There were parts of the first episode of BBC Radio 4’s Who'd be a Social Worker that I found puzzling [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b010gj9k]. For example some of the social work students’ comments on their practice placements ranged from the odd to the bizarre. A couple of students appeared to have been sent off to handle child protection work on their own, with one claiming to have removed children from their parents on two separate occasions, with only a support worker in tow. In contrast two students had had placements with little social work involvement – “filing, faxing and photocopying” and “making breakfasts for service users”. Then there was the odd case of the student who had failed her placement for rolling a cigarette….
The programme seemed to be on firmer ground when it was a matter of facts and figures. We were told that Birmingham University had no shortage of applicants for the 64 places on its social work degree course – 1000 in fact. And as the programme progressed it became obvious that the problems of staffing afflicting child protection social work stem not from lack of recruits but from lack of experienced staff. A recruitment agency manager said that most of the jobs on her books were marked as being not suitable for newly qualified social workers and that it was very hard to place those with no post qualification experience. On the other hand experienced social workers – of whom there were very few – were like ‘gold-dust’.
And then there were those who had qualified and found work but did not want to stay. One disillusioned recruit complained of ‘so much paperwork’ and ‘so much working on the computer’. She described her job as ‘tedious’ and said she only had contact with service users occasionally.
I suppose none of this is much different from what we already know. There is a real problem of retaining experienced and qualified staff in children’s social work and the problem does not seem to be getting the attention it deserves. Clearly creating a surplus of newly qualified social workers is no solution. Having a few advertising campaigns to drum up interest in social work degrees is, of course, relatively easy. What is much less easy is creating the kinds of conditions within employing agencies which will make qualified people want to stay and develop a long-term commitment.