- Invested heavily in support staff and IT to free up social worker time and boost efficiency
- Robust support and supervision and clear career structure has minimised turnover and absence
Investment in support and training for staff has helped bring use of agency staff at North Yorkshire County Council down to virtually zero.
"We made a commitment to stop using agency staff because they didn't provide the consistency we want for children and families," explains new assistant director for children and families Martin Kelly.
Steps taken included supporting existing agency workers to become permanent employees and investing in the Signs of Safety approach to social work, which attracted talented professionals. Social workers are also being encouraged to train in systemic practice while social work managers can access the Firstline training programme.
Having a clear career structure has also been key to retaining staff as has keeping caseloads - which are monitored monthly - manageable, says Kelly.
The authority has a "relentless" focus on recruitment, which can include highly targeted recruitment campaigns, he adds.
"We monitor local trends and whether there are any specific difficult-to-recruit-to areas and will, if necessary, use things like golden handshakes," he says.
Yet despite the fact North Yorkshire is competing for social work staff with 13 neighbouring authorities, he stresses salary is not the most important factor.
"If we have a social worker who is looking around or leaving then we'll have a conversation with them. Is there anything else we can do to support them? Can we help with a career change? We recognise our social workers are very valuable."
Efforts to boost retention have also included beefing up professional support for children's social workers. Teams used to have a manager and assistant manager who both juggled HR and practice issues but team managers are now supported by a dedicated practice supervisor.
Social workers have access to team support workers who can help set up meetings and do other admin tasks as well as case support workers who can help with managing specific cases.
The authority has also invested in IT for social workers including laptops, tablets and other mobile technology that help make record-keeping simpler.
Emma Langford did the final placement of her social work degree with a looked-after team at North Yorkshire and is now a social worker in a safeguarding team in Scarborough.
"The kind of support I received and the ethos of the team I was working with meant that when I qualified and was looking for jobs, lots of the ones I wanted were in North Yorkshire," she says.
She is among those working towards a Level 1 diploma in systemic therapy, which involves travelling to London every two weeks to learn alongside social workers from other areas. Inevitably students compare notes about working conditions.
"For some the support isn't there and they haven't got that safety net around them, which is one of the things North Yorkshire does really well," she says.
"There is room for progression too - it feels like you always have opportunities to move up or sideways."
The authority, a quarter of whose children's social workers used to be agency staff, currently employs just four - less than four per cent of the frontline child protection workforce. However, this is a short-term measure and the council is in the process of recruiting up to 17 new children's social workers to maintain appropriate caseloads. The expectation is that it will employ no agency staff by May.
Turnover rates among children's social workers are nine per cent compared with the national average of 16 per cent. Meanwhile, sickness absence is significantly below the national average at just 6.4 days per person.
More than half of children's social workers have been qualified for two years or more.
Since 2012, the authority has saved around £6m across children and families services by all but eliminating the extra cost of employing agency staff and by reducing the number of looked-after children from 490 to nearer 400.