Friday, 14 July 2017


I was pleased to read in Community Care that a local authority which had been experiencing acute problems in retaining children’s social workers has pursued a successful strategy to improve workforce stability.
In a re-inspection of West Berkshire Council, Ofsted found that the vacancy rate for children’s social workers had reduced to 10%. The inspection report concludes that children receiving services from the authority are now benefiting from what it describes as “stable, warm and helpful relationships with their social workers and foster carers”.

Key to achieving these improvements appears to have been the adoption by the Council in 2014 of a Social Care Recruitment and Retention Strategy.

This provides for a retention bonus, up to three months’ retention leave after three years’ service, employment of a recruitment and retention specialist, relocation allowances, employing additional family support workers to support children’s social workers and more help in owning and running a car for work purposes.

This focus on what Herzberg calls ‘hygiene factors’ builds on the views of a group of West Berkshire Social Workers who told managers in 2014 that 'Nobody does this job for the money, but a competitive salary/package would help recruitment and retention'.

But, to its credit, the strategy also recognises the crucial importance of Herzberg’s motivators in recruiting and retaining staff. It introduces better support and supervision, a social work academy to support newly qualified staff and stresses the importance of a good working environment, concluding that:
“Child Protection can be a frightening and dangerous role. Social Workers face threats and intimidation on a regular basis. Consequently it is essential staff return to safe and secure team environments where they can discuss complex case issues and debrief with colleagues following home visits.” (paragraph 5.2.1)
There may be some who think that this type of ‘retention package’ is expensive. Clearly many of the benefits involved do not come free of charge, but the costs have to be weighed against the costs of not retaining children’s social workers. These include the costs of having to cover vacancies using agency staff, the costs of trying to recruit to vacant posts (advertising, interviewing etc.) and the costs of long-term sickness which is often a consequence of overwork and stress. Perhaps most importantly are the costs of poor quality, such as children coming into care because they cannot be adequately supported in the community or the costs of re-work when a case needs to be revisited because of mistakes and quality shortfalls resulting from frequent staff changes or absences.

Not to mention the costs of having negative Ofsted inspections, with all the expense and disruption that a finding of ‘inadequate’ brings.

I do not know the details of how these costs are actually working out in West Berkshire, but I suspect that the long-term cost of doing things right will be less than the long-term costs of doing things badly. And I hope that the authority will go from strength to strength in continuing to implement its strategy in future.

I don’t know where the pervasive idea came from that the best way to get value-for-money from children’s social workers was to treat them badly, but it has certainly been a feature of the UK scene for many years. A command and control ethos saw the introduction of more and ever tighter procedures, making it increasingly hard to do a good job. There were timescales and targets and formal assessment instruments which, with the benefit of hindsight, almost seem to have been designed to impede good practice. [1]

Then there were IT systems which were hard to use, frustrating and demanding of time. Initiatives such as more efficient use of office space, culminating in some areas in ‘hot-desking’, and the effects of the public sector pay cap, which has meant in many cases falling salaries, added further to an unhealthy recipe for dissatisfied and demotivated employees.

But all of these de-motivaters pale into insignificance when compared to the impact of the surrounding culture of blame and fear. That is why West Berkshire's commitment to creating "... safe and secure team environments where (social workers) can discuss complex case issues and debrief..." is so important.

There are still many places where management practices of blame, command, control and bureaucracy are still the norm. Thank goodness that there are some places like West Berkshire that appear to be successfully reversing these unhelpful trends.


[1] K. Broadhurst  D. Wastell  S. White  C. Hall  S. Peckover  K. Thompson  A. Pithouse  D. Davey  “Performing ‘Initial Assessment’: Identifying the Latent Conditions for Error at the Front-Door of Local Authority Children's Services” Br J Soc Work (2010) 40 (2): 352-370.