Vacant posts spark worries children could be at risk in Wigan care system

Almost a dozen jobs in Wigan’s child social services were unfilled before the coronavirus outbreak, with concerns the crisis could put vulnerable children at even greater risk.
Almost a dozen child social care jobs in Wigan are unfilledAlmost a dozen child social care jobs in Wigan are unfilled
Almost a dozen child social care jobs in Wigan are unfilled

Experts warn the nationwide lockdown could pile pressure on an already stretched system, with councils across England reporting high vacancy rates and reliance on expensive agency staff in their child protection operations.

New Department for Education figures show there were 10 full-time equivalent job vacancies in child and family social work in Wigan in September: six per cent of a fully-staffed workforce.

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Across England, there were more than 6,000 vacancies, a figure that has increased by four per cent since September 2018. The Government has predicted that up to a fifth of the workforce across Britain could be off work at the peak of the coronavirus.

John McGowan, general secretary of the Social Workers Union, said social workers are already struggling with the effects of the outbreak, with many off sick or in self-isolation, meaning less qualified staff or unqualified assistants could be asked to perform statutory duties.

“There could be a real shortfall of qualified staff – it is happening already,” Mr McGowan said. “Some councils have put an appeal out to people in management or who haven’t practised in a while to say ‘can you come back to the front line and fill the gaps?’”

He added that some councils were already having to take steps to deal with the shortfall, such as reducing weekly contacts with youngsters on child protection plans to once a fortnight.

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Councils across England have reported problems recruiting and retaining staff in recent years, which the SWU blames on high workloads, poor management, and a lack of well-being support.

Social workers in Wigan had an average of 15.8 cases each in September.

Eleni Ioannides, Wigan Council’s interim director of children’s services, said: “We recognise the fantastic contribution which children’s social workers make to support our children, young people and their families across the borough.

“That is why the council remains committed to hiring permanent members of staff with our levels of agency staff remaining low, this will drop further with the recruitment of nine new permanent social workers. We want to ensure continuity in our children’s and adults social services so staff know the people they are working with and can build relationships with those families over time.

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“A new recruitment campaign is helping to increase children’s social workers within the council. “Several staff with a social work qualification and experience of working with young people have been recruited and we also have a number of existing staff who are in the final stages of completing a funded apprenticeship, in partnership with Manchester University, which will enable them to become a qualified social worker at Wigan Council.

“We also have a robust support programme in place for newly qualified social workers which includes a series of training both on and off the job, a portfolio of tasks to complete along with ongoing support from dedicated mentors.”

The Department for Education says the emergency Coronavirus Act will help social workers continue their “vital role” supporting children and their families through uncertain times.

A spokeswoman said: “We are working urgently to address the additional challenges they face, including through our Act, which will reduce burdens on social workers and help others return to the profession.”

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But the Social Workers Union says councils need an urgent cash injection for child services, as well as personal protective equipment to protect frontline workers while they carry out home visits.

Mr McGowan added: “Social workers have been lost in this equation. There’s a lot of support for NHS staff but few mentions of social workers who are out seven days a week helping vulnerable people.

“There needs to be an expression that social workers are a part of this too, that they are essential, and they need to feel valued.”

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