Ask yourself the question – why would anyone want to be a children’s social worker? If I were to be totally honest, I’m not sure that I would encourage any of my family or close friends to start a career in social work at the moment.
The reason is that social workers have been vilified in the national media over the past few years. When a profession is criticised in this way the people working in it often feel as if the criticisms were directed personally at them. As a consequence, many have chosen to leave or taken different career directions.
We can’t deny that there have been some devastating and heart-wrenching tragedies involving children over the past few months. However, the fault rarely lies with individual professionals, but is usually to do with whole systems failures involving a number of partner agencies.
Unfortunately the impact of long-term media criticism on the profession’s reputation has been devastating. Many local authorities are running with social worker vacancy levels of up to 25%; and it’s also getting increasingly difficult to cover these with agency workers. Unless employers take urgent and drastic action to attract and retain people in these vital roles we face a major crisis in safeguarding vulnerable children.
There are a number of ways of addressing the problems, some are simply short-term ‘sticking-plaster’ interventions; others will have longer-term impact. Either way, the answer has to lie in a multi-agency approach finding sustainable solutions to a national problem. Many are holding their hopes on the national Social Work Taskforce looking at how we can address the crisis in recruitment, chaired by former Association of Directors of Social Services president Moira Gibb.
The crisis in recruitment of social workers is also one of the key themes in my manifesto for my year as president of PPMA. During the next 12 months, the association will be contributing to the national debate through the development of ideas and possible solutions.
The answers may not be quite as difficult as we think. If you go out and ask social workers what would make a difference to them in their roles, they often cite reduction in caseloads, more supervision, increased flexible working, access to lease cars, additional training, better tools and enhanced technology, and more administrative support.
More often than not, councils simply try to throw additional money in the form of higher salaries at professions such as social work whenever there is a crisis in the supply of talent. This isn’t the answer long-term. Instead we need to fundamentally rethink and redesign the roles.
We should be looking at how we can exploit technology to make the role simpler. We need more structured, ongoing professional development programmes that not only teach the technical skills needed for the role, but also the necessary interpersonal skills to interact with families; the emotional awareness needed to communicate effectively with families and partner agencies, the intuition needed to spot potential issues; and, more importantly than ever, the confidence to act.
It’s only once we have rebuilt public confidence in the profession that we will once again be able to recruit children’s social workers at the rates enjoyed many years ago.
Finally, for all those tragic cases involving children that we hear about in the media, there are many, many, more fantastic cases where social workers have intervened to support families to stay together, or to support children in finding a safe environment in which they can thrive and achieve their potential. These are the stories that we need to hear more about in the future.
Gillian Hibberd is also corporate director (people, policy and communications) at Buckinghamshire County Council.