Ebony Hughes

Workforce and transformation: Lessons from children’s services

September 22, 2015

Child drawing road

On the 6th of October a number of eminent voices in the care sector will come together for the Social Care Talent Debate, hosted by Penna, BT, the MJ and iMPOWER.  The level of interest in the event from People Directors through to care providers evidences how high workforce is on the agenda right now.  And so it should be, the workforce is our most important asset for both adults and children’s services; a motivated workforce is critical to making a positive difference to people’s lives.

Working with a number of Children’s Services clients over the past few years I have seen the difference that having a permanent, stable social care workforce can make. I believe that securing a permanent leadership team that can engage and motivate the wider workforce can be the key to unlocking successful transformation.

On the flipside, the negative impact of a workforce characterised by high turnover, reliance on agency staffing should not be underestimated.   In such a scenario it is not uncommon to see a link to low staff morale, a knock on impact on the quality and consistency of practice and not least a negative impact on the experience of a child or young person and their family who see different social workers come and go. That is without mentioning the hefty price tag of bolstering the workforce with agency staffing, which has now reached the point where it is on the agenda of the Director of Finance and the Chief Executive.

There are a number of factors that have contributed to the challenge but consistently, the themes that I have witnessed include:

  • The high pressure environment for social workers aligned to a need for exceptional support and leading staff to question the long term sustainability of the career
  • The need for stability and support from line managers, without permanent leaders and managers it is harder to support and retain staff
  • The increasing cost of living, driven by housing prices, means making money much more of a factor

The themes above are complex and challenging but I think that they can be overcome. However, it will not be addressed by a narrow focus on recruitment and retention, or simply delegated to HR.  We need to think of workforce as part of a much bigger picture.

The starting point for me is not how we recruit and retain more social workers, but requires us to look at the wider approach of meeting the needs of children and families.  As set out in our Breaking the Lock report, we believe that there needs to be a shift to a preventative model in children’s services. Social workers and creating and nurturing social care talent are a fundamental part of that solution but we cannot be reliant upon them. Where we do have social workers in the system we need to enable them to focus what really needs a social worker to deliver, and ensuring that they are supported to do that.  We won’t be able to do that without thinking more broadly about the wider children’s workforce: who they are, what skills they need to have and how they will work together. Following that, we need to improve partner and stakeholder understanding and confidence in a wider children’s workforce so that the social worker is not the assumed default. This approach will take leadership and vision.

Furthermore, in moving to new models for the future, we must also learn from where we are now and mitigate against the drivers of workforce instability referenced above.  We will need to think more broadly about the workforce for children’s services, including Health Visitors and Early Help Professionals and how we attract, retain, support and develop them in the future.  We will also need to equip staff to work in new ways, and in partnership.  We will need to change the conversation to reflect the diversity of the workforce who do work day in and out to make a difference to the lives of children and families.

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