Silent suffering of caring sector

February 8, 2002

Without action to halt its demographic time bomb, social work will continue to decline, argues Terry Philpot.

Who is Mr or Ms Social Worker? The popular image, and one occasionally peddled by politicians, is that she (for it is a woman) is a newly qualified graduate with no experience of life. Reality shows otherwise. She is the same person identified in 1982 by the Barclay committee on the role and task of social workers - a woman in her 40s with children.

But social work today is on a demographic time bomb. Applications for social-work courses are falling. Fewer than 5 per cent of social workers are under the age of 25. Many are in their 50s.

The turnover rate for social workers is 15.4 per cent, and almost two-thirds of social services departments report recruitment problems. Recruiting staff for childcare is a universal problem. There are difficulties, too, in the independent sector - the voluntary agencies and private companies, where two-thirds of staff work - albeit less severe.

As our social worker nears retirement, her child is not thinking of following her. We have an ageing workforce caring for (among others) an ageing population.

Are social work's recruitment problems different from other professions? Yes and no. Only last month, the Institute for Public Policy Research said that the number of students from the top universities entering teaching was falling. At about the same time, seven in ten National Health Service trusts reported "quite a problem" in recruiting and keeping nurses on the main staff grades. Four in ten reported the same when it came to sisters and charge nurses.

The problems that afflict social work, teaching and nursing recruitment are well known. House prices in London and the Southeast are high. Better money can be earned in private industry, and working conditions are better. Under the government's initiative to provide housing for public-sector workers, nurses had 3,992 loans, teachers 2,817 and the police 892. Social workers competed with fire fighters and transport workers for 311 loans.

However, social work faces an additional problem. While teaching and nursing are considered "a good thing", most people have very little idea of what social workers do. This ignorance is fuelled by a long-lasting antipathy in parts of the media. The inexperienced Marxist zealots who bungled childcare cases, as The Daily Mail and others characterised social workers 15 or so years ago, have been replaced by the fresh-faced, ineffectual and politically correct workers who still bungle cases today.

Over the years, there has been sporadic pressure for the government to mount a recruitment campaign such as those that have been used for the police, nurses and teachers. The answer from Conservative and Labour governments has always been that local, not central, government is the employer. That is a dated view, but it also conveniently overlooks the fact that, of the other three professions, only nurses are employed by the government through the NHS.

The argument was won late last year when the Department of Health launched a national image campaign for social workers. Welcome though it was, £2 million over three years was considerably less than the £6 million devoted to a campaign for the police. A nurse recruitment campaign in the Southeast alone cost £100,000. The police and teachers got television and cinema slots, as well as newspaper and magazine advertising. Social work got advertising on radio and in magazines and newspapers, a helpline was set up, and a website established. There was a special focus on London and the Southeast.

The DoH says it has had an "overwhelming success". In the last six weeks of 2001, there were 14,000 calls and 11,000 visits to the website. It was an imaginative and innovative intervention by the government to try to end the stalemate of a rising demand for staff countered by spiralling numbers of graduate entrants and a severe leakage of those already employed.

But the rub lies with the reality. Social work still competes poorly with nursing and teaching, which offer postgraduate grants. Starting and average pay is lower. Teachers enjoy £4,000 golden hellos for subjects with shortages. And social work does not get any easier. The story of administrative incompetence, vast caseloads and lack of support that is being revealed day by day at the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie is just the kind of thing that can make even the best-motivated graduate think twice - and vitiate the success of any campaign.

There can be no long-term solution without new blood. Perhaps those website hits and helpline calls may mean that, while no one forgets a teacher, some people start to know what a social worker does. But it will take more than radio spots and newspaper advertisements to attract bright 21-year-olds to a profession characterised by long hours, media denigration, low morale and heavy workloads.

Details: www.socialworkcareers.co.uk

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