Turning agency fees into more spending for children

18 November 2019

There’s no doubt that social workers go above and beyond to provide vital care for children, young people and their families. At the same time, local authorities are still struggling to attract permanent workers.

Over recent years, this has created a culture of overreliance on agency workers to maintain support – creating a fundamentally flawed system. Until recently, Bedford BC was no exception.

Thanks to a strategic partnership with Guidant Global, however, the council has been able to turn things around, slashing its locum usage, saving thousands of pounds in the process, and investing the savings to provide better care for the children of Bedford.

There are several reasons why overreliance on agency workers in social care is problematic. In addition to the burdening fees that come with employing agency workers, it also means children receive an inconsistent service — making it difficult to create close, personal relationships.

For Bedford BC, it’s all about ensuring a safe environment and providing services which protect children from harm, improving outcomes for the children and their families. Funding, of course, plays a massive part in enabling this, which is why it’s so important to invest in the right places.

Bedford Borough Council set a strategic priority to recruit and retain a great workforce. 

With the help of the strategic partner,  Bedford BC was able to create a workforce development strategy to achieve this - ensuring that children supported by the council receive the best possible support available, from a high quality, committed workforce. This is ultimately making a huge difference to outcomes for children. We started with a workforce dominated by agency workers. At its peak, it reached as high as 52%. Our plan was to cut this down to 20%.

We adapted our approach, communications and artwork, and created an energetic employer value proposition to enhance our offering. This was not only about salaries, but also about providing a truly welcoming environment.

For instance, showing appreciation with a thank you message after an application was made. Likewise, sending a warm and friendly welcome from the directors on the first day, and ensuring a strong and supportive on-boarding process. 

We held sessions with our existing workforce to identify pain points and areas for improvement. We then looked at our historic attrition levels and asked what we could do differently to change this.

By understanding the needs of our workforce and the challenges they face, we were able to convert temporary staff to permanent – which is almost unheard of in this field – and attract and recruit new social workers and senior social workers.

After six months of our new approach, we managed to exceed expectations and reduce agency usage to under 10% - far below the national average. Before, we were seeing agency workers come and go, with children being forced to adapt. Now, we are able to provide a consistent, high-level quality of care. Not only were we able to attract the permanent employees needed to support children, but we were also able to save £1.5m in the first 12 months on agency workers.

That’s a huge amount that can be spent on helping children, rather than agency worker rates and its associated fees.

Since employing a strong and stable workforce, we’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback with our clients and partners noting greater consistency and quality in delivery.

The children of Bedford and their families are now better supported to build strong, meaningful relationships and focus on creating better, bright futures.

Often, agency staff are used as a quick fix to plug talent shortages. But this can drastically impact children’s progression due to the difficulties in building meaningful relationships.

Recently, the children's social care workforce inquiry was launched in order to better understand what is needed by social workers to ensure children and families are given the best possible help, support, and protection.

Education Committee chair, Richard Halfon said the inquiry wanted to explore what social work looks like in 2019 and examine the skills and support that social workers need to keep children and young people safe from harm and to help them grow up to thrive as adults.

Our approach may prove to play a huge role in guaranteeing this.

Cllr James Valentine is lead member for education and children’s services at Bedford BC

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