Council renews bid to solve shortage of social workers

County Hall

Councils are facing the logistical nightmare of trying to meet physically while abiding by social distancing guideline - Credit: Archant

Devon is “struggling more than ever” to recruit social workers - and now the county council has announced a new package of measures to help fix the crisis.

The council says it has a significant shortage of social workers in key areas such as support for the most vulnerable children and families, care for disabled children, and its safeguarding hub –  hampering attempts to improve children’s services.

Last year, the service Ofsted rated the service as ‘inadequate’. Improvements have since been made but “nothing is completely fixed” according to an update from inspectors in July.

An initial £1.1 million this year and £3.4 million from next year will provide better pay for key roles, retention payments, more administrative support to free up social workers to focus on direct work with children and families, and expanding training schemes and workforce development.

Members of the county’s cabinet heard that last December, almost half of the 195 full-time equivalent frontline social worker posts in Devon were filled by agency staff. They cost £28,000 a year more than permanent staff, many of whom have been leaving the council for better-paying jobs with neighbouring authorities.

Some changes to pay and conditions have reduced the agency worker total to 30 per cent, but the authority still forecasts a £1 million overspend this year due to the additional cost. In addition, one in five vacancies in the council (19 per cent) remain unfilled.

Melissa Caslake, Devon’s recently appointed chief officer for children’s services, told the cabinet: “We are struggling more than ever with recruiting the right numbers of permanent staff and in fact agency staff now, and we have also seen some significant increases in demand since April. There is a national shortage of qualified social workers so we are having to compete very hard with other authorities.”

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Ms Caslake’s report outlining the new measures added the council had experienced rising numbers of children being referred since the second lockdown ended, along with more children in care (up from around 780 to 806) and children subject to child protection plans (from approximately 530 to 590) since this time last year.

“As a result of these factors, caseloads are rising, and this is impacting on morale and the quality of practice,” she said.

Councillor Andrew Leadbetter (Conservative, Wearside & Topsham), cabinet member for children’s services, said: “We are determined to provide the best possible help and support we can to the children who need it most and this comprehensive package of measures is a big step towards achieving that ambition.”

Councillor Rob Hannaford (Labour, St Thomas) said that while he “very much welcomed and supported” the measures, a scrutiny committee had raised issues about recruitment and retention of staff some time ago and questioned why it had taken so long to address.

Councillor Alistair Dewhirst (Lib Dem, Ipplepen & The Kerswells) ecohed those comments, but added that he was “really pleased to see this as a whole. However, he is concerned at plans to increase the number of qualified social workers being recruited from overseas to up to 15 a year.

He said: “This is one of the richest countries in the world, and is it right and proper that we go out to poorer countries and try and steal their social workers?

“Everybody needs social workers. We should be providing those services that social workers actually produce. Although I understand the way we’re doing it, we need social workers – as a country we’ve not been training them – I’m bitterly disappointed that that is what we’re actually doing.

“It’s a very small number, so I guess we’ve just got to get on with it, but I would like to see us producing a surplus of social workers so that we can find the very best from within our own country to come and work at Devon.”

In response, Melissa Caslake said that overseas staff the council have previously recruited have stayed, developed their careers and provided benefits through their care of children and bringing stability to services.

Ms Caslake added: “They are adding an element of really needed diversity to our workforce, which actually really helps us when we’re working with different sorts of families across the county.”

The cabinet unanimously approved the measures which, according to the report, will mean the county becomes “a competitive place in the social work employment market in the south west.”

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