Peterborough Children At Risk Because Of Lack Of Social Workers

29 December 2014, 06:04 | Updated: 29 December 2014, 06:08

Experts have warned that children are being put at risk as new figures show 11% of posts for permanent children's social workers in England are unfilled.

The vacancy rates vary significantly around the county, with one local authority struggling at 45%.

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW), the largest professional association for social work in the UK, warned that gaps in the service can ``up the ante'' for vulnerable children.

The College of Social Work (TCSW), the centre of excellence for the profession, said many employees have found the role untenable in the wake of ``social work bashing'' by politicians, the public and parts of the media in the wake of a number of high-profile child abuse scandals in towns and cities including Rochdale, Oxford, Rotherham and Bristol.

One council admitted that its use of agency staff to temporarily fill permanent posts was ``clearly not sustainable''.

Waltham Forest in north east London has a 45% vacancy rate, according to its most recent data, while Rochdale has 28%.

Some 34% of children's social worker posts are not filled by permanent staff in Bournemouth, and Peterborough City Council's figure is 23%.

Data from Coventry City Council showed a vacancy rate of 27%, while Sutton in south-west London has 37%.

The figures were obtained using Freedom of Information requests by the Press Association.

BASW professional officer Nushra Mansuri warned that unfilled posts and high caseloads are putting children at risk.

``It will up the ante. Risk is risk - we are talking about children who largely are at risk - and the system can make that riskier if people haven't got enough capacity to do that work rigorously and thoroughly,'' she said.

Ms Mansuri described how hard it was for social workers to make a ``meaningful relationship'' with a child or family because they have too many cases.

``It's not rocket science. If we give people way too much work beyond their capacity then it's not going to work and it's not good for those children. It makes their situation more vulnerable,'' she said.

Annie Hudson, TCSW chief executive, said social workers can be put off from working in the areas that need the most help.

``I know of at least two authorities where they maybe had about 10% agency staff and then they have an Ofsted (report) which puts them into the equivalent of special measures and their use of agency staff goes rocketing because it can be a very demoralising environment in which to work,'' she said.

``People exit and maybe go to places that are going to be less difficult.''

She went on: ``It's a difficult job, an uneasy public profile at best, and not having a real sense of how they will develop in their professional careers over time.''

``I think those three factors mean we sometimes don't keep people in that we would really want to.''

A social worker with over three decades of experience, who did not want to be named, described how the culture of blaming social workers changed the way she worked and made her consider leaving the profession.

``It makes you practise in a more defensive way,'' she said. ``You're always looking over your shoulder and thinking 'Have I covered my back?'

``If the worst happens, if this child dies or this child is severely injured, what will the record show?

``It keeps you awake at night. It increases burn out. It makes you think 'I want to do something else'.''

Many local authorities use agency workers to fill posts when they cannot find suitable permanent staff. Ms Mansuri explained why many social workers are choosing to take on those roles.

``It's a way of survival,'' she said. ``They would much prefer to work permanently for an employer and have all the rights that you have and pensions, holidays and sickness pay and all of that, but the job has become so untenable for people.''

Ms Hudson warned that agency workers are expensive and ``won't necessarily have the same kind of commitment'' as permanent staff.

Paul Marshall, assistant director of children's social care at Rochdale Borough Council, said agency staff were being used to fill additional posts created in a restructuring of the department.

He accepted that social work was ``best done by people who are working on a permanent basis'' but said the ``extremely rigorous'' hiring process would not be rushed.

A spokesman for Waltham Forest Council said many of its agency workers have been there for ``some time'' and have built ``meaningful and supportive relationships'' with the service users.

Sue Westcott, executive director of children's services for Peterborough City Council, said: ``We continue to use agency staff to cover vacant posts so that we can support vulnerable families.''

A Coventry City Council spokesman accepted that its vacancy rate for permanent staff ``appears high''.

He added: ``The reliance on agency staff to fill vacant posts is a nationwide issue which blights most local authorities and which is clearly not sustainable.''

Liz Eyre, Worcestershire County Council's cabinet member for children and families, said there was an ongoing programme to recruit and retain social workers which includes analysis of staff turnover, salaries and streamlining the recruitment process.

Ninety-eight English councils responded to Freedom of Information requests which asked how many social workers in children's services they employed and how many vacancies were unfilled, according to the latest statistics.

A Department for Education spokesman said: ``Nothing is more important than keeping children safe. This is why we are overhauling social work and ensuring social workers are given the best support possible.

``We have recently announced a new career pathway to keep our dedicated professionals working in frontline practice, and since 2010, have invested more than #400 million in bursaries and training programmes to attract the very best candidates to the profession.

``This includes new fast track training programmes - which are now attracting as many as 20 applicants for every place and will give bright graduates and career changers the opportunity to become social workers within two years, supported by experienced social workers and leading universities.''