure it was more flexible, work-based and relevant.

Job opportunities in Wales

Social Worker for Children’s Safeguarding East Hub
Employer: Bridgend County Borough Council
Salary: £41,418 – £43,421, + £5000 market supplement (Starting at £34,834 for newly-qualified workers)

Social Worker for Information, Advice and Assistance Service (IAA)
Employer: Bridgend County Borough Council
Salary: £41,418 – £43,421 (Starting at £34,834 for newly-qualified workers)

Head of Adult Services
Employer: Newport City Council
Salary: £84,919 – £91,289

Sources of funding

The consolidation programme is normally paid for by employers. One of the sources of funding they can draw on is the Social Care Wales workforce development programme.

Social Care Wales does not restrict how local authorities use the funding, so it can be used to cover aspects like study release, workplace support and assessment and caseload protection.

Agency social workers may have to pay for and arrange the consolidation programme themselves, though this is dependent on the local authority where they work.

Covid-19 exacerbated pressures on services and longstanding workforce issues. A 2022 report for Social Care Wales exploring the impact of the pandemic on NQSWs found staffing shortages were having a significant impact on teams’ ability to support them or offer protected caseloads.

One NQSW who took part in the research said this contributed to their decision to leave children’s services.

“I wasn’t getting the supervision I thought I should be getting and top of that knowing that I was going to have to do the [consolidation] qualification this year made me decide,” they told researchers.

Wider workforce issues

It will be hard to provide good post-qualifying support unless these wider issues are addressed, stresses Samantha Baron, national director of the British Association of Social Workers Cymru.

“We can review the consolidation programme, change the content and requirements but you have still got NQSWs walking into teams with low morale, frequent staff turnover, unprotected caseloads and high numbers of referrals coming through, and that’s the perfect storm,” she says.

She believes there are important lessons for local authorities and policymakers in England, where a new five-year early career framework for children’s social workers is set to be introduced.

Positives include the fact it is built into professional regulation. “There is a lot of variability in England so if you want an early career framework you have to make it mandatory,” Baron says. “Pegging it to registration means employers have to do it.”

Many also highlight the benefits of good communication and strong partnership working between employers, higher education institutions and the regulator in Wales, and a genuine commitment to providing good post-qualifying support.

Value of link to pay and progression

Jenny Williams, who heads up the Association of Directors of Social Services Cymru’s workforce leadership group, suggests schemes that work best are explicitly linked to pay and career progression. These tangible incentives provide an additional motivating factor, especially when people are required to do the course on top of an already pressured day job.

While Wales is facing retention challenges more generally, Williams believes the programme plays an important role in supporting and retaining newly-qualified staff.

“It’s not that we’re seeing newly qualified social workers leave early, which would be a really worrying sign,” she said. “I think ultimately it does promote retention. I have seen some really good, long-standing social workers here who have gone through that route into management and I think there is a correlation between good support in those first few years and those workers staying. So there are loads of benefits of getting it right.”

*Name changed

If you’re interested in job opportunities in Wales, take a look at the latest vacancies on Community Care Jobs:
Bridgend County Council

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