A fresh start for social workers?

Simon Ray asks if a new Labour Government will mean fewer social workers are leaving the profession.

I was lucky enough to present an award at the recent Frontline Social Work Awards to the social work team of the year (well done Darlington BC on their Staying Close project). I was struck by the passion and love that was in the room for social workers – yet why are people leaving the profession?

The scale of the crisis in children's social work is highlighted by figures published for 2022 by the Department for Education (DfE), which reveal the number of professionals has decreased for the first time since data collection began in 2017, even as the demand for services continues to rise. The figures indicate that a third of local authorities identify staff recruitment and retention as a significant challenge. In 2022, 5,400 social workers left the profession, marking a 9% increase from the previous year and the highest departure rate since 2017. Additionally, vacancies have reached a record high of 7,900, reflecting a 21% increase from 2021.

So, will things improve under a new labour Government?

I looked at some of the information I could find online to help suggest what improvements or changes they would make to social workers lives. A Labour Government in 2024 is expected to implement several key measures to support social workers and improve the social services sector.

Increased funding for social services

Labour has historically advocated for robust public services, so it is likely a Labour government would increase funding for social services. This additional funding would aim to address staffing shortages, reduce caseloads, and provide better resources and support for social workers.

Improved working conditions

To tackle the recruitment and retention crisis, Labour might introduce measures to improve working conditions for social workers. This could include initiatives to reduce workloads, ensure fair pay, and provide more comprehensive support for mental health and wellbeing. Ruth Allen, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), said: ‘People don't necessarily want to leave social work, but they want to leave the frontline because the expectations and legal and statutory responsibilities are not matched by the resources. You're left in a complete bind far too often. They're having to let fewer people in through the crisis door, and there are no preventative services available, so the whole system is out of whack.'

Enhanced training and professional development

A Labour government may invest in enhanced training and continuous professional development for social workers. This could involve funding for specialised training programs, opportunities for career advancement, and initiatives to ensure social workers are equipped with the latest knowledge and skills. Ray Jones, emeritus professor of social work at Kingston University, said experienced workers being replaced with newly qualified or temporary agency staff means relationships are not built with vulnerable families, resulting in poorer outcomes

Recruitment initiatives

Labour could introduce targeted recruitment campaigns to attract more individuals into the social work profession. This might include financial incentives such as bursaries and scholarships for social work students, as well as programs to encourage career changers to enter the field. Early figures from BASW research show social workers see dwindling resources and colleagues leaving en masse as their biggest challenges – and these fears are growing. In 2022, 68% cited funding as a key challenge, compared with 59% in 2021, while 54% cited recruitment and retention, up from 28%.

Policy and legislative support

Labour is likely to support policies and legislation that strengthen the social work profession. This could include advocating for better regulatory frameworks, ensuring social workers have a strong voice in policy-making, and working to enhance the status and recognition of the profession.

Focus on preventative service

Labour might prioritise investment in preventative services to reduce the demand on social workers by addressing issues before they escalate. This could involve supporting community-based programs, early intervention initiatives, and partnerships with other sectors such as education and healthcare.

Addressing the root causes of social issues

Labour's broader social policy agenda would likely aim to address the root causes of social issues that social workers deal with, such as poverty, inequality, and housing. By tackling these underlying problems, the pressure on social workers could be alleviated, enabling them to focus more on providing effective support and intervention.

The Independent review of children's social care, which significantly informs the DfE's reform agenda, projected that the care population will nearly reach 100,000 by 2032 if current trends continue. In its final report the review, led by Josh MacAlister, estimated that full implementation of its recommendations, supported by £2.6bn over five years, could reduce the care population to around 70,000 by 2032. However, the DfE has only allocated £200m over two years to pilot its proposed reforms.

In short, Labour is committed to ‘making social care work' but they will need to invest heavily in this crucial sector, not only financially but on an emotional level as well.

Simon Ray is Chief Executive of Hampton's Resourcing


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