Strengthening practice through a focus on recruitment and retention

In July 2015 as Principal Social Worker I was given the task of leading on recruitment and retention and strengthening practice. We had just received our ‘inadequate’ judgement from Ofsted and our locum rates were hitting 50%.

Defining our value base and our public value proposition was key to approaching recruitment, and social workers played an important part in defining and helping to create the operating conditions for success; we needed our most crucial resource – our staff – to be on the journey with us. I supported social workers to talk on film about what it was like to practise as a social worker in West Berks; the videos became an essential part of our recruitment campaign.

Our branding was important and ‘forward together’ was something everyone in the organisation understood. Communicating this within the organisation and both regionally and nationally to raise our profile as an employer of choice was something I worked hard at, and included encouraging staff to accompany me to recruitment fairs where they spoke about what made West Berkshire special. We made sure that wherever we were exhibiting, we were also presenting; it was critical that the practice leaders were accessible and could talk about what distinguished West Berkshire from other employers; our retention bonus after three years and sabbatical offer became an innovative lever to encourage wider interest. We paid attention to induction, manageable caseloads listening to what new staff thought of us a month in, and learnt from leavers- what would have made the difference. I used this qualitative data to further refine the recruitment strategy so that we were continually learning from feedback.

In my view the best people to show me where to start with issues of professional development were the social workers themselves and what better vehicle than the social work health check? The outcome of this exercise provided rich data on what mattered and shone a light on what our journey was going to look like.

The SW health check outcomes showed us: Social workers valued:

  • Less bureaucracy
  • More time with children and families but with the right tools

They were not assisted by:

  • Overly complicated systems whether ICT or procedural
  • A lack of reflection in supervision
  • Delay in decision making

Not surprisingly the remedy lay in us tackling the whole system and not just the small parts; so temporary fixes were out of the question.

A training needs analysis showed that we had neglected to think about what CPD was going to look like for staff that wanted to remain with us; we paid little attention to legacy planning and even less to building specialisms in the frontline. Social workers wanted a practice framework which was understood by all and provided them with shared values and narrative when working with families.

Social workers wanted interested supervisors who:

  • Enabled reflection
  • Encouraged curiosity
  • Supported tenacity
  • Understood good practice
  • Social workers challenged the leaders in the organisation to deliver what mattered;
  • A system that facilitated social work, not hindered it.

The key Knowledge and Skills Statements came at the right time for us. It enabled focus on what our continuous development pathways were going to look like; it encouraged us to re-evaluate our CPD offer and look beyond our boundaries to regional neighbours and national trail blazers. It gave us the confidence to create our Social Work Varsity (Service Plan) with virtual schools of learning where workforce development was seen as key to improving practice and therefore a priority. There are no universities in West Berkshire but we have fostered partnerships with a number of institutions to deliver a differentiated curriculum, and are preparing now to run an internal endorsement pilot to prepare social workers for National Assessment and Accreditation.

At the time of our re-inspection:

  • our locum rate had dropped to 11% from 50%
  • we had jumped from ‘inadequate’ to ‘Good

This achievement was everyone’s and I still remember the cheers of joy when we realised how well we had done.

I remain excited for West Berkshire; we have just partnered with Frontline for our next generation of ASYE’s and are about to embark on a programme with Firstline to develop our frontline managers. We have been successful in securing five Step Up students and our first international recruit arrived a few months ago and is thriving. I have had tremendous support from my PSW colleague in Adults to look at what we can do together and we are about to embark upon using the apprenticeship levy to deliver ILM5 for our Team Managers. The Family Safeguarding Model is being rolled out, which has motivational interviewing at the heart of practice. I am just about to start my third social work health check and I am certain that the most useful ideas for planning for the next five years will come from the frontline.

The unique thing for me about the PSW role is that supporting social workers to be the best they can be is not a theoretical exercise; the positive operating conditions to make my role a success has in turn created the operating capacity in the organisation to strategically plan and deliver for both today and tomorrow- distributive leadership at its best!

Rashida Baig, PSW for Children and Families, West Berkshire Council

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