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Social workers in Norfolk’s children’s services hampered by heavy caseloads and low morale, union says

PUBLISHED: 06:30 20 March 2017 | UPDATED: 10:44 20 March 2017

Dave Lambert, from UNISON. Pic: UNISON.

Dave Lambert, from UNISON. Pic: UNISON.

Unison

Social workers are still struggling with heavy caseloads, morale is “chronic” and some staff are wondering whether a takeover of Norfolk County Council’s children’s services department would be preferable.

That is according to the trade union UNISON, who hope the appointment of Matt Dunkley as interim director of will bring an end to what they brand “invisible” managers.

But council bosses say they believe morale is good among the “vast majority” of staff, with Mr Dunkley saying staff are “up for the challenge” of improving a department twice rated inadequate by Ofsted.

However, he acknowledged change is needed to stop social workers frustrated at the time they spend in front of computer screens.

Dave Lambert, senior steward in children’s services, said ineffectual leadership previously had hampered efforts to improve.

He said: “Some of our members have questioned whether it would be worse if we were run by an independent trust and that’s not something we say lightly.

“The bottom line is that case loads have increased significantly. In 2016, the average for frontline staff was just over 20, while in 2015 it was 15.

“And our social workers say they are spending more than 50pc of their time at computer screens, inputting data, rather than dealing with children and families.

“There are staff who are working 60 to 70 hours a week and part of the reason is that it is all so process-driven.”

This paper’s highlighting of issues around children’s service has been criticised by Norfolk County Council for the effect on the morale of staff.

But Mr Lambert said last year’s social work health check - in which just under a hundred members of staff responded to questions - showed staff morale was already low.

He said: “Morale was already chronic, with about one in three saying their morale was low or very low.

“Mr Dunkley says we are set up to improve, but unless they address the morale, the number of case loads and various other things, the department is never going to get where it needs to get.”

Mr Lambert said he felt not enough was being done to retain existing staff and he hoped that would be addressed.

And he said: “There’s a massive frustration that there’s been a top-down approach that the directorate knows best and they have not engaged with the staff.

“People say they rarely or never see senior managers. We feel we should all be in this together, but they do not listen to our concerns.”

But the boss of Norfolk’s children’s services department says he believes morale is good among “the vast majority” of staff.

Matt Dunkley, the interim director of children’s services, responding to the concerns raised by UNISON, said: “In the month since I joined the council I have seen a team of staff that is passionate about their work and up for the challenge of improving services for children.

“Their work is difficult and vital and comes under constant scrutiny from both Ofsted and the media. Despite this, my own experience, and feedback from others is that morale is good among the vast majority of staff, although we are ever mindful that at any time there will always be some staff who do not feel this way.

“We’re holding regular surgeries in each area of the county, as well as visiting different staff teams once a week, so we can understand even better what things are like for those working directly with families.”

And Mr Dunkley said a new computer system should speed up the process of inputting data.

He said: “We know that the geography of Norfolk is unique and the time spent travelling and inputting information is a challenge.

“Recording decision making and planning for children is an essential part of social work and we are upgrading equipment to allow more mobile access.

“We have also procured a new contract with Liquid Logic to deliver significant improvements and efficiencies in electronic record keeping which should deliver real improvements for social workers.”

And he added that he was aware social workers were spending a considerable amount of time in court.

He said: “A significant issue has been the time social workers are spending in court, and supervising court-directed contact between children and families.

“We have measures in place to address these areas so that our staff can spend more time working to strengthen families.

“We are also continuing to train, develop and recruit more social work staff.”

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