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Local solutions to local social work challenges

The social work profession has faced considerable challenges the past 10-15 years. There are significant recruitment and retention issues, particularly in more remote and rural areas. Funding challenges have had an impact on learning and development provision. At the same time, demand for social worker interventions have been rising, with social workers undertaking increasingly complex support of vulnerable people.

The Open University in Scotland recently hosted a podcast discussing the social work landscape in Scotland and how the OU in Scotland is helping local employers address the challenges facing the profession. Suzanne McQuade, Business Relationships Manager at the OU in Scotland, was the host and she was joined by three guests – Deidre Fitzpatrick, Professional Lead Social Work at the OU in Scotland, Louise Smith, Practice Support Officer at Highland Council and Eilidh Houston, a children and family social worker in Fort William.


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Keeping social work skills local

Deidre leads the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes for the OU in Scotland and works extensively with employers across Scotland and with the Scottish Social Services Council. She says that one of the biggest challenges facing social work providers across Scotland, particularly in remote and rural locations, is recruiting social workers who want to stay working in the local community. Currently, many providers find that they recruit newly qualified social workers for them to move to roles in more urban areas soon after they complete their mandatory training. This ongoing churn is not just a recruitment headache for employers – it’s also highly disruptive for service users. “It’s really, really important in terms of delivery of the service that there is consistency around social work teams,” explains Deidre. “You really want people who are going to be committed and dedicated to the area where they live, rather than doing it for a short time and moving on.”

In order to overcome this problem, Louise thinks it’s vital that employers give people who are working in the health and social care sector, maybe as family support workers or community care assistants, for example, the opportunity to develop their skills and progress their careers by becoming qualified social workers. She says the existing workforce understand the needs of the community, are invested in that community and are well placed to provide a service that meets those needs. But, they need to be given the opportunity to move into these roles. “It’s important for folk to know that these opportunities are coming up,” she says. “And that it’s a natural progression in your career, whatever stage you’re at, to want to take that step further. And qualification is just so important.”

Deidre agreed wholeheartedly with Louise about the importance of investing in skills that enable people to work and thrive in their local community. She says that is core to what The Open University exists to do and the audience it most needs to reach.

This really is the mission of The Open University across the whole of the UK, about being open to people, places and ideas. That’s who The Open University was set up to support and develop. These people can’t give up their jobs and go off to university and study full-time for four years. They don’t have that option, because they have mortgages, children and all sorts of responsibilities.

Deidre Fitzpatrick
Professional Lead Social Work, OU in Scotland

The importance of flexible learning

By accessing the OU’s undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, people are able to learn while they earn, developing their skills and careers. And employers benefit from having a more skilled and engaged workforce and from having employees that are motivated to keep developing and to serve their local community. “We understand the importance of releasing people’s potential and giving them the opportunity to progress and develop if they want to and if their employer wants to support them,” says Deidre.

Eilidh recently completed a social work degree course through the OU in Scotland. She thinks there are huge benefits from on-the-job learning and that it prepared her very well for life as a social worker.

I felt that, along with my colleagues who had studied through the OU, we were prepared for our work environment and could hit the ground running.

Eilidh Houston
Children and Families Social Worker and OU in Scotland graduate

Eilidh also really enjoyed working in placements in different areas of social work as it gave her exposure to different service areas, giving her a very well-rounded set of skills and knowledge.

Although the OU in Scotland works with many, many employers across Scotland, each trainee scheme is tailored to the need of the individual employer and employee. And Deidre says these personalised trainee schemes are hugely successful, for employers, for the workforce and for the local community. She says many of the senior managers at the Scottish Borders Council, for example, went through the OU in Scotland’s trainee scheme. By upskilling employees and helping them progress into more senior roles, employers lift the skills of the whole workforce and create a culture of lifelong learning.

Increasing awareness

Deidre says many local authorities aren’t aware of funding opportunities such as the part-time fee grant. Or the fact that health and social care workers can get started on the path to a social work degree by taking open modules that then lead on to a more formal qualification.

The OU in Scotland works very much in collaboration and in partnership with employers, both in terms of providing learning but also in terms of knowing what support and funding is available. It has also created a network so that local authorities can collaborate, learning from and with each other. “What we have been trying to do is put all the different leads in touch with each other, so they hear not just from ourselves, but from each other and learn lots about what works best. We’re involved in the overall social work education partnership, making sure we’re sharing developments and initiatives across Scotland.”

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