Gloucestershire County Council has taken a dynamic and innovative approach to recruitment and retention of social workers which has driven increased stability in the workforce to achieve better outcomes for children, young people and their families.
Gloucestershire County Council has taken a dynamic and innovative approach to recruitment and retention of social workers by working with students on placements, creating a successful 'Assessed and Supported Year in Employment' (ASYE) programme and providing progression opportunities to social workers throughout their careers.
The council's Social Work Academy offers a practice-led learning programme that develops practitioners and leaders across children’s services. This approach has driven increased stability in the workforce that ultimately achieves better outcomes for children, young people and their families.
Recruitment and retention of social workers is an area of concern cited across the local government workforce. As such, over the years there have been many initiatives to explore and embed what works to support councils on their children’s services improvement journey.
In response, Gloucestershire County Council developed an offer for social workers that focused on its 'Assessed and Supported Year in Employment' (ASYE) for newly qualified social workers. However, in early 2017, the council had an Ofsted inspection of their children’s services which identified challenges with retention and recruitment. It was noted that, although turnover of staff was comparable to the national picture, it was high. In addition, many staff had less than two years' practice experience. This led senior leaders to re-evaluate and diversify their recruitment and retention strategies.
Since 2017, Gloucestershire County Council has further developed its Social Work Academy to help colleagues to meet recruitment and retention challenges.
The offer for the council's ASYE was strengthened, moving from three cohorts with separate entry points – to one cohort per year. Having three cohorts created key intersections between the cohorts which had previously seen peaks of 90 newly qualified social workers at a time, which was counter-productive for all concerned.
Strengthened interview and assessment of candidates has been central to building a strong intake of newly qualified workers for the 'Assessed and Supported Year in Employment' (ASYE) programme. This has led to more stability as workers progress through the year together, and a simpler progression route supports workforce support and planning within operational teams.
In addition, focusing on one point of entry each year has resulted in the development of a more congruent learning offer for all those on the programme. This includes group supervision, and targeted training linked to practice, which supports practitioners develop solid foundations at the start of their social work journey through the council's approach.
The Social Work Academy has also reviewed ways in which they attract and recruit social workers.
The Social Work Academy has built relationships with local universities to support student placements at the council. This enables social work students to experience the council's approach and feel part of the service during their training.
Gloucestershire County Council has also invested in programmes that encourage other routes into social work. Hosting 'Frontline' units and recruiting 'Step-Up to Social Work' graduates offers the benefit of these two fast-track programmes. In addition, the council has also developed an apprenticeship route and opportunities for staff studying through the Open University to become qualified social workers. Many of these students then go onto apply for a place in the Social Work Academy’s ASYE programme.
There has also been a focus on recruitment of overseas social workers. This cohort have required additional learning and support to help them to integrate into the workforce, a role played by the Social Work Academy in partnership with colleagues in operational teams and corporate HR.
In addition to this, the Social Work Academy also plays a significant role in developing learning opportunities for more experienced social workers and their managers. The academy's training offer has been strengthened through the co-location of the quality assurance team within the academy. This has reinforced the feedback to highlight learning from self-evaluation which then shapes the learning and improvement offer.
Gloucestershire County Council also benefits from an outstanding team of ambassadors – a team of young people that are experts by experience. The ambassadors support recruitment activities, co-production and delivery of learning activities and direct work materials, contribute to quality assurance, are critical reference points in key strategic forums, and they support directors through a ‘mentoring leaders’ programme.
While training remains a staple delivery function for the Social Work Academy, it is no longer best described as a training unit. Rather, the academy is the hub of a learning community, seeking to support a learning and improvement culture across the organisation. Learning programmes are delivered in partnership with operational colleagues with a deliberate emphasis on being ‘content-light and practice-heavy’. Advanced practitioners are based in each team which further helps to embed learning as part of the council's approach.
This approach, together with the connection to self-evaluation, led to the development of the highly successful 'Essentials' programme. This has seen bitesize sessions and learning tools embedded around key areas of practice. The impact of this programme has been commended by the regulator throughout the council's improvement journey including as part of its 2022 inspection.
Another area of focus for the academy is supporting social workers at all levels with professional development, specifically through a career progression path. As a National Assessment and Accreditation System (NAAS) trailblazer site, Gloucestershire County Council incorporated the post-qualifying standards into an endorsement, assessment and accreditation pathway. The adoption of systemic practice by the council offers a further accredited opportunity for social workers to further their development.
The academy supports leaders and aspiring leaders to develop through the leadership offer within systemic practice training with the Centre for Systemic Social Work, a management and leadership development programme, wider council corporate development opportunities, and links with the national 'Pathways' programme. These frameworks help to locate professionals in their career progression in Gloucestershire.
What initially started as strengthening the ASYE programme, has resulted in creating a system that encourages learning with a focus on practice at all levels.
Not only are newly qualified social workers able to learn from more experienced workers, but more experienced workers can learn from those embarking on their social work journey. This practice-led learning offer has been successful in terms of learning transfer, with workers sharing in the importance of continuing professional development to the work they are doing.
The practice-led learning and development offer has supported the growth of the council's approach. The impact of this is seen across teams and agencies, where the council is beginning to see an extension of language and concepts across the partnership. This way of working supports the development of consistent practice with children and families across the county.
This approach has also been beneficial for workforce planning. The newly qualified social workers are placed in teams strategically, according to need and make-up of teams across the county. This seeks to balance social worker experience across teams. In addition, the clear path for career progression has resulted in social workers wanting to remain practising in Gloucestershire, and we can show the progression of staff from student placements to positions of leadership.
The impact of this innovative and dynamic approach has been noted in the council's most recent Ofsted inspection in February 2022. It was highlighted that "a highly successful social work academy has been effective in supporting and developing social workers who are in their Assessed and Supported Year in Employment".
Ofsted further noted that "staff turnover has greatly reduced. There is now a much higher percentage of permanent staff and a reduced reliance on agency social workers. This improved stability is benefiting children, who are now more likely to have the chance to build a relationship with a consistent social worker with a manageable caseload".
How is the new approach being sustained?
The Social Work Academy leads on quality assurance activity, and as such can understand the impact and difference experienced by children as a result of the intervention and involvement of children’s services. There is also continuous engagement with social work practitioners across children’s services. This collaborative approach allows each locality, team and/ or service to have their needs identified so that support is evolving with changing need and reflects the realities of practice experiences.
A good governance framework allows progress to be reported on with senior stakeholders to highlight impact of approaches and strategies used by the Social Work Academy in relation to recruitment and retention, progression and improvement, and quality assurance.
Currently, the council is evaluating further routes into social work posts, including university undergraduate and post graduate degrees, fast track schemes and wider apprenticeships. This will support understanding of which recruitment strategies work best in Gloucestershire.
The ongoing focus on development, review and evaluation of the various streams of recruitment and retention approaches has been crucial to ensure that evolving need is met in the longer term. It is crucial to listen to feedback from practitioners to understand needs of the workforce to retain social workers in the profession. This spurred the council in developing a robust career progression framework.
Working together with partners is central to successful recruitment and retention practices. Building relationship with the universities in the local area has been crucial in attracting students who want to have council placements. Most of these students successfully qualify and commence with Gloucestershire’s ASYE programme.
By holding the quality assurance function, the Social Work Academy can strengthen not only the learning offer but also improvement across the County. As such quality assurance works in virtuous cycle leading to quality improvement, quality control, and back to quality assurance. To support this the effective interconnection between continual self-evaluation and improvement planning has been of real benefit to the service.
The learning offer needs to be cognizant of the notable demands on social work professionals and shaped so that they can meaningfully engage with this learning. By explicitly and carefully focusing on clean thought and clean language in our learning offer, we seek to meet these busy professionals in the midst of their working realities to maximise their chances for development, improvement and progression.