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‘It’s upsetting to hear people say this year has broken them’

ASYE social workers raise alarm over caseloads in excess of 60 at local authority

ASYEs, newly qualified social workers, workload

Published by Professional Social Work magazine

The clue is in the title: assessed and supported year in employment. A system in England to help social workers  transition from being students into their first year of practice. However, for newly qualified workers on the ASYE programme in children’s services at North East Lincolnshire Council, the reality on the ground seems anything but supportive.

“Caseloads are high – in excess of 40 and I know others for whom it’s higher than that,” said one worker. “The general attitude is that’s not so bad because it is not over 50. But I know this is not normal and safe practice, even for an experienced social worker, nevermind an ASYE.”

There are reports of newly qualifieds at North East Lincolnshire having more than 60 cases  And it’s not just the quantity that’s the problem.

“The cases given to ASYE social workers are very complex and should be allocated to seniors,” said the worker.

“Many ASYE workers have been to court alone, which is a really complex and difficult situation when you are totally new to it. I have never been afraid of taking a challenge but it’s the lack of support and guidance in managing these cases... Many social workers throughout the whole authority have said that they are waiting for something bad to happen.”

The level of concern among social workers at North East Lincolnshire has been highlighted by the Grimsby Telegraph with one whistleblower telling the news outlet "I fear a kid might die".

ASYEs at the authority report doing children in need, child protection, looked after children and court work with little guidance and supervision. 

Their worry has been so great they contacted the Social Workers Union during the summer.

In response, the union’s general secretary John McGowan wrote to the authority stating: “SWU is concerned that high caseloads accompanied by the complexity of cases is not allowing social workers to have the time and space to develop as practitioners.

“Newly qualified social workers from six months in practice (and often before due to demand) are apparently being tasked with working across such broad areas, resulting in feeling extremely restricted to develop appropriate social work skills in any area, and instead are left feeling demoralised.”

The letter warns: “Longer term this will have a negative impact for our members without the protection and support that they should have received as a newly qualified worker undertaking the assessed and supported year in practice.”

North East Lincolnshire is not unique. A survey by Community Care last year found 49 per cent of social workers on their initial ASYE in England did not have protected cases despite being promised this by their employer.

Ofsted inspectors recently criticised children’s services in York for putting too much responsibility on newly qualified social workers.

In his letter to North East Lincolnshire, McGowan added: “I feel disappointed that this experience is not unique in North East Lincolnshire Council and I feel that there needs to be a greater commitment to the protection of newly qualified workers, a commitment to their learning and development and the monitoring of caseloads and supervision.”

In a profession that suffers recruitment and retention problems (latest figures show 16 per cent of full-time equivalent posts in children's services are vacant in England) the consequences of not providing such support are evident.

Speaking about their experience at North East Lincolnshire, one worker said: “It made me think I had made a massive mistake going into social work.

“We are told it is like this everywhere else, this is just how it is, but from speaking to other social workers we know that is not the case. It is not how it should be. It feels unsafe. We are informing management but nothing gets responded to.

“It is very much a culture of ‘we need to do this, this and this’. It’s very process-led, unimaginative social work. That is quite uninspiring for new social workers who are passionate and want to make social change and support families.”

Another said. “We are meant to be building our skills and knowledge and we don’t have the time to do that. There doesn't seem to be a focus on the quality of work, so much is asked of ASYEs so soon into their learning that it becomes just a case or 'doing' rather than learning how to do different areas of the role the right way - it can be really overwhelming.”

Working in such an environment is inevitably taking a toll on the health of some of the newly qualified workers.

“It’s upsetting to hear people say they feel this year has broken them,” said one ASYE recruit.

Another added: “I can speak for everybody there - people’s mental health has been affected. 

“It is unsustainable to manage the work-life balance. Everyone works excess hours and from home during weekends and nights.

“People are in tears. We need to report it because it is not good for the families ultimately. You make bad decisions because you are so stressed.

“It’s been difficult to focus on the learning side during ASYE days due to people feeling completely overwhelmed and deflated.

“Despite having advance practitioners that clearly want to support our learning and hearing our worries, there is very little that they can individually do to address the problem of caseloads and what’s allocated to ASYEs in terms of complexity because of the bigger structural changes needed.”

Ofsted inspectors visiting North East Lincolnshire children’s services in March raised concern at the “effectiveness of managerial oversight and supervision”.

The authority admits there is a problem which it is trying to address. It adds some of the figures over caseloads are six months out-of-date, though workers maintain nothing much has changed. A spokesperson for the authority said: "In many areas nationally social workers are responding to high demands and it is important that local authorities listen to their staff and respond accordingly.

"In response to high levels of demand within our communities, we have invested an additional £2 million into our social care services in recent months.

"As a matter of course, we meet with our social workers regularly and meet representatives from their unions each month to ensure that our staff are managing their caseloads and receiving any support they require.

"We take the wellbeing of our staff seriously and offer a range of support mechanisms.”

A ‘surge team’ has also been created to move children in need cases forward.

But on the ground, workers remain sceptical.

“Yes, they have got a surge team in but the surge team is agency workers on higher wages than us,” said one newly qualified worker. “They have taking our lower end children in need cases and left us with really complex child protection, looked after children and court cases.

“It would have been more beneficial to have the complex cases we are clearly not ready for taken off us. Also, I understand the surge team is capped at around 18 cases and we are left with 40 plus.”

According to the Department for Education, newly qualified social workers should be supported with regular supervision, a training and development plan, reduced caseloads and protected time for reflection.

The introduction of ASYE seven years ago aimed to provide a framework for such support. 

However, an article published by PSW last year highlighted concern about implementation among newly qualified social workers in London similar to those at North East Lincolnshire.

McGowan praised workers at the authority for speaking out.

“It takes courage to highlight workplace concerns, particularly for those at the start of their careers.

“We need to know the reality of working conditions and where they are unacceptable employers must be called out.

“Social work is a great profession but to do the complex and necessary work we do requires good working conditions and appropriate levels of support, most of all at the beginning of a social worker’s career.”

He also welcomed a willingness by North East Lincolnshire's to engage with the union. He added: “We have to get this right for everyone or risk losing good people from the profession and ultimately doing a great disservice to the people we seek to support.”

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.