A national shortage of social workers means that many local councils in the UK struggle to recruit enough social workers. For Cornwall Council, the problem is exacerbated by geography and a lack of fast transport links. “Cornwall, in terms of geography, is particularly difficult to recruit to,” says Anne Smith, Head of Service for Safeguarding, Quality and Practice for Adults at Cornwall Council. “It’s quite impossible to travel into Cornwall from say Devon or Plymouth on a regular basis.”
The council also has an ageing workforce, which means there will be even more staffing challenges going forward, unless the council can boost the local talent pipeline and provision of skills. It knows it needs to act now to recruit more social workers into the profession locally and to improve succession planning by developing workforce competencies.
And that is what it is doing through a programme of distance learning apprenticeships, run through The Open University (OU). “Distance learning has been really important for our students because it’s meant people can remain with their families and remain in Cornwall,” says Anne. “It’s quite flexible around the times when people can choose to study and I think that’s what attracted the high number of applicants.”
The council is now sponsoring employees on both the OU’s social worker degree apprenticeship and the OU’s Master’s programme. Marion Russell, Head of Service for Practice Development and Safeguarding Standards within Children’s Services at Cornwall Council, says the programmes really help recruitment and retention, and are great for developing the workforce.
“We have an excellent offer to social workers in terms of their career and qualification pathway, right from the apprenticeship scheme to the postgraduate qualifications, leading through to being principal social workers, consultant social workers and future leaders of the organisation,” says Marion.
Janet Bardsley, a Practice Tutor at the OU, agrees with Marion and says the postgraduate qualification not only allows the council to fast track people into roles, but also raises the academic bar in the organisation. “What we are building is that research emphasis that academic excellence, within the profession,” she says.
People come to social work education through many routes and for widening participation, Marion says the apprenticeship route is ideal. Annette Deegan, an apprentice social worker at Cornwall Council, was delighted when the opportunity became available. She had been working in a variety of administration roles prior to this and didn’t think she would ever get a degree of any sort. “When the apprenticeship was offered I jumped on it immediately and put my application in because it would enable me to carry on working and learning on the job. I need to work as well.”
Tina Philp was previously a youth worker and had a degree in business and accounting, before joining the Council and qualified as a social worker through the OU’s Postgraduate Diploma Social Work. She is now continuing her studies with the OU to top up her social work degree to a Masters. She says the structure and flexibility of the Postgraduate Diploma in Social Work really suits her, plus the practical nature of the work. “What you’re studying directly relates to your practice placements and prepares you for the transferable skills that you need to go into the everyday job.”
This two-pronged approach – recruiting people to the apprenticeship route and fast tracking people into the profession through the postgraduate qualification – is enabling the council to recruit a much broader, more diverse range of people. “We’ve been able to bring in people who wouldn’t have normally thought about being social workers,” says Anne. “We’ve had a lot of interest from people who’ve perhaps had a career before, have got transferable skills, but wouldn’t have taken on the debt or leaving a full-time job to go into university.”