'We focus very heavily on building resilience' - looking after social workers in Northumberland

The turnover rate of social workers in Northumberland over the past two years has been above the national and regional averages, figures show.

Friday, 4th October 2019, 1:07 pm
Updated Tuesday, 8th October 2019, 12:01 pm
Northumberland County Council

However, the use of agency staff in the county is half the North East rate and two-and-a-half times lower than the national average, while the council’s vacancy rate is also significantly lower, according to a report.

These statistics are set against a nationwide backdrop of a struggle in the recruitment and retention of experienced social workers.

An update to a meeting of Northumberland County Council’s family and children’s services committee revealed that the turnover rate consisted of 28 permanent and four agency staff.

The annual report of the principal social worker, Su Kaur, stated: ‘There are no clear patterns to discern the reason for the rise over the past two years. However, half of the social workers who left were based in the Blyth and Ashington safeguarding locality teams’.

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It explained that these teams manage ‘very complex, serious’ cases, including children ‘who have suffered significant harm’ and the ’emotional impact on staff who work in this particular sector can be high’.

Asked at the meeting about this, Graham Reiter, the council’s director of children’s social care, said: “There’s not one reason, but turnover is higher in the areas of greatest pressure for sure.

“There’s certainly a much heavier workload of difficult cases in that area (Ashington and Blyth). Those localities generate our most challenging cases.”

“We focus very heavily on building resilience,” Ms Kaur added, outlining a number of ways in which social workers are supported.

In terms of recruitment and retention, Northumberland has an approach of trying to ‘grow its own’ social workers.

Its social work academy, the first in the North East, aims to support people in their first year of employment and in the transition from academic study by ‘offering high support and high challenge to ensure social workers keep children at the heart of everything they do’.

The county council also provides the opportunity for its own non-qualified staff to take part in the apprenticeship degree programme for social workers.

Coun Deirdre Campbell raised concerns that high turnover and particularly the use of agency staff results in a lack of consistency for the families involved.

Mr Reiter explained that all of the local authorities in the North East have signed up to a memorandum of understanding with agreed pay rates for agency staff, to try to minimise the churn of social workers around the region.

“We are doing really well in Northumberland to grow our own,” he added.

Coun Wayne Daley, the cabinet member for children’ services, put on record his thanks to Graham, Su and the ‘unsung heroes’ in their team.

Referring to graduates of the social work academy that he had met at end-of-year presentations, he added: “They are incredible people who have put their heads above the parapet to come to work in Northumberland.”