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‘Britain wants a child protection system that works... but won’t pay for it’

WIth more than 20 years' experience in child protection, Ailsa Pearce delivers some home truths ...

Ailsa Pearce

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 7 December

The horrific murder of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and trial of his killers has highlighted failings across the systems designed to find and prevent child abuse.

The finger of blame once again points in the direction of social workers. I have over 20 years’ experience of working within the child protection system and I am pretty fed up with listening to powerful and influential people talking in the press and media, ignoring the true cause of failings in the system.

The talk is of ‘the need to learn lessons’; ‘need for better training’; ‘need for social workers to be more curious or less optimistic’... 

The principal reason the system still sometimes fails children – and what I am about to say will seem strange and controversial so brace yourself – is that social worker pay is far, far too low. Let me explain.

Social workers earn less than train drivers

A qualified social worker starting pay is around £25,000 per annum. If you pass your assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) in England – which requires a lot of additional university work – and jump over continuous hurdles to gain pay rises, you can earn around £35,000 after about five years in the field.

Some local authorities offer ‘market supplements’ of a couple of thousand pounds or you might get a post such as a senior social work practitioner. But effectively if you are a social worker you’re looking at top pay that won’t buy you a house.

Teacher’s pay scale will rise in 2022 starting at about £30,000 to over £41,000 per annum. Teachers are also offered teaching and learning responsibility payments for undertaking additional duties.

This scale ranges from £8,000 to £14,000 – payments which the NUSAWT state are ‘essential’. Lead practitioners in schools can earn up to £64,000 per annum (a teaching lead practitioner is the same as a senior social work practitioner or practice educator, except they earn £20,000 more).

Classroom teachers earn more than social workers and they don’t ever have to go to court to be cross-examined about their lesson plans. When I came into social work in the 1990s social workers earned more than teachers. We don’t now. Or police officers. Or school nurses. Or speech therapists. Or train drivers.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. For more than 20 years I have heard social workers sitting, sometimes crying, at their desks, saying: “The money isn’t worth this s*** job”’. And it really isn’t.

Highest turnover of all public sector workers

Even the most anti-social-worker troll out there would likely say that being a social worker is a hard job. The job is so hard, so stressful, requires such a high skill set to do well and safely, and requires so much personal sacrifice, that it is not worth doing for £35,000. 

The turnover of social workers is high, the highest turnover of all public sector workers. The Guardian last year published an article about the poor retention of staff in the profession, saying about a third of workers left in the first two years and another third left before making it to five years.

BASW has reported that a third of social workers graduate with their degree and a £50,000 debt, but quit in the first year. I have never worked for longer than four-and-a-half years myself before burning out and quitting to have a baby or just quitting.

I rest, try and rebuild myself and then go back to work, accumulating over 20 years in the frontline. Having so much experience, I am usually unique in the office. I don’t know anyone with my levels of experience. They must be out there, I just don’t know them. 

Given that the job is so demanding, anyone who can get out usually does sooner or later. Vacant posts hurt every team. In the team I managed until 2019, we usually had one or two of the six social work posts unfilled. Add to that someone off sick and someone on annual leave, the workers who are left have to cover a lot of children, which are never counted on their caseloads. 

The social workers who are left tend to be newly qualified and relatively inexperienced. This presents a huge risk to children, families and the workers themselves. Some parents, especially the most dangerous ones, need a fearless, experienced social worker assessing them. And there are so few of them, the likelihood of a child at risk being missed, increases. 

You can’t teach many of the skills social workers need. You gain them through watching good social workers at work and through practice and experience gained over many years. However, most social workers don’t get this far. 

With workloads that are too high mistakes are inevitable

Because there are not enough staff, all social workers are grossly overworked. As a team manager managing around 110 children’s cases, I routinely worked 50-60 hours per week. If I saw my own children for 20 minutes an evening, I was lucky. It could be miserable and I quit in 2020.

With workloads that are too high, mistakes are inevitable. The pace of the work is relentless and is unmanageable. There is little capacity for co-working or supporting new workers with learning and practicing new skills.

I have written to senior MPs and union leaders in 2014 begging for a time and motion study to be carried out to properly assess the workload of social workers, to no avail. I knew they would never do this. They can’t do a time and motion study as it will inevitably reveal that social workers are being put at risk through unmanageable high workloads and children are put at risk as a result.

It’s hard for the government to admit their culpability to the public. They would have to recruit more social workers. And recruiting and retaining social workers is not possible without a massive pay rise. 

If you don’t already know, local authorities don’t often advertise specific jobs, most have a rolling recruitment programme. They’ll employ almost any social worker with a qualification who phones up for an interview. And still many teams carry a vacancy or two. 

In order to manage workloads, most local authorities invested heavily in early help services in recent years. They tried to prevent families experiencing issues from escalating to frontline statutory social work services.

This was brilliant. However, then came austerity and then came a pandemic. Now local authorities cannot afford to pay for these services and many are at risk of being cut.

One side effect of increasing non-statutory services is that the children who do get allocated a statutory social worker tend to have more complex issues and increased risks and a social worker’s caseload tends to be more stressful as a result.

We don’t do the ‘monitoring’ or general support role we used to in the 1990s when I started out. All the children on a worker’s caseload may be at risk in some way. 

Atrocious recruitment and retention rates lead directly to overworking of staff in post. Overworking means that highly stressful and complex cases are given to newly qualified or relatively inexperienced social workers. Or given disproportionately to the few experienced workers. Frankly, the cycle is not hard to spot. 

All of this leads inevitably to something. It leads to mistakes. It leads to the abuse and murder of a little boy. It leads to families in mourning. And it leads to social workers living with professional trauma and many quitting the profession. 

Russian Roulette

In November's edition PSW I wrote that after a three month break over the summer, I dreaded going back to work and had decided not to seek another job because I just couldn’t face it anymore.

A colleague once described child protection as ‘Russian Roulette’, you never knew when the next ‘Baby P’ case file was going to reach the top of the allocations pile or whose case load it would end up on.

Every social worker lives with this fear, 24/7. It’s been six months since I was employed as a social worker and I’m still recovering. 

I hate to sound greedy and I know mine is not the only profession in desperate need of a pay rise, but there are not many professions as vilified and disrespected and as necessary as child protection social work.

Few other professions insist that your work is analysed by a group of different professionals at meetings every four to six weeks, spend hours in the witness box being cross-examined about your case work, visit dangerous people alone, sometimes at night, and be subjected to disproportionate levels of aggressive disciplinary procedures (more than any other profession) for the inevitable mistakes of being inexperienced and overworked.

No other profession has the staff turnover that child protection does. No other profession demands people work unpaid overtime, all the time. And no other profession blames workers personally for systemic failings to the extent social work does. And most other professionals don’t carry the same level of responsibility that we do.  

The few professionals who remain working in the trenches need those in the chateau five miles behind the frontline to stop avoiding the crux of the issue by talking about “training” and “making workers more resilient”. They don’t come more resilient than me, and even I was driven out. 

I know nothing about the actions taken by my poor colleagues in respect of Arthur. But maybe if he’d been visited by more experienced social workers, maybe if there had been space to visit several times, maybe if there had been time to do the detective work involved in a case like this, maybe, just maybe he’d be alive. 

Pay must increase dramatically. Now. Until the pay becomes worth the job, none of the obvious, long-term problems outlined briefly above can be solved. It’s basic economics. There is no other way to recruit and retain staff.

Social workers have no union to fight for them, we don’t have a fiercely political NUT or Police Federation with a strong power base fighting in the press and with government for our protection.

Even BASW doesn’t have the membership numbers necessary to make it a contentious force for action and Unison and JMB represent so many other workers, they’ve never fought fiercely for social workers.

System failings are not our fault 

Mistakes cannot be eliminated. They will always happen. But the pathetic and wholly inadequate way the service is funded makes these mistakes – from the minor missed deadlines to the missing of child abuse – more likely and more frequent.

The child protection system in this country is a good one and if the system had worked, just maybe this lovely little boy would not have been murdered. People are shocked by this horrific killing and they want someone to blame and, as usual, social workers are the easy target.

However, I’m arguing that none of the failings in the system are our fault. We’re the people working to protect children. I believe I have saved lives during my career. Britain wants a child protection system that works the best it can to protect children, but the fact is Britain won’t pay for it.

While social worker pay is so low, you can’t and you won’t solve the problems. So don’t blame social workers. Blame the government. Blame everyone who is so quick to point the finger at social workers but who won’t fight to fund a child protection system fit for purpose. 

If you don’t increase social worker pay and (as the government says for teaching) attract the most skilled people into the profession, you won’t change anything.

I call on the government and other so-called experts to stop pretending that the issues can be solved without a massive pay rise. And remember that while you don’t fix the issues, children will inevitably, and perhaps, preventably, be murdered.