A recruitment target to boost the number of permanent social workers to help turn around the performance of children’s services department is falling well short of its 10 a month target, council chiefs have revealed.
Sunderland City Council was judged to be inadequate by Ofsted during checks in July last year, with huge efforts put into replacing its management and practices.
The workloads of social workers was also highlighted as an issue, with a pledge from the authority last September that it would recruit 93 new team members as part of a £6million investment to help deal with the demand and improve its service.
At a recent meeting of the full council, Conservative member Robert Oliver asked at what monthly rate appointments of permanent social workers were being made.
The meeting heard a target of 10 newcomers each month was set by chiefs, but the numbers taken on by the council in a five-month period this year show it is struggling to add to the department.
A further four have been offered positions but are yet to start and this month, 12 newly qualified workers under the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment scheme started, along with five Step Up to Social Work and five Frontline workers, who are on national programmes to fast-track those with prior experience of social work.
The difficulty we have is that in the North East, there is a finite number of social workers.Councillor Louise Farthing, cabinet member for children’s services
Councillors have described the situation as “alarming”.
The question about the monthly rate of recruitment was put forward by Councillor Robert Oliver, who asked about what efforts were being made to appoint permanent social workers.
Councillor Louise Farthing, cabinet holder for children’s services, said: “The difficulty we have is that in the North East, there is a finite number of social workers.
“The pool of people to draw from its quite limited, but we have set up an academy for social work which the Minister for Children Edward Timpson has been particularly interested in and has backed.
“We are also aware students studying social work are also coming through, particularly across the North East.”
Four new directors have been appointed to oversee the department and its move to become a trust. The new company, the establishment of which was agreed by members in principle in April, will have day-to-day operational freedom in respect of the management and delivery of the services it will be responsible for. However, in contracting out services, the council will remain statutorily responsible for their performance.
The announcement that 93 new frontline social workers would be added to the ranks of the service was made last September as part of an action plan to get to the root of issues raised through the Ofsted report, alongside a cash package of an estimated £6million.
Inspectors have since made a monitoring visit, which led them to announce they were satisfied steps were being made to turn the service round, with the city’s children commissioner Nick Whitfield also pleased with improvements.
However, the council has said there is still much work to be done, but has its sights set on making the service a high performer.
Conservative Coun Oliver said: “Delivering a stable workforce of able and permanent social workers with enough experience to deal with the challenges faced in Sunderland is essential to the success of Children’s Services.
“The priority has to be to recruit, retain and support social workers and provide good leadership and effective IT systems so that performance is consistently good in all areas.
“For too long, there has been a reliance on agency staff who have stayed for only a short time and, with high caseloads and high pressure, have struggled to manage their work.
“The budget for Children’s Services has been increased to support the recruitment programme but much work is needed to attract professionals to come and stay in the city.”
Liberal Democrat councillor Niall Hodson said: “It is alarming that we are falling behind on recruiting social workers for the new children’s company.
“Continuing to rely on temporary and agency staff is not sustainable, professionally, structurally, or financially.
“Wearside Lib Dems are urging the Council to make recruitment a priority: until the children’s company has a settled and permanent staff, we are unlikely to see sustained improvements in the Council’s handling of children’s services, and we will continue to fail the city’s most vulnerable.”