Chris Squire

Director of HR & OD at Somerset County Council

Retention of Children’s Social Workers...

This blog was originally written for the MJ and can be viewed here.

For a number of years, Somerset County Council saw a gradual loss of experienced social workers, with Ofsted highlighting the potential risks of a high number of locum staff used to cover managerial and social work posts. The effect of this had previously limited the Council’s ability to achieve a consistently acceptable standard and quality of social work practice, with children experiencing too many changes of social worker. However, in just one year turnover has reduced from 27 percent to 16 percent.   There is a commitment to continue this reduction to 12 percent by 2019/20.

In writing this article, I am of course acutely aware that there are many local authorities who have good retention rates, excellent employment practices and a stable, committed children’s social care workforce. What I am describing here shows a rapid move from one extreme to a potentially more settled and motivated group of staff.


Somerset County Council commissioned TMP Worldwide in 2015 to work with us on what motivates social workers to join and stay with organisations. The research covered social workers both outside and inside the authority. The clear message coming back was that career development and support were the key factors in retaining staff. Yes, money featured in the list of motivators, but this wasn’t a decisive factor and certainly not the single lever so often applied.

TMP then worked with us in August and September to develop an attractive ‘brand’ for our recruitment activity, before launching a recruitment campaign. We set an optimistic and ambitious target of recruiting 50 permanent social workers by April 2016. We actually recruited 44 experienced, permanent social workers and a further 26 new graduate social workers also joined us in 2015-16.

Somerset had been allocated an improvement partner, Essex County Council. The work with Essex saw the development of nine priorities for us, with workforce being a critical component. For example, we set about strengthening our senior leadership team (all of our senior leadership team in children’s services are now permanent staff) and improving social work and management capacity. Quality of practice was, of course, a central theme to all of this.

There was a ‘disconnect’ between the Children’s Social Care team and corporate functions, also noted by Ofsted. This was quickly observed in my first few weeks with Somerset in August 2015, with remarks from children’s services managers that HR were never seen and comments from HR that children’s services managers never got back to them or engaged when things were too late! It’s been great to observe how these connections have been re-built and the constructive work that is now happening. A key part of my work with the HR & Organisational Development team was to help them realise the connection between the work that they needed to do and how that would improve the lives of children & young people in Somerset.


So, with the recruitment campaign up-and-running, a leadership team forming and governance processes in place, we turned our attention to helping our current employees to feel valued and part of our improvement work. With our TMP-research in mind, we set about a number of projects that would support our social workers. These include addressing capacity and quality concerns, so we have increased capacity across fieldwork teams by working towards the reduction in fieldwork caseloads to an average of 14. We’ve also reduced the maximum number of direct reports for each manager to six to ensure that all staff receive regular, high-quality reflective supervision.

Career development was a major theme in our conversations with social workers. As a result, we have developed a clear career path to provide progression opportunities and include alternative routes for those Social Workers not wanting to become managers. We’ve also established our Social Work Academy as the ‘wrapper’ for career progression, CPD and other development opportunities. Appraisal training was organised for all managers and this has been combined with a push to ensure effective supervision.

We’ve been working with the University of West of England for a while and have been exploring the concept of resilience amongst social workers. We’ve taken this to staff, running resilience and mindfulness workshops, led by our Professional Development Team. This team has also put on a series of ‘Looking After Our Own’ conferences for colleagues, highlighting what is available to staff, the ‘corporate’ offer and organising speakers to present on these themes.

Our benefits offer to staff needed some work and we have commissioned an attractive programme of national and local discounts and salary sacrifice programmes. Again, many councils offer something similar, however I know that many don’t. As mentioned in our TMP-research, the financial offer isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, but it helps and we need to keep this fresh and relevant.


Finally, work has to have an element of fun and creativity, with great practice celebrated and shared. We invited children and young people to nominate their social workers for our Children’s Social Worker of the Year Award; the response was fantastic, with 68 nominations received and comments such as, “She smiles and reassures me at times when it seems like the sky is falling” and “She never gives up on me”. This meant we could showcase the work that we do, using the words of those who use our services, and celebrating those who deliver those services.

Somerset County Council awaits the return of Ofsted. We’ve made some good progress, but we’re under no illusion that the job is done. In fact, the tough work is still to come, making sure that changes are part of everyday working life, constantly scrutinising our recruitment, improving the quality of our services and making sure that the corporate offer to colleagues remains attractive, supportive and innovative.


Chris Squire
Director of HR & OD at Somerset County Council


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