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Social work image issue as hundreds of jobs vacant

BBC News 13/12/2022
More than two thirds of vacancies are in social work with children © Getty Images More than two thirds of vacancies are in social work with children

The negative perception of social workers needs to change to recruit more into the profession, it has been claimed.

BBC Wales research shows three councils in Wales had social worker vacancy rates of more than 30%.

There are also calls to improve pay and terms and conditions.

The Welsh Government said it was "working incredibly hard to respond to a complex range of ongoing and significant challenges".

Ailsa Stephens said the experience was mostly really positive © BBC Ailsa Stephens said the experience was mostly really positive

Ailsa Stephens is a senior social worker for Carmarthenshire children's services and has been qualified for nearly 13 years.

She said some people still believed social workers were only there to remove children from families and that they were paid extra to do so.

"I have to tell people - we're not on commission," she said. "I can't just remove children, we don't get bonuses for it and we don't get promotions. People still think that and I can't believe it."

She said that social workers were always mentioned when things went wrong, even when other agencies or professionals were involved.

"There's a lot of bad press. We don't get to hear about all the wonderful things that happen."

She said there were "dark moments" in social work but on the whole it was "really positive".

"It can get exhausting but for me it comes back to the young people and children I work with - you get those special moments. And the families when you're able to bring about change with them."

She said people needed to be accountable for bad practice but that it was frustrating people did not get to hear about the good things social workers do.

"Being a social worker is the best thing I've ever done. The positives far outweigh the bad parts of social work. I'm proud to be a social worker."


There are around 485 vacancies in social work in 17 of Wales' 22 local authorities, responses to a Freedom of Information request from BBC Wales show.

More than two thirds of those were in children's social services.

Newport, Bridgend and Ceredigion all had vacancy rates of more than 30%.

© Provided by BBC News

Former Children's Commissioner for Wales, Sally Holland, is a professor of social work at Cardiff University.

She said that while there was a recruitment problem across the public sector, the negative press around social work contributed to high vacancy rates.

"We hear about the very tragic things that happen but we don't often hear about the very positive stories. Every day many people are helped to live full and safe lives in the community by social workers but we're very unlikely to hear about those," she said.

"We need to change the perception of the job and help people understand that it is a fantastic and rewarding career that you can have working with people."

Social workers have to deliver many statutory services - services that, by law, have to be delivered.

If there are not enough social workers to deliver those services, agency workers are used.

Prof Holland said it was hard for families to develop confidence and trust if social workers changed regularly.

Councillor Llinos Medi is a social services spokesperson for the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) and said more must be done to attract new social workers.

"We've seen what happens even in [child protection] cases when they've had support. We've seen these tragedies when everyone has done everything they can. But when you add the risk of not enough manpower - I dread to think," she said.

The numbers of students signing up for social work degree courses in Wales has been variable.

In 2016-17, 260 students started the social work degree but that dipped to 202 in 2018 before increasing to 242 in 2020-21, according to Social Care Wales.

Dr Michelle Culwick, course leader for the social work programme at the University of South Wales, said the profession had not always been understood.

"I think we're not seeing enough positive press about what social work and the rewards of the job and what it can bring. We need to start raising the profile as a meaningful and worthwhile profession. We can't live without social workers."

Erica Hughes said she's wanted to be a social worker for a long time after working with children and families for a number of years © BBC Erica Hughes said she's wanted to be a social worker for a long time after working with children and families for a number of years

Erica Hughes is in her third year of the Social Work BSc in University of South Wales.

As a single mum of three, she said the bursary was not enough. She had to save and work hard to fund her studying.

"I'm grateful for the help I've received but it could be a bit more," she said.

The Welsh government recently announced a £10m package of support for social work students as part of its work to recruit more social workers and first year student Mya Clare is one of those to benefit from it.

She feels passionately about being a social worker having cared for her mum who has Crohn's Disease but said more funding would help.

"Financially, it's been really hard. The cost of living is like a punch to the face but the bursary and loans really help. It should be more though - especially if you're in a severely low income house it can get hard," she said.

The Welsh government said: "We are working with the sector to improve recruitment and retention of social workers including through actions set out in the recently published social work workforce plan."

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