World Social Work Day 2015 How do we grow and sustain the UK’s social workforce, asks Sherry Malik

Children's social care is about helping to empower young people with a respect for themselves that they may not have been shown by others. In a fitting tribute, 'promoting the dignity and worth of peoples' is the theme of this year's World Social Work Day. But while our efforts and energies are focused on the wellbeing of young people, too often the wellbeing of social care professionals is neglected.

The social work sector needs to equally promote the 'dignity and worth' of its workers, ensuring that they receive the professional and pastoral support they need to thrive in an exceptionally difficult climate. Only then can it hope to recruit and retain talent, which currently proves a well-reported challenge.

Two women talking at a kitchen table

The status quo

According to the Department for Education (DfE), the number of vacant children’'s social worker posts has increased by nearly 20 per cent in a single year, with well over 4,000 roles unoccupied last September. The DfE adds that there are, on average, 16 children in need per full-time social worker. It'’s incredibly worrying to think how many are missing out on the consistent support they need.

Of course, these are just the children on social services’ radar. Our How Safe Are Our Children? report estimates that for every child on a protection plan with social services, there are another eight who have been abused or neglected and equally need our help.

Children in care have told us time and time again that they see social workers chop and change, moving in and out of their lives just as other adults have. Good social work is relationship-based and centres around securing a young person’s trust to help them move forward. With every changeover, we have to start from square one. 

When I read that some councils are responding to the shortage of social workers by offering incentive payments and recruiting from abroad, I felt a sense of déjà vu. Social work cannot plug holes forever. It needs a bolder, longer-sighted solution that commits to tackle the underlying issues, namely:

  • inconsistent training
  • the lack of a cohesive career structure
  • social work burnout.

Align education with employment

Part of the solution lies in strengthening partnerships between social work educators and employers. These bodies must work together to ensure consistency in training and facilitate placements that prepare students for careers in social work.

Research by the NSPCC and Coventry University recently demonstrated this need. It found training on child sexual abuse to be ‘fragmented and partial’, to the detriment of some social workers’ confidence and morale. Local leaders have to address this urgently, driving collaboration between higher education institutions, local authorities and local charities.

Standardise pay, focus on practice

Instead of quick-fix “golden hello” payment packages, fuelling a vicious circle where social workers are enticed from one authority to another, couldn'’t social work learn from the national pay structure of registered nurses?

If we had such a unified structure, employers would have to prove their value in another currency: with good working practices, safe caseloads, a programme of continual professional development and effective support mechanisms.

These measures would be far more likely to inspire loyalty, with the social worker having chosen the environment where they want to spend their career rather than being sold to the highest bidder.

Build support into social work

Employers must do all they can to help social workers heal from the emotional toll of their prolonged exposure to trauma.

Supervision is an essential part of this, but social workers have also told us of their need for built-in reflection and support, independent of their managerial relationship. The opportunity to offload to colleagues helps them process the complexities of their work and make sense of what they are seeing, hearing and feeling. 

Our Letting The Future In service, for children who have been sexually abused, uses a model of peer consultation which is valued by its practitioners. It provides a confidential space for them to frankly discuss cases and exchange knowledge and support. Practitioners listen, encourage and sometimes gently challenge one another in a safe environment amongst equals. Everyone has something to offer and something to learn.

Cooperate and commit to change

Beginning with these measures, social work needs a whole-system approach to reducing stress and burnout if it is to fill vacant posts long-term. It owes stability and support not only to its hardworking, uniquely gifted professionals but to every child in need.

Hear more from Sherry

You can read more thoughts from Sherry on her twitter feed.

Follow @sherry_malik

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