Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A response to staff shortages - try merging services

It has all gone quiet on the subject of shortages of child protection social workers in Britain. One thing, however, is certain: there has been no profound change. Vacancy rates are still high and local authorities still have to cope with chronic staff shortages.

In a rational world people would be trying to come up with some urgent but effective responses to this problem. In the real world people seem happy to rely on agency workers to fill the gaps and on the future promise of more social workers coming from training. Neither response is satisfactory. Temporary agency workers can never provide the continuity of service that is so necessary for effective child protection. Although there are plenty of people training to be social workers, increasingly it has become apparent that the problems are of retention, not recruitment. And it is experienced social workers that are most urgently required.

My view is that the first thing we need to do is to use the current workforce more effectively. In big cities, like London, lots of relatively small local authorities employing a small number of social workers deliver child protection services. Inevitably this amplifies the negative effects of staff shortages on service quality and places greatest strain on employees. Greater flexibility would result from London Boroughs, for example, choosing to work together to cover the whole Greater London area with a single child protection service. This would facilitate the most efficient deployment of staff and generally make the service more resilient to staff shortages.

There are no legal obstacles to merging services in this way; they would be delivered as a partnership. Indeed some London Boroughs (such as Westminster, Kensington-and-Chelsea and Hammersmith-and-Fulham) are already engaged in merging children’s services with their neighbours, demonstrating that a wider merger of the type I envisage is feasible.