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Social work is a deeply rewarding but also challenging role. This week is Social Work Week, in which much is rightly shared about about life on the frontline of social care and the pressures that come with it. 

Social work leaders face a range of challenges and we are hearing from leaders now, more than ever before, that these challenges can feel insurmountable. Local authority budgets are under extraordinary strain and council services are in direct competition for limited funds. And the ongoing recruitment and retention crisis adds further complexity and shows little sign of abating.  

Though the numbers of newly qualified social workers are increasing, this number is being matched by those leaving. High levels of agency staff provide additional capacity, but at the same time increase both budgetary pressures and instability for families. 

Even within this incredibly challenging landscape, we work with social work leaders who create the culture and conditions for good practice. It is really important for us to understand how leaders on the ground are able to do this, so we can incorporate this into our training of newly qualified social workers through to practice leaders. 

Characterising strong leadership

One core thread across these leaders is their resolute and clear focus on prioritising children and families above all else. A culture that allows for development and celebrates the life-changing impact of social work. This is the culture social workers want to work in, where they are supported and enabled to do their best work – the work they joined the profession to do.

Another stand out feature of these strong leaders is their willingness to invest in the development of their teams. This doesn’t necessarily mean increased funding. We are often hearing about local authorities working creatively to find solutions (for example shadowing schemes and role rotation), as well as taking up opportunities for training and development (such as our Pathways programme).

By investing in training and leadership development, we’re already seeing how leaders can enable more cohesive, wide-reaching systemic change that not only benefits social workers, but also positively impacts the children and families they work with. 

The online workshops and residentials gave us space, time and that much needed push across the year to prioritise professional development and build our professional networks. 

Simone, Pathway 3 leader

Another feature of the most inspiring social work leaders, is an appetite for innovation. Innovative, stand-out leaders are always looking for ways to do things differently. Whether supporting a project for young people at risk of criminal exploitation or asking social workers to identify unnecessary bureaucracy; leaders who are open about their commitment to improving the experience of children and families are leaders who social workers want to work for. 

The importance of lived experiences

One challenge leaders speak of as they move into more senior roles is the need to be creative in maintainting a connection to families on the ground. Some leaders maintain a caseload so they can continue to work with children and families, others provide mentoring to social workers. They all agree that it is vital that a wide range of perspectives feed into all decision-making. 

Individuals who have experienced poverty, homelessness, addiction or care can offer invaluable insights. Which is why experts by experience such as Dominic Watters are so vital to the success of our Pathways programme and is also why we ensure diversity and lived experience are at the heart of all our programmes. 

We work with all but 10 local authorities in England and so we are perfectly positioned to see how different leaders are creatively addressing the challenges facing children and families.

Getting so many different local authorities in one place allowed us to draw on each other’s expertise. I could then take this knowledge and adapt it to my area.

Steve, Pathway 1 leader

This year’s Social Work Week theme of ‘learn, connect, influence’ has provided us with an opportunity to share our learnings, something we aim to do frequently.  

We do so through a range of activity and events each year, including sharing research and hosting Social Work Coffee Breaks, the Frontline Exchange and local authority forums. All in the hope that people find value in these examples of good practice, leadership and innovation, and that leaders and social workers across the country choose to incorporate some of these learnings into their everyday working.