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Attracting and Retaining Excellent Social Workers Depends on a Better Social Work System

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Last week the IPPR proposed a new graduate scheme for social workers, run by a social enterprise Frontline which would be independent of government. Frontline would train top graduates at summer school who then would spend a year training on the job in a local authority, before committing to a minimum of two years working with disadvantaged children.

The report is based on a very welcome recognition that good relationships are crucial to children's lives and that very often the social worker is the critical adult in a vulnerable young person's life. Ensuring we have excellent, highly motivated people who are empowered to do better by children than they currently can is a priority. But while individuals are one of the most critical factors in changing children's lives, that should not allow us to ignore the wider pressures in the social work system - pressures which are becoming intolerable for too many good social workers for a number of reasons.

Firstly, since Lord Laming's report into the tragic death of Victoria Climbie there has been a recognition that it is everybody's responsibility in society to keep children safe from harm. Labour's 2004 Children Act made that a statutory duty and introduced comprehensive guidance, Working Together, which aimed to empower the police, health services and others to do it. Charities warn that the pressures on other agencies, coupled with the Government's reduction of Working Together and their catastrophic health reforms, has left other agencies increasingly retreating into their own core functions. This leaves social services under greater pressure than before.

Yet this is also at a time when the level of resources available to them has been reduced - through huge cuts to the Early Intervention Grant, youth services and local authority children's services departments in areas where there is the greatest need. Meanwhile there are rising numbers of children in care, for many reasons including poverty. These factors have left nearly eight of every 10 social workers saying their caseloads are now unmanageable.

This is dangerous because it means that many of the people whose job it is to listen to and understand the children they support simply do not have enough time to do it. Three of the things highlighted by Professor Eileen Munro in her review of the profession - cutting administrative burdens, improving administrative support and putting in place robust management systems - would help immediately and the government's progress on these has been too slow.

But in the longer term reshaping our public services so that they are active agents of prevention, not crisis management services, is vital. That is why Labour is right to say that a change of course on the economy is not only badly needed but would be our top priority in government.

Earlier this year I met with children to discuss what they value in the adults who work with them. Like the IPPR report, they believed it was essential those people had high aspirations for them, and they said that very often they do, with amazing consequences. But they also believed that the adults who support them need to understand their lives, which is one of many reasons why, alongside top graduates, we must retain the ability to attract people through other routes and from other backgrounds.

Finally, despite shortages of social workers there are currently many graduate social workers out of work. The shortage is in no small part caused by a lack of people with experience who stay in the system. Burnout is cited frequently as a key reason for high turnover. That is why it is essential that while we continue to strive to attract and promote excellent social workers from all backgrounds we do not lose sight of the wider system which will determine our ability to retain them.