At the Thursday, January 7, meeting of the county council’s family and children’s services committee, executive director Cath McEvoy-Carr reiterated her thanks for the staff ‘who have worked tirelessly through this pandemic’.
“They are a group of staff who don’t get that recognition – our support staff, admin staff, social workers, residential staff and foster carers – who have worked tirelessly and stoically to deliver services to our most vulnerable children,” she continued.
“What people don’t know is that our social workers are carrying on business as usual – they are going out and doing home visits, visiting family homes and doing direct work with children on a daily basis.
“They often don’t get recognised. There are a lot of other professions – nurses, doctors, teachers – who are all in the media on a regular basis for the sterling work they are doing, but actually our frontline children’s social work staff are out there on a daily basis delivering services and making sure our children are protected.”
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Her comments came following the presentation of the annual report of the principal social worker, Su Kaur, during which the committee heard that Covid-19 has had an impact on the already challenging efforts to recruit social workers, but that staff sickness rates have actually improved.
“Hidden harm has remained a real concern for us throughout the pandemic, therefore some children must continue to be seen in person and this is completed using safe working practice methods,” she told members.
“We also need to balance this with protecting the workforce to ensure that we have a workforce that is able to fulfil the role of safeguarding.
“Meeting this balance has been challenging and following risk assessments, we have also used virtual means for some families where appropriate to stay in contact and fulfil our statutory duties.
“There have actually been positives of Covid, it’s been really encouraging how well other agencies have worked collectively with us to ensure children are seen and safe, for example, schools.
“Virtual meetings have meant more regular attendance by partners, resulting in more effective information-sharing in the best interests of children.”
The pandemic has, however, affected the council’s successful social work academy – which seeks to ensure the authority ‘grows its own’ social workers – as the completion dates for final-year university students, so there will not be a new cohort as planned in March 2021.
“We’re relieved we previously scaled up to double the last cohort intake in September 2020, when we welcomed 17 rather than eight newly-qualified social workers,” Ms Kaur said.
“The struggle for recruitment of experienced social workers continues unfortunately, as the pool is limited both regionally and nationally, therefore we are also looking for the August 2021 intake of the academy to be larger to make up for missing the spring cohort.
“We’re taking other steps to recruit as well; July 2022 will see our first cohort of children’s social workers from the BA apprenticeship route. We’ve made a decision to source candidates from within Northumberland County Council staff, that we recognise who have been loyal to Northumberland and have transferable skills.”
The report highlights that the staff turnover rate from October 2019 to September 2020 was 14.7%, which remains slightly lower than the national/regional average, but was higher than the previous year – 12.7%.
Ms Kaur noted that during this period, the regional adoption agency, Adopt North East, was set up, with a number of Northumberland staff securing jobs there, which could explain the increase.
The report also states: ‘With Covid, there were apprehensions around staff absence, however, it is testament to our social workers/managers that the sickness rate was significantly lower than last year with 530 days less. This indicates a willingness and resilience to safeguard the children of Northumberland to the best of their ability.’
The workloads of the county’s social workers show a downward trend from last year and are well below national and regional averages, but crucially the complexity of cases has not reduced.
A weighting system, which takes into account complexity as well as issues such as travel times and number of children, shows that 80% of staff were working at or below capacity in January 2020, which has improved from 73%, ‘however, the aim is for this to be 100%’.