Why Independent Social Workers could be the answer to pressures on local authorities following the Spending Review

Mark Willis, director of Independent Social Work specialists WillisPalmer, on why it's a good time to go independent


It is an exciting time to become an Independent Social Worker, says Mark Willis, director of leading provider of ISWs in the country, WillisPalmer.

Not only are local authorities under huge pressure to make cuts to services and deliver solutions to service users more cost-effectively, but many of the services that councils may have previously commissioned, for example in the voluntary sector have been forced to scale back as the recession has taken its toll leaving a clear need for Independent Social Workers to help ease some of those stresses.

There has also been an increasing demand for ISWs experienced in court work as courts have been under significant strain following the introduction of legislation which states that care proceedings must be completed within a 26 week time-scale. As a result, ISWs are being called in to help ease the burden and ensure important deadlines are met.

“Independent Social Work is now becoming a viable career choice,” said Willis, a qualified and independent social worker. “Even 15 years ago, to go independent would be an untenable career choice but now more and more professionals are thinking ‘actually, I’d like to give it a go’.”

What is the difference between a locum and an ISW?

At the College of Social Work’s last annual conference in March prior to its closure last month, there was a workshop aimed at locum social workers, Independent Social Workers and those considering a step into the independent sector where the distinguishing factors between locums and ISWs remained unclear.

“Independent Social Workers tend to be professionals who are highly skilled and experienced and undertake specialist work. This may be assessments or if a local authority faces a serious and complex sexual abuse case and do not have the staff with the necessary skills to deal with the case, they would perhaps turn to an ISW,” said Willis.

“ISWs come from a range of contexts. At one end of the spectrum, you have full-time ISWs who have a long-track record in social work, a wealth of experience in local authority or voluntary sector social work, who have management experience and an established portfolio of work and who do Independent Social Work for a full-time living,” explained Willis.

“Slightly further along the spectrum, you have ISWs who work part-time, maybe three days a week either as a permanent member of staff in a local authority or other setting or as a locum social worker and who like to take on a couple of assessments as an ISW each month to have some flexibility and know they are not tied to a job full-time,” he added.

“You then have a group of ISWs who probably work full-time either as a locum of a permanent member of staff and who like to take on an occasional assessment, maybe two or three a year. This enables them extra income to maybe pay for holidays and also enables the social worker to dip their toe into the Independent water while still having the security of a full time job and money,” said Willis.

Locums and ISWs have a free will

In fact, many of the professionals looking to join WillisPalmer, which was established 11 years ago, are working full-time and want to do full-time Independent work but feel uneasy giving up their full-time job as they need some security and a regular guaranteed income. Joining an organisation like WillisPalmer provides them with support and advice as they build a portfolio of work while they have a guaranteed income of their permanent job.

“We have people start with us who are working full-time in a permanent role and want the occasional assessment. Then as they build their portfolio up, they drop to part-time working and take on more assessments until they are ready to work as an ISW full-time,” added Willis.

Naturally, there are similarities with locum work and both locum social workers and ISWs are professional regulated social workers who make a decision to have a free will and not be employed full-time by an organisation thus enabling them flexibility and control over the work they take on and their career paths.

As with locum work, as an ISW you have more choice over where you work, the conditions under which you work, the days you want to work, the type of work you want to undertake and how long they want to work somewhere. You can have a very varied experience in your working life and there is complete flexibility for the ISW, Willis explains, so if you want to just take on fostering assessments or specialise in court proceedings, you can. As an ISW or a locum you are distinct from those employed in substantive posts.

There is a crossover with some professionals choosing to work as both a locum and an ISW. “There is a big rump of professionals who fall into the category whereby they work either as a locum or in a substantive post who then do extra work as an ISW.”

We look for flexibility, experience and reliability

When Willis took the leap from local authority work 15 years ago to work as an ISW, he did it the hard way. After 15 years working in a local authority predominantly with children, he decided that a progression up the management career ladder would in take him away from the direct work with children and families that he loved. He decided to stay in practice, handed his notice in and became a self-employed children’s guardian where he began to build a portfolio of independent work over a few years. On the day he left he went into his local authority and handed back his lease car, phone and pension which reiterated the risk he was taking with his career.

“There is a risk as there is in any entrepreneurial or self-employed pursuit and Independent Social Work is no different,” said Willis. However, the model that he sees more and more frequently of professionals working full or part-time while building up an Independent portfolio lessens the risk somewhat as social workers know they have a guaranteed income and Willis agrees that this is probably the best way to start in Independent Social Work.

“When they sign up with us, professionals ask us, how much work will I get? When you are self-employed, there are no guarantees, it depends on how experienced and skilled you are, what you can do, what area you specialise in and how flexible you are. Some professionals will only work within one London borough which is obviously going to reduce their opportunities. Then there are others who are happy to stay in a travel lodge overnight and who will work anywhere in the country,” said Willis. “The three things we look for in the people we take on are flexibility, experience and reliability – these social workers are taking on professional tasks and so we need people who have experience but who are reliable and professional too.”

“ISWs tend to have a degree of entrepreneurial spirit and have to have the experience, skill and knowledge to generate an income. They tend to be ambitious and often quite business savvy. They also tend to be people who want real meaningful flexibility over their working lives and to be able to take time off when they want and have choice over their working hours.”

The work of ISWs is not gratuitous

The true number of ISWs in the country is difficult to glean although there are 2,500 ISWs registered with BASW or Nagalro, the professional associations which represent this group. Willis estimates that there are probably around 3,000 to 5,000 and 300 ISWs are registered with WillisPalmer with a regular stream of applications.

“Five years ago we made a big effort to recruit through advertising and conferences to increase our numbers. We haven’t done any significant advertising for 5-6 years yet we have around 15-20 people each month wanting to register with us,” said Willis.

It appears as if the ISW market has recovered after a major setback in 2011 when the then Legal Services Commission (now Legal Aid Agency) introduced a cap on the fees ISWs could charge for court work to £33 per hour placing them at the bottom of the list of expert rates along with photographers and process servers (people who knock on doors and serve legal documents) despite the fact that in public law proceedings, ISWs are often the professional providing the most helpful evidence along with the child’s social worker and the Guardian.

ISWs had previously been charging between £40 and £50 an hour and the move had a significant impact on the market. It wasn’t feasible for ISWs to be working at these rates especially given their on costs of heating, lighting, travel, equipment and training. In a double blow, the Legal Aid Agency then introduced a cap on the number of hours that social workers could work on cases.

“It had a deleterious effect on the market,” says Willis, “but the work that ISWs do is not gratuitous, it’s work that needs to be done, it’s assessments of children at risk and children in need. Where ISWs are usually used is where there is a lack of experience, capacity or there is a timescale that needs to be met. The Legal Aid Agency were paying ISWs but following the cap, local authorities now commission the ISWs registered with us, we no longer take on legal aid work following the fee cap as we want to pay our ISWs a fair rate.”

ISWs can solve short-term issues and crises

The ISW market has now stabilised as the growth at WillisPalmer pays testament to although nowthe government has turned its attention to capping fees in the NHS.

With a set maximum hourly rate for agency doctors and nurses and a cap on total agency staff spending for each NHS trust in financial difficulty, could this be extended to locum social workers? “Given the government’s economic policy of paying off the deficit, nothing can be ruled out as they are trying to attack every aspect of public spending,” says Willis. However, he warns that locum social workers can suit the needs of social services departments without the need to commit to long-term employment contracts and actually saving authorities financially.

“Most directors would probably say that they would like good people on permanent contracts who are usually more likely to stay with the organisation longer. However, we know that particularly in older people’s services there are winter pressures where there are increased falls and illnesses during the winter months so agency staff can be enormously helpful when services are under great strain during those months. Locum social workers can be used over the winter months without the authorities having to recruit full-time staff who may not be needed during the summer months.”

Willis is, in fact, confident about the future of both the Independent and locum markets due to a number of factors. A survey last year found that six out of 10 social workers would not recommend their employer while spending on agency staff increased by a third and an article suggested that increasingly more and more social workers are leaving local authority work to go locum.

At the same time, the number of children in care is steadily rising, there are more care proceedings in shorter timescales and therefore the demand for services remains.

Willis adds: “It was challenging following the legal aid capping but we are now busier than ever. An increasing number of professionals are wanting to register with us and we are working with more and more local authorities. A lot of children’s services directors can see the benefits of using ISWs. At busy times, or when they are struggling, they can bring in ISWs to help ease the pressures without the need to employ them permanently. In comparison to employing someone for 52 weeks of the year, ISWs are not expensive and can solve short-term issues and crises.”

And with the Spending Review around the corner, it is unlikely that funding issues in local authorities will become any easier with councils expected to do more with less. “Local authority work is statutory, it has to be done, you can’t turn children in need or at risk away. Our model is to work collaboratively with local authorities who can use our services when the need arises to meet their statutory obligations.”

Mark Willis is director of WillisPalmer, which was established in 2004 by Mark Willis and Andre Palmer, and which has grown into one of the largest providers of independent social work and psychology services in the UK.

Story courtesy of Locum Today

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