Recruitment and Retention of Social Workers: Discussion (Resumed)

I welcome members, and viewers who may be watching proceedings on Oireachtas TV, to the public session of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. The purpose of the meeting today is to discuss the recruitment and retention of social workers with representatives of third level institutions. On behalf of the committee, I would like to welcome from IT Sligo, Dr. Breda McTaggart, the head of the department of social science; and Ms Brenda Feeney, course director. I welcome also from the Irish Universities Association, Dr. Carmel Halton, senior lecturer of social work at the school of applied social studies, UCC; Professor Michelle Norris, head of the school of social policy, social work and social justice, UCD; and Professor Robbie Gilligan, professor of social work at the school of social work and social policy, Trinity College Dublin. I thank you all for attending this morning.

Before we commence, in accordance with procedure I am required to draw your attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I remind witnesses to switch off their mobile phones or switch them to flight mode, as they tend to interfere with our recording systems and broadcasting facilities. I advise witnesses that any submission they have made or opening statement they may make to the committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting. After their presentations, there will be questions from the members.

I call on Dr. McTaggart to make her opening statement.

Dr. Breda McTaggart

I thank the committee for inviting us here this morning. The Institute of Technology Sligo is a higher education provider which develops and delivers programmes of learning to over 6,500 students at undergraduate, masters, and doctorate level. It is a leader in online learning, is research active across all areas and has, at its core, a focus on the development of its region and its citizens. The department of social sciences in IT Sligo is one of the largest departments in the institute. It caters for the learning needs of over 650 students at undergraduate and postgraduate level. In 2015, the team and I carried out a review of our regional educational and employment needs. From this review, we developed and sought validation for a number of awards at undergraduate and postgraduate level, inclusive of a masters in social work.

The masters of arts in social work award is the first social work award to be delivered in an institute of technology. The award has been developed in response to student requests for this award within the north-west region, a national shortage of social workers, a number of policy documents which advocate widening access in education, and the need to meet an employment and skills shortage.

As members will be aware, there are waiting lists for social worker expertise across all service areas, including the areas of children and young people and care of the elderly and the disability sector. This is even after a sustained recruitment and retention drive across all these sectors. The reality exists that this is set to continue as the demand for social workers is not being met by the supply of graduates and the retention of social workers within specific posts is acknowledged as challenging. Consequently, a large number of vacancies remain unfilled across all sectors.

The Institute of Technology Sligo and the department of social sciences is reflective of the non-traditional higher education space. Our students are often the first generation to access higher education within their families and many are in receipt of grant funding. Students who begin their studies in our department work very hard throughout programmes and graduate with qualifications that support them to attain better life opportunities and outcomes for themselves, their families, and the communities in which they work and live. However, because of the institute's lack of provision within specific learning spaces, we were concerned that we were contributing to inequity of access to in-demand learning opportunities for our student cohort. In 2016, we made the decision to address this through the introduction of this award.

The programme team and I began the work in 2016 and, in 2018, we sought and secured, under delegated authority, QQI level 9 validation for a two year full-time award in social work. In September 2018, the programme commenced with a small cohort of ambitious and excited students. They are currently on their first professional learning placement.

As this is a new departure for the institute of technology sector, it raised some questions about whether we should be delivering in this field. The answer to this question is that social work is a regulated profession under the Health and Social Care Professionals Act 2005 and, consequently, all programmes must be reviewed by the professional regulator, CORU. The masters in social work has made an application to CORU and we will be reviewed by our professional regulator in autumn of this year.

There are a small number of challenges when developing and implementing a social work award. They are not insurmountable but are worth noting as we try to work collectively to resolve the ongoing issues of social work recruitment and retention. Among the challenges, educational providers are dependent on the goodwill of services to accept and supervise students for professional placement learning opportunities. It is a significant challenge to secure even a small number of placements and this is prohibiting increasing our student numbers. Students on newly developed professional regulated programmes commence without the assurance that the programme will be successful as part of the validation process. This has a personal and financial risk for potential students and impacts on the numbers applying and the numbers we recruit. Any changes to the offering of an approved programme, for example a move from a full-time to a part-time delivery model, requires a new validation process. If one of the offerings is unsuccessful both may be affected by this. This is because the specific award title, that is, the masters of arts in social work, and the academic institute is recorded on the approved qualifications by-law. As is normal for all students who wish to return to full-time studies, there are cost implications both in terms of fees and maintenance. Students who were in employment in the previous year may be above the threshold of grant funding for the first year, hence the financial burden is increased for that year. The suggestion to introduce funded bursaries would be welcomed, provided it would not impact on a student securing grant funding.

While recruitment is one part of the social work shortage puzzle, retention is the other. This was discussed by the Irish Association of Social Workers at a meeting of the joint committee last month. We support suggestions put forward by our colleagues and reiterate the importance of quality supervision, streamlining of work practices, and manageable caseloads as key factors in any successful retention strategy. We add that recruitment and retention strategies need to co-exist as one impacts directly on the other.

In conclusion, we acknowledge that this is a complex, multifactorial problem and that any sustainable resolution will require many different and inter-related strategies. The team and I had, and have, a responsibility to our potential students and our region to provide appropriate education and learning opportunities, to the required standard, in an area where employment needs exist. Social work is one of these areas. We welcome the opportunity to be part of any resolution strategy.

Dr. Carmel Halton

I thank the Chairperson for inviting us to present on the important matter of the recruitment and retention of social workers this. I am director of the masters of social work programme in UCC I am joined by Professor Michelle Norris, professor of social work and head of the school of social work, social policy, and social justice in UCD, and by Professor Robbie Gilligan, professor of social work and social policy in TCD. We welcome the opportunity to present to the committee on this important matter. We have circulated a discussion document, which was the result of a collaboration between all four universities that currently provide accredited social work programmes - UCD, TCD, NUIG and UCC.

In light of the time allocated to us this morning, we have prepared a short statement, which is an abbreviation of the discussion document the committee has received. Our opening statement focuses primarily on social work education in Ireland and the supply of graduates. We identify and set out proposals for addressing the main barriers to increasing the numbers of places on our current professional social work programmes. These are the availability and organisation of student practice fieldwork placements and the funding needs of students.

Collectively, the four universities provide two undergraduate degrees and four postgraduate degrees in social work. The two undergraduate programmes are provided by UCC and TCD and a masters degree in social work is provided by each of the four universities represented here These programmes are all accredited by CORU, the regulatory body for health and social care professionals. For the information of the committee, social work education involves both academic training in the university and carefully planned intensive fieldwork practice training. In all, 50% of social work students' time is spent on fieldwork placement with the remaining 50% spent in academic study. As can be imagined, placements are, therefore, a critical component of all social work education.

In this presentation we will first address the matter of professional education and the supply of graduates. Irish universities graduate approximately 210 professionally qualified social workers per annum. These are highly valued in the profession, as is reflected in their high employability rates nationally and internationally. The universities acknowledge the current demands on Tusla in the area of the recruitment and retention of social workers. As university providers of social work education, we would like the committee to know that we are committed to engaging with all social work employers, including Tusla, towards resolving the recruitment and retention challenges represented to this committee.

However, universities also face significant challenges in addressing the problems experienced in this area. One of the major challenges we face is undoubtedly access to high-quality social work placements that will accommodate our current student numbers. These placements form an essential element of social work training and strict standards are set by CORU regarding training requirements for placement supervisors. While we have been attempting to address the problems of placement provision for some time, more recently all universities have been engaged in collaboration with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs towards developing a strategy to address these challenges in supply.

While we are open to increasing our intake of social work students with a view to creating a sustainable supply of new graduates, any expansion is predicated on an increase in both the supply and availability of high-quality student placements and new applicants to our programmes. We have a number of suggestions with regard to achieving such an increase in the number of students on our programmes. As I have said, students are required to undertake at least two extended unpaid work-based placements of 14 weeks' duration in the course of their professional social work training. To pass and progress to graduation, students must successfully achieve standards of practice that meet the criteria and standards of proficiency prescribed by CORU. It is important to note that these placements can result in students incurring significant costs in respect of travel, subsistence, and having to relocate to geographical regions in which placements are available. Because of the substantial practice placement component of social work education, students must factor in these costs, in addition to high fees, before deciding to undertake a programme of study. The funding issue is significant as many social work students have no access to public funding in the form of Government grants or scholarships. Even those who qualify for some funding are not reimbursed for many of the additional costs incurred during the course of their training.

As we have noted, key to any expansion of student numbers and, by implication, of student graduates is an increase in the number of student placements. This will require employers to address a number of current barriers to placement availability. These barriers include limited office accommodation, lack of structures or support for placement supervisors, large caseloads, the availability of sufficient numbers of placement supervisors who meet CORU standards, and the development of continuing professional development initiatives that respond to the ongoing training and development needs of qualified social workers, who are the supervisors of our students. In responding to the placement challenges previously identified, the universities recognise that there is a need for the development of diverse and creative approaches to student placements. These include the development of high-quality, long-arm supervision across a variety of agencies, the development of practice learning units, the establishment of specialist clinical supervision posts, and the promotion of lead specialist practice learning teams. Many of these initiatives have been in operation in the past and we are considering their reintroduction.

We suggest that a commitment to embedding practice placement supervision in social work employment contracts is required of employers, as was originally envisaged with the creation of the senior practitioner role in the HSE and Tusla. Relationships between the universities and social work employers and placement providers also need to be formalised into memoranda of understanding. These would include protocols for the sharing of sensitive data on student performance, which are necessary to conform to data protection legislation.

In addition to considering matters relating to placement expansion, we are also considering diverse approaches to social work education. As university educators of social workers for more than eight decades, we are committed to exploring new models of social work training that increase the supply of social workers. Discussions are under way with CORU to explore options that comply with its accreditation requirements. Because social workers practice in demanding health and social care contexts that require a significant period of education, skills development and professional development, our opinion is that social work education cannot be fast-tracked. Regardless of the model adopted, it must equate to existing accredited programmes in terms of the time devoted to the professional formation of social workers.

In summary, we recognise that there may be many innovative ways to deliver social work programmes, which will require forward planning and development with all the parties concerned. The universities have previously demonstrated a commitment to engaging with employers in developing innovative accredited social work programmes. For example, UCD modified aspects of its MSW provision to accommodate needs in the Probation Service. UCC established an undergraduate social work degree, the BSW, for mature student entry, to increase the diversification of applicants for social work education. Trinity College Dublin and NUIG have also developed their masters degrees in response to the increasing demands of employers.

We believe that university providers of social work education have a good record of collaborating with employing organisations towards achieving change. Previously we have collaborated with the Department of Health, which provided resources in the late 1990s that led to the doubling of student numbers on our programmes. In addition, social work programmes have been proactive in revisiting and expanding their academic and practice curricula in response to changing demands from practice. These developments have equipped newly qualified social workers to engage more effectively with the social changes faced by service users.

Regarding the recruitment and retention of social workers in child protection and welfare, we fully recognise the importance of serving the recruitment needs of Tusla as well as other employers of social workers. We believe that an important consideration in the recruitment of high-calibre candidates is the need for public education campaigns to promote social work career choices, aimed both at school leavers and more mature applicants who are considering a career change. The focus of this committee's work has been on child protection and welfare social work and while we appreciate that Tusla is the largest employer of social workers in Ireland, there are other significant employers such as the HSE, the Probation Service, wider disability services and the civil society sector. These employers all have an important role to play in responding to the needs of vulnerable service users outside of the child protection and welfare sector. In considering our submission document, therefore, we respectfully request that the committee seeks to avoid any unintended consequences for the wider labour market for social workers and for social work education, which has a responsibility to serve all parts of the profession equally and has served it for many years.

While increasing the supply of social work graduates is necessary, we propose that issues of staff retention cannot be addressed solely by increasing supply. We need to find ways to retain and care for existing child protection and welfare social workers. We know from what social workers on the ground tell us that their decisions to leave child protection and welfare social work are due to factors such as the incessant and rapid pace of organisational change, excessive workloads and insufficient staff supports and supervision. While child protection and welfare social work can be rewarding, stimulating and important work it is also challenging, as the committee will know. There is significant international literature outlining the impact of social work on social workers. To promote retention, social workers who undertake this work require a high level of staff welfare, early career support measures, structured induction programmes, protected caseloads and professional supervision to mitigate the impact of the work.

As social work educators we want the committee to know that we are ready and willing to play our part in increasing the supply of qualified CORU-accredited professional social workers. To progress towards the expansion of student numbers we suggest establishing campaigns to promote social work as a career choice; increasing the supply of placements in conjunction with Tusla and other employers; establishing a bursary scheme, including fees and placement costs, to attract high-calibre candidates to social work degrees; and providing support structures that give due recognition to the particular challenges experienced by child protection and welfare social workers, as previously mentioned.

We would like to thank the committee for the time given to hearing our submission and we invite any questions its members might have.

I thank Dr. Halton. I appreciate both opening statements. They will be very helpful in the completion of our report on this matter, which we hope to produce relatively soon. Before I invite Senator Freeman to begin her questions I will make a number of points which could offer a little bit of clarity. I struggled to get to grips with the reasons for difficulties in securing placements. Both the witnesses referenced certain commitments that need to be made by other bodies. Could they put some additional information on that on the record?

Are educational facilities at capacity in terms of demand, as opposed to the ability to cater for more students? Do the facilities have sufficient capacity so that whatever applicants come from leaving certificate level and other age levels can start?

Professor Michelle Norris

The best way to clarify the situation with social work placements is to compare us to the other social and health professions. For instance, UCD provides degrees in nursing, medicine and social work. St. Vincent's University Hospital is part of the university and the placement part of the degree is automatically provided for nursing colleagues. However many hundreds of placements they require are automatically provided. They can be guaranteed. We start from a position of zero placements every year in the social work school. We have 50 students on our two-year programme each year, 100 students in total. This year we had to make arrangements with 141 individual social workers to place those 100 students. We contact individual social workers and conclude agreements with them to take a student on placement. Placements are not provided to us centrally by the employers. Tusla has a total of three liaison people who will help us in various parts of the country, but there are no guaranteed placements.

Some of those arrangements break down. We find that the breakdown rate of arrangements is particularly high in areas such as child protection in Tusla because of the turnover of staff and the degree of pressure. We then have to secure more placements. We have a couple of concerns about this. If we register a student on our social work degree we are contractually obliged to deliver that programme, including the two placements. Unless we can be sure of placements we have concerns about taking in students. Our experience in the Dublin region in recent years shows that delivering more placements is very challenging. We find it particularly difficult for students who need to repeat a placement. On occasions in recent years we have had to approach more than 100 social workers to place a repeat student.

Moreover, we do not have a formal relationship with the employer organisation. This has raised concerns around the general data protection regulation, GDPR, because we may need to share sensitive information about the student that is relevant to their performance on the placement. That is anomalous within these professions. The HSE has moved to address this for radiographers. If this was done in social work, it would have a transformative impact on the sector.

Could Professor Norris elaborate on her point about radiographers?

Professor Michelle Norris

We are currently part of a committee established by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, which is considering increasing places on social work training programmes, as Dr. Halton mentioned.

That has been a positive development for us. At that meeting colleagues from the HSE raised the issue that this was also a barrier in some of the health professions and that they have moved to try to regularise these arrangements. We also have concerns about the impact of this on the student experience. I acknowledge the social workers who take our students on placement and provide a super service and are very committed to what we call practice teaching, in other words, supporting students' learning on placement. Because the student does not have a formal role in the organisation it can mean there is an uneven experience in terms of having office space etc. Students are often required to travel for work. They take on a proportion of a qualified social worker's caseload and are expected to manage that so they are required to use their car. They are not able to claim expenses for mileage. Most of our students are young people and for students in full-time education, these issues can be quite significant barriers. The placement issue is a critical one for us.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

To add to what my colleagues said, the issue of capacity in the employer system to take on students is a critical part of the whole jigsaw. When we approach agencies that take our students we find they often say they do not have desk space, they do not have spare capacity and they are short of staff who can take on supervision responsibilities for the students. I am not saying that as a criticism. These are the realities with which we are dealing. We need to view this in quite a systemic way. There needs to be investment in the infrastructure. Physical space in many cases is a barrier. These agencies cannot accommodate additional students because they have been hiring additional staff who have filled any space that was there to be filled in office accommodation. This may appear to be a small matter but these are the practical barriers of which we want the committee to be aware. Another issue is the staff time involved. Student supervision and support and learning requires staff time. It must be seen as something that must be invested in. If we are to increase the capacity for training across the system we must invest in the infrastructure in terms of staff support and physical space. These are practical but crucial issues that make the difference in whether we find placements for our students and where we find them.

Dr. Breda McTaggart

I concur with everything my colleagues said. We have only a small cohort this year. The reason we cannot increase the number is that we get one placement in every three agencies we contact. They are enthusiastic. They have been nothing but supportive in the north west but the reality is that they cannot take the students on placement and it is usually related to the work caseload. My colleague looks after that activity. There is a genuine interest and a commitment but they simply do not have the capacity to do it within their teams at this time. There is clear guidance on what kind of person can look after a student on placement and how long they have to be in post, so it is self-perpetuating, it goes around and around. I come from the nursing profession. We never had this problem because there were designated learning and teaching spaces. Apart from the practice teachers, as Professor Norris rightly said, there is no requirement and it is done on the basis of voluntary capacity. I can speak about what happens in the north west, and they are doing their best to try to accommodate us but they cannot do so. I confirm and support what my colleagues said.

Dr. Carmel Halton

I would add that the more recent challenge in acquiring placements in Tusla relate to issues around retention and the moving of people around different areas. A requirement of CORU is that people are in their jobs for at least 12 months. Therefore, they cannot take on a student until they have been in the job for 12 months. An important element of practice placement is the child protection and welfare field. However, when people are moving around and being promoted - as it is a relatively new organisation there is quite a degree of movement - it means people who previously would have taken students, and are committed to it, cannot do so for a time. Therefore, there are periods when we cannot get placements with people.

Apologies, Senator Freeman, but I have one question. Is the creation of a formalised arrangement possible? How would it be done?

Professor Robbie Gilligan

It is possible in the other disciplines Professor Norris mentioned. In medicine, nursing and in other disciplines the mechanisms are in place. We must put the effort into creating those similar mechanisms in the field of social work.

Is it a case of replication or is it something unique-----

Professor Robbie Gilligan

There are similarities.

-----or am I over-complicating it?

Dr. Carmel Halton

That is what we are currently trying to do. We are engaged with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in collaborations to see what kinds of systems would best respond to the challenges we presented in the discussion documents, which are challenges on which we would all agree.

We would be as interested as the witnesses in the outcome of that process. I thank Professor Gilligan for addressing that point. I call Senator Freeman.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations. They gave us such an enormous amount of information that I am completely and utterly confused, baffled and amazed at all that is going on for them. I will simplify it for my sake by asking a few questions. There seem to be two issues. One relates to the educational social workers. I do not know if the universities have a problem attracting new careers in social work. One issue is the educational element and the witnesses spoke about placements. The Chairman asked a few questions that I intended to ask but I will broaden one of them. Dr. Halton mentioned the issue of high quality placements. I would like to know what she means by high quality in that sense. Dr. McTaggart said that out of every three requests that are made only one placement is secured. Are the universities scraping the barrel at times because they are not getting any placements?

Who is responsible for this area? Is it the HSE? Should the witnesses be talking to people in the HSE in seeking improvement on placements and the provision of expenses for students when they have to travel.

I and the other members were part of the Joint Committee on the Future of Mental Healthcare. One of the biggest issues we noted was the recruitment and retention of staff, in particular psychiatric staff. When we investigated what the problem was with recruitment, we found there was a long and ridiculously complicated process people had to go through to get the job as a psychiatric nurse or doctor. I would like to know the process involved in this context. Who is responsible for it? Those applying to be psychiatric nurses and doctors had to take 42 steps before they could even get to the interview stage. I would like to know about the high quality placements, the step by step process involved in recruitment and what was the other issue I wished to ask about-----

Who is responsible?

Yes, exactly. That is the most important question.

Dr. Carmel Halton

I will take the first question and my colleagues might deal with the others.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

I will deal with the question of who is responsible.

Dr. Carmel Halton

On the Senator's first question regarding high quality calibre placements, currently placements are required by CORU to have certain regulations associated with them. All supervisors must have training and qualification in supervision. The Senator will recall what Professor Norris said. We have always had a tradition in the universities of going directly to practice educators, to supervisors and to social workers and asking them to take our students on placement. Now we have to make sure they comply with all the regulations - which is a good thing, we are not saying it is a bad thing, that they are registered social workers with CORU, that they have training and education in the supervision of students and that they are in post for at least a year. That is what we mean by high calibre in that there are regulations associated with the recruitment of people to do this really important work

I thank Dr. Halton for that. That is a good answer.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

To address the question of who is responsible, I understand that question in terms of who is responsible overall for the workforce planning for social work.

That is exactly it, yes.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

That is the crucial question because Tusla and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs are important actors in this but they are only one component of the whole picture which includes the Health Service Executive, the disability area and the mental health area, as the Senator is aware. There are many non-government organisations that provide services. The Probation Service, drugs services and many other sectors hire social workers. At the moment we do not have one desk in government which is responsible for workforce planning for social work.

Professor Gilligan is saying he does not have anybody.

Professor Robbie Gilligan


It is not for me to say-----

Professor Robbie Gilligan

-----not on the employers side. The employers are fragmented. They are different organisations so there is not one voice we can negotiate with about social workforce planning.

That is where the problem lies.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

Obviously, there is the Higher Education Authority but that is on the provider side of education; it not on the employer side. For example, we do not have national data - none that I can find anyhow - on where social workers are actually employed. We do not have national data on projected needs of social work for employment. Those are important planning requirements so we need a one-desk, co-ordinated approach to planning for social work across sectors because social work now spans the Departments of Justice and Equality, Health, Children and Youth Affairs and other Departments but there is no lead Department on that. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs might be because it is particularly concerned about the justice situation. The best estimate we have is that Tusla hires approximately 40% of all social workers. There are 4,500 registered social workers in the State. We do not know how many of those are currently working. We are not able to say exactly where they are working. That is basic information that we need.

If I can interrupt Professor Gilligan for a second, he is saying Tusla because it hires approximately 40%-----

Professor Robbie Gilligan

That is an estimate.

Who has the power to say that from now on these students will have their expenses paid and that from now on we will look at X, Y and Z for all our social workers? Professor Gilligan is talking about the retention and recruitment of social workers but who has the final say on that? Professor Gilligan is saying nobody has that.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

At the moment, nobody has it. Our view is that there needs to be a co-ordinated approach, for example, when other people are paid during field work or at least have their expenses paid. We have to look at making the pathway into social work as a career more attractive. There needs to be public education about the value of social work as a career to society and to the individual but at the moment it is not clear who would run such a campaign.

Would Professor Gilligan not make it his priority to have one voice for all the social workers in Ireland and to co-ordinate that?

Professor Robbie Gilligan

That is a Government function.

Would he not make that request?

Professor Robbie Gilligan

We certainly see it as a very high priority because from that clarity would flow much better planning.

Professor Michelle Norris

In response to the Senator's question, we have been raising this on a regular basis. I took over as the head of my school in UCD five years ago. We had a meeting with Tusla at that stage with a view to establishing a third level liaison group. There was a series of meetings. The issue still was not resolved. Since then it has become more problematic for us within the Dublin region because the availability of placements reflects the availability of social workers in the sector.

I used the analogy of UCD's relationship with St. Vincent's Hospital in UCD earlier so I do understand that the social work profession is more fragmented and diverse but our figures on our placements last year in UCD show that approximately 40% of them came from Tusla and another 25% came from the HSE or HSE-funded organisations. If we could form relationships with those two major employers that would resolve many of our problems. CORU, the regulator of qualifications, requires our students to do two placements. We have a policy of giving them mainstream statutory placement in a major area of social work such as child protection, which many of our graduates would go into, and then perhaps a more specialist placement in an NGO or disability organisation. If a stock of placements were provided centrally from the two major employers, we have an infrastructure for securing them within our third level institutions which we can work with. Other organisations would provide us with smaller numbers. The issue is the lack of certainty year on year.

Professor Michelle Norris

As I mentioned, once we commit to giving a student a place we have to be able to deliver the training.

I note that the Government has taken action to address the placement costs in other professions, for instance, student teachers. Equity would demand that student social workers would be treated similarly.

Professor Norris has said this has been brought up many times. My advice is that she would adopt either a Senator or a Deputy who will pursue this for her and work in collaboration with her. Perhaps she already has somebody but she needs someone who will basically be a pain until it is resolved.

Professor Michelle Norris

I thank the Senator for the advice. I wish to acknowledge that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has recently taken action on this issue and is progressing it centrally. It seems to me that some progress is being made. I welcome its work and also that of the Department of Health. We found that progress is moving on. I wish to emphasise that it is not that we have been sitting on our laurels and not raising this as an issue.

Professor Michelle Norris

It creates practical concerns for us in terms of running the programme so we have been raising it.

I imagine it is a significant amount of work-----

Yes. It is crazy.

-----that dominates Professor Norris's week.

Professor Michelle Norris

And cost.

Professor Michelle Norris

In terms of providing social work professional education we bear costs that other social professions do not bear, which we cover from our fee income. There are practical challenges.

Before I invite Deputy Rabbitte to speak, on foot of what Professor Gilligan was talking about on the entire approach to this process, what are other jurisdictions doing in terms of collaborating among employers, educators and the social workers themselves?

Professor Robbie Gilligan

Certainly in our neighbouring jurisdictions and beyond we will find a more developed approach to workforce planning, which involves the key stakeholders - the education providers, the employers, policy-----

Would that be a formal body?

Professor Robbie Gilligan

Yes. It might take different forms but effectively a recognised formal committee or group is charged with managing the supply of a sufficient number of competent graduates to meet the workforce needs with different specialisms and so on. Issues around data, population trends and so on are being monitored and feedback is coming back all the time on how the system is working, the adequacy of field work provision and perhaps the adequacy of the programmes being provided in the universities. Changing social conditions may require new material to be taught and so on. All of those conversations are taking place within some kind of a structure. We hope something like that is emerging but one of the challenges is to make sure that the key players are around the table, that they are fully engaged and that there is a consistent push. This issue raises its head every so often and then subsides for a while but it needs to be getting consistent and, at this stage, urgent attention.

I thank Professor Gilligan for that.

What Professor Gilligan is saying is that there needs to be a permanent commitment on that. My reading of it is that that is what is missing. There is no continuum; there is no permanency.

I believe it was Dr. Halton who said that the reintroduction of what we had in the late 1990s is required. Tusla is a new organisation that was formed long after that. We have to go back to the service level agreement that was in place before the formation of Tusla. That seems to be the missing piece. When Tusla was formed certain service level agreements were not followed through on, in particular those concerning placements. Is that a fair reading of it?

Dr. Carmel Halton

In the late 1990s, there was a similar problem in recruiting social workers. The Chair asked earlier whether we are providing for the demand. In the late 1990s, when there was a demand for social workers and we were not able to meet the demand in the educational establishments and universities, a service level agreement was put in place which worked extraordinarily well across all of the universities.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

That service level agreement covered expansion.

Dr. Carmel Halton

We doubled the numbers on all of our programmes and introduced new programmes in order to address the significant issue of recruitment of social workers.

This shows that it has been done before and that it can be done again. The service level agreement should be reintroduced, but the question of which Department it falls under and where responsibility for it will lie has not been answered yet. It seems to me that it should fall within the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, but that may not necessarily be the case. Perhaps the Department of Health or the Department of Justice and Equality could be involved, given the youth probation services are involved. We need certainty. If a course is being delivered everyone has to buy into it so that placements can be provided. One cannot go from year to year wondering where his or her placements are going to be. If I was a student I certainly would not be applying for a course if I did not know that I could get my placements from that course, and variety in those placements.

What is the rate of fall-off of students who go on placements? I imagine that there is a fall-off in numbers. Affordability is a factor. Is it an issue?

Ms Brenda Feeney

On the service level agreement, from IT Sligo's point of view this is our first year of rolling out this programme, and what I have found as placement co-ordinator is that services are more than willing to consider practice placements for students. However, there is reluctance to enter into a service level agreement because of the fear that they may not be able to stand over that agreement because of staffing deficits. Staff are moving from one Department to another, and indeed from different services. The verbal agreements are in place, but I feel that at Government level there has to be some provision that will support us and the service providers in standing over those agreements.

On the finances of students and how they manage, from my point of view we kept our first cohort small because of the placements issue. All members of the small cohort this year have come to me at some point with concerns around finance, including worries about how they will manage travelling long distances to placements or indeed relocation for placement purposes. All of the students are very committed, and want to get the best placement opportunities they can, but finances are limiting them in terms of how far they can travel or if they are able to relocate. It is very difficult for them.

Dr. Carmel Halton

The Deputy asked a question about the falling out of students. Students do not fall out of the courses because of the lack of availability of places. We work, as Professor Norris has said, really hard to provide placements. Once the student has registered, it is our responsibility to get placements for them. We hold the worry, risk and uncertainty ourselves. We employ people in our universities to find placements. We recruit practitioners and train them pro bono. We give them all kinds of continuing professional development, CPD, opportunities in response to their commitment to take our students. We have worked over many years to build relationships with people that are responsive to their needs, as well as responsive to our need to acquire placements.

The new chairman of Tusla, Pat Rabbitte, was before us recently, and we provided details to him. I did not realise how difficult it is for students to get placements. A young lady came to me and said that she was having great difficulty in getting a placement, and I automatically said to her that she should look for a placement in Tusla. She explained to me how difficult it is to get a placement. We need a strong advocate to ensure that a service level agreement and the element of permanency comes back into the area. This would not happen in nursing or teaching. Students of those disciplines always get their placements. We know there is a shortage in this area for social workers. There needs to be a constant focus on this because the service is really crying out for staff. We will not ever address retention if we are not able to secure placements.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

Recruitment and training is inextricably bound up with retention. The people who leave are often experienced people who would have been very good practice teachers. Retention is a part of the whole picture, and in a way we have to recognise that there is a hole in the bucket. People are leaving, and policies have to be put in place that improve conditions for newly qualified people. It is really crucial that they feel well supported in the early years of their careers and therefore motivated to continue in the career. It is an excellent career, but it is challenging. It requires a lot of commitment and ability on the part of the workers to do the job well. They have to be supported. Our training provides a launch pad for them, but they also need supports after they start, and that will turn them into good practice teachers who will then take the next generation of students and train them. This is a really important cycle that we have to look after to ensure that the next generation of trainers are there and that they are taking the next generation of students, who will be the next employees. This all sits together; we cannot see one piece in isolation from the other pieces.

What I am taking from this is that this committee has to go to the relevant people and tell them that a body or forum has to be set up, bringing all of the agencies together, to find a policy or a direction. Is it correct to say that is one of the recommendations to emerge from this meeting?

How can placements be found for these students? It is a major issue. I do not know how anyone is able to cope given the situation with expenses. Some people are already paying for these courses so there are large expenses involved, which does not help in attracting candidates. On retention, do the witnesses have any ideas for changes in policies they would like to see? As Professor Gilligan said, there is a hole in the bucket. We have to look at this approach. I do not know how we could carry out a public recruitment drive to bring people in unless the problem is fixed.

Why are we losing social workers? We have been told many times in this committee, and I have heard it myself outside of the Houses, that the turnover is unbelievable. That has a knock-on effect on the children, particularly those in child protection. What are Tusla and other agencies doing wrong? What do we need to do to retain staff? Organisations have appeared here and told us that some social workers have 30 cases. Should we be thinking outside the box and looking at how things are done in other jurisdictions?

Ms Brenda Feeney

I am a qualified and registered social worker myself, and I only finished practising very recently. I spent 12 years working in Tusla and some time in the HSE before moving to IT Sligo.

It is very challenging work, whether one works within children or adult services. Social work is a very challenging role that requires substantial commitment and dedication from individuals. The work has an emotional and psychological impact on individuals. There is not enough support for that. We have supervision in practice but it is case supervision. From speaking to colleagues in my previous department, I know we need outside supervision. This would be support from outside the service that we can access every six to eight weeks. That would be a session with a psychotherapist or counsellor who understands the role of a social worker. That is very important.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

I support what has just been said by my colleague. There is also the point about whether we can learn from good practices in other jurisdictions. The answer is clearly "yes" and we need to do some work on that. If there was a national forum, one of its tasks would be to identify good practice models from elsewhere in terms of early career support for new social workers. I am aware from examples of our students or colleagues abroad that there are very well-protected caseloads in the early or first years of work with very high-quality and dedicated case supervision. I know there are other types of supervision as well, but good quality case supervision is very important. I discussed with a fellow professor in England the other day the very good practices in her local area, with the local equivalent of Tusla having developed a new model of close supervision of practice by social workers that has revolutionised retention rates. It is not like things cannot make a difference. They can but there needs to be co-ordinated and consistent effort to move in that direction across different employers.

Dr. Carmel Halton

Deputy Mitchell asked about supervision. Supervision is being provided. If she goes to the employers or providers of social workers, they will say supervision is provided but the nature of the supervision is primarily in the area of management and administration, as our colleague has said. The other aspects of the work, which are the emotional demands and complexity of the work, along with the support and additional education required to sustain oneself in a profession as complex as child protection and welfare, requires a real commitment on behalf of employers to provide the necessary and ongoing continuing professional development of, very often, young graduates. It is also important for us to recognise the vast majority of our students who have had placements in Tusla become employed by agencies, having got the experience and seen what they are capable of doing. We have high-quality graduates coming from our programmes.

From the perspective of service users, we need to deliver high-quality child protection and welfare services to vulnerable service users by sustaining a highly committed, educated, capable and competent workforce. As our colleagues have said, structures must be put in place, including protected caseloads and a very clear induction policy. There must be supervision that is fit for purpose and which responds to the demands and challenges of the work, attending to the emotional needs and challenges that our social workers experience on the ground. They get it in other jurisdictions and our graduates are moving to other jurisdictions to get this. We have many examples of where our graduates have moved and come back, telling us there is no comparison between what is on offer in other jurisdictions and here.

Where are they going?

Dr. Carmel Halton

Quite a number of our graduates are going to Canada. They are also going to the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. They are internationally recognised as very highly competent graduates. Bodies from the United Kingdom have and continue to come here to try to recruit our graduates, so they are of high standing internationally and not just nationally.

Dr. Breda McTaggart

I agree with everything my colleagues have said. The difficulty is that if there is any deficit at all during the learning experience in terms of good quality supervision, it makes it more difficult to get people into very complex roles. Anecdotally, it seems this is compounded by the fact there are many acting posts. Sometimes it is difficult for people to commit to giving us placements because people are in acting roles and they do not want to commit in case they are not appointed to the role. We try to get people into settings to work, and teams may not fully gel because people are a little unsure. In our experience in the north west, there are a couple of people more than willing to assist us but they are in acting positions. I do know how long the process normally takes, but those acting positions act as a slight barrier for the people taking students on placement. If people are moving around, as has happened in my career, it can become very difficult to stabilise the team. I do not know if there are any statistics on that, but I am sure there are. In the north west we are hearing, anecdotally, about people in acting posts having an impact both on students going on placement and, I am sure, on the teams themselves. That comes from posts not being confirmed or the wait for recruitment drives. It is our experience in the north west.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

I note the point being made that we are working in an international labour market now with many sets of graduates. Our graduates can look around the world and think they have a choice to work in Ireland or in other countries. Australia is certainly a big recruiter, along with the United Kingdom, Scotland and other countries. It is a reality. If we want to retain people in Ireland, we must offer conditions that are at least comparable with what they can expect in other jurisdictions. These people are highly networked, so they all know people a year or two older working in other systems who can tell them, chapter and verse, the reality of those systems. This can be very influential in people's career choices.

If a student gets a placement, what would be involved? Would students be given caseloads? Who would look after a student's well-being? Some cases may be pretty horrific for somebody on a placement. What supports are such people getting on placements?

Ms Brenda Feeney

Once the placement is secured, the student would be advised and allocated to the placement, but the practice teacher allocates a caseload. There is much work done between visiting tutors, who are qualified social workers from the institution, in terms of what is an appropriate caseload for a student at year one or year two and so on. There is certainly negotiation around that. Students are required in our case to attend an interview with the agency so it can be sure it is happy with the student and feels it will meet the learning needs within the setting. Once the placement is confirmed after the interview, the student will get a start date and begin placement. Within the first couple of weeks, the student will have a visit from the visiting tutor to ensure an induction has taken place, the student is settling well and the learning agreement has begun or been completed. The learning agreement is a contract between the student and practice teacher, with a number of learning objectives being identified that they want to achieve throughout the placement and those learning objectives being in line with CORU standards of proficiency for practice. The visiting tutor would revise and review this to ensure it is all in line with the expectations of CORU. The student then needs to identify a plan with the practice teacher as to how he or she will meet those learning objectives. That is the main piece of paperwork that will guide the student through placement. The practice teacher would identify a caseload appropriate for the student at the stage of learning he or she is at and build on that throughout placement.

Students get two more visits after that, which are a mid-placement meeting and an end-placement meeting from the visiting tutor. This is a review and monitoring process. They are completing quite a substantial placement portfolio while out on placement as well, so they have the opportunity to discuss that with the visiting tutor and get advice on that also.

Dr. Carmel Halton

When a student receives and accepts a place on a social work programme, they are required to provide a Garda clearance certificate and a fitness to practise certificate before they can enter the programme. On entry to the programme, all the universities employ placement co-ordinators whose job is to seek suitable placements for our students. Students are then invited to express their needs. Although we may not always be able to respond to their needs, those needs may be around location because many of our students have family commitments. They may come from other regions and establish themselves in Cork. We cannot really require them to dislocate their children and family again to go to another placement in another region. They tell us what their requirements are and we attempt to respond as best we can to their needs, such as financial or location needs. We try to allocate one of the two placements within a statutory agency because that makes them more employable when they go into the workforce. The other placement will be with a voluntary agency.

They are interviewed for the placement. They engage with the practice educators. We then take responsibility for contracting with the supervisor and developing learning contracts with the students. As tutors, we ensure the students’ needs are protected on placement and that they are known to their supervisors. We are educating the practice teachers, as well as ensuring the students’ interests are served as well. They are not actually replacing staff on site but are there to learn. Accordingly, they must be protected there.

Professor Michelle Norris

The running, administration and length of placements is closely regulated by CORU right down to the number of hours of placement. That is a major part of the process of accrediting our degrees. We are required to offer this type of activity, type of experience and standard of supervision.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

While our students are supernumerary and they are not paid, they undertake real work with real people. From early in their placement, they are meeting real people with real issues and providing services to them. They are obviously closely supervised in doing that. They are learning through doing. It is a fundamental and important principle of social work training like in many other disciplines. They are making a contribution in the organisations in which they are studying.

While I understand Ms Feeney’s course has only been in existence for a year, does she have an approximate cost for a student to do a placement in terms of travel and time?

Ms Brenda Feeney

It is hard to answer what is the financial cost. Some students are placed within an hour’s distance of their base while other students have to travel further and have to consider relocating. It can be different for each student. From our point of view this year, students have incurred travel expenses to placements where they are travelling between 30 minutes to an hour each day to avail of their placement.

It would not be significantly different to commuting from one of the Dublin suburbs or surrounding counties.

Ms Brenda Feeney

No, it would not. I suppose the only difference is that these students are not paid.

Yes, I understand that can be somewhat of a difference.

Ms Brenda Feeney

Some students rely on a third level grant to get through their courses while others are working to subsidise their studies. This can impact on their studies as well.

In terms of time, my memories of my masters degree are similar to the feedback we get from our students. It requires a significant commitment in terms of time. It is not just about the learning in the classroom environment. It is about the independent learning that needs to happen outside of that.

The preparation for placement is quite significant. While students are on placement, they are also completing academic work, along with carrying out real work with real people. They have case notes and reports to write on placement. It is a significant challenge for them in terms of time management.

Professor Michelle Norris

I actually inquired with our second year students on this issue this year. Some students estimated that where they were required to use their car for their job to visit clients etc, they spent between €120 and €260 on petrol. For a person reliant on a third level grant, that is a substantial amount. They do 35 hours a week on placement and then there is a study component allowed during the working week to complete the assignments required for university. As it is a full-time course, it is difficult for our students to take part-time employment.

University College Dublin is accredited to run a part-time professional masters in social work degree. We find that the demand for the part-time programme is affected by the fact that part-time students are not eligible for third level grants. That is another practical suggestion.

What is the gender balance of students and professional social workers? What is the drop-out rate?

Dr. Breda McTaggart

It is primarily female.

What percentage?

Dr. Breda McTaggart

It is 90% female and 10% male.

Retention on this programme is strong because the students are entering fully committed to it. We have had one deferral and no drop-outs. The problem is that we are making it difficult for them to achieve it.

One is means tested for grant funding. If one was in employment the previous year, one will not get the grant. The notion of bursaries was mentioned. However, there is a problem with getting a bursary and a grant at the same time because it does not allow for both. I support the idea of good quality bursaries that are comparable to what one would earn from employment. This is because one is asking so much with the academic workload and so forth. It is one of the tougher masters, with a level 9 workload while meeting the requirements of the professional regulator and QQI, Quality and Qualifications Ireland. Any way it can be supported would be welcome. There is a cohort interested in the course. More in our region would be interested if there were more financial supports for them.

Professor Michelle Norris

Certainly in UCD, our student body is about 90% female and we are committed to attracting a more diverse cohort of students, including men, who represent diversity in our world, including in the faculty. We are also committed to trying to facilitate larger numbers of black and ethnic minority students as Ireland is diversifying and also as the client group in social work is diversifying. That is a concern for us.

We interview our students for entry into the programme and we have a very rigorous interview programme, including interview by a member of faculty and a social work practitioner. We have a written application form and further testing on the day when they come for interview so the students we get through that programme are very committed and of a very high quality. We have a very small drop-out rate. Out of 100, I would say we probably have one a year and we have a very small failure rate of one to two per year out of 100. Where there is a fail, it is generally on the placement component. The management of that is obviously very challenging, which is another reason to try to formalise arrangements.

Dr. Carmel Halton

I concur with what Professor Norris has said. We have a very low drop-out rate because of the commitment of staff, the commitment of practitioners and the commitment of students. They have to go through a very rigorous process and if they achieve success within that process of selection then they are absolutely committed to sustaining themselves on the programme. It is really important to reiterate what we have all said, that the master of social work programme and the bachelor of social work programme are both really rigorous programmes and they are very demanding of our students.

On the diversity, there are two bachelor of social work programmes, one in Trinity College Dublin and one in UCC. The one in UCC is for mature entry and we have certainly improved the diversity of people who are entering the profession through that pathway and I would support any endeavours to increase that diversity, whether it is ethnic minority diversity or gender diversity.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

The Trinity College Dublin bachelor's degree programme has a very longstanding historic provision to admit a substantial proportion of mature students, that is, people over 23 years of age. Trinity College Dublin pioneered this approach in higher education going way back but it is certainly a strong part of the social work education tradition in Trinity College Dublin. It is important to think of age as well as another variable in diversity. People entering social work later in life may bring some extra experience and insights but it is also important to have people from different social backgrounds. Our access programmes provide a pathway that opens up to people from different social backgrounds for social work courses, as for other courses, and we do see more ethnic minority or immigrant background students appearing in our classrooms, which we are very pleased to see.

Those issues are an important element of the whole workforce planning, the aim of which is that we have a workforce that reflects the people who are using the services.

On recruitment, my opinion, which is partially based on sitting on the Committee on the Future of Mental Health Care, is that in respect of health in the public service in particular - social work is coming in under Tusla, which was under the HSE - the rigidity of the centralised recruitment system is hampering us in a market where we have a scarcity of supply.

My background is that I have spent eight years as a recruiter and a headhunter around the world. In a market where there is a lack of supply, high real-time flexibility is needed. That is what happens in the private sector and in the private sector headhunting is carried out. Companies do not even rely on reactive advertising or recruiting because it does not work and they are in such a tight market. That is something that the Government as a whole needs to look at and I have been calling for it for quite a while. The problem is that obviously we are dealing with big Departments that we are trying to move and I understand that because I have also recruited internally in the private sector for multinationals. As they are able to get it right to react to the markets, there is no reason why the public service should not be able to react to it. That will take some sort of forthright leadership and sitting down with unions to try to gain that flexibility because on the flip side, when the markets turn the other way, obviously there may be oversupply and then the criteria to recruit change. That is not taking away from the fact that the best qualified person is wanted for the job or the person best qualified to do the job is wanted, but flexibility is key to recruitment.

As the witnesses have said, it is a global market and Ireland needs to react to that. We are not acting enough on it. During the recession, I went to Australia as a recruiter and I hired people from Ireland. It was quite easy as there was a flow of graduates from Ireland because there was no work here. Ireland needs to look at trying to bring those people back. There is a need for a study, perhaps through the universities, on what point in time an emigrant looks at coming back or at making that critical decision. A lot of times people will go, not because of the job, but because of a desire to experience the world and that is fair enough. We live on a small island and it is a big world out there. There are points in time, maybe three and four years away when these people look at settling, they ask themselves if they will settle in this foreign country and they think about coming back. They will make that critical decision and once they settle in that country it is very difficult to bring them back if they get married or have kids or whatever. It is at that point where they make their decision and we need to do more, possibly through the universities, to ascertain where that point happens and to target that point to bring those people back.

On multiculturalism, because we are in a global market, Ireland needs to start grappling with this. The witnesses have welcomed the fact that there are people from different backgrounds applying for these positions. We need to do more on that and we need to start competing on that. The likes of Australia has more resources to pay people. That is a fact of life. It has more natural resources, it is a bigger country and its continent is the size of Europe. We have to deal with that. I know there are issues around remuneration and conditions. We can work on the conditions.

Have studies been done on my point about when people make those critical decisions? Have graduate surveys been done on what way people are thinking? If it is a case that we will start paying for experience through the graduate programme, what are the witnesses' thoughts on compelling graduates to work for perhaps two to three years or whatever after their graduation in order to facilitate that? Is it a runner or is it a non-runner? Will it turn people off? It would be interesting to get the witnesses' thoughts on that.

Dr. Carmel Halton

On our graduates, I have been the director of the masters of social work programme for nine to ten years. I have been involved in social work education for much longer than that and my knowledge of the field is that the vast majority of our graduates want to stay in Ireland. However, there are always a few who will choose, on graduation, to go outside of Ireland. Probably three or four on our masters programme go every single year.

On those graduates who I know who go abroad, and from what I know about what they say about the reasons for choosing to go abroad, which is anecdotal rather than systematic research, some of them want to do as the Deputy says, to travel the world and it is great that we have graduates who have a licence to travel the world with the credentials that we give them. We are a highly educated workforce. However, there are others who are leaving disaffected from their experiences of being in social work and while-----

Sorry to cut across but do they pursue social work in the new place they go or do they change careers?

Dr. Carmel Halton

Yes. We have research on issues around retention. Some internal research has been done in Tusla which is not available in the public domain as I understand it and our colleagues have undertaken research on the Tusla services and the retention of social workers there. The issues that come up are the ones we have already spoken about, namely, issues around support, supervision, continuing professional development and structures that actually embed within them the need for a responsive way of treating the challenges that people experience.

Ms Brenda Feeney

To add to that, and Professor Gilligan alluded to this earlier, I am not far from practice myself, and in my own experience as a manager I have had a number of newly qualified social workers come into a team who have chosen not to stay for the various reasons Dr. Halton has outlined. Some of the graduates come through agencies that provide workers for Tusla and the HSE, but there is no support that comes with that. If there were some sort of a graduate programme set up where graduates could access outside supervision and some sort of mentoring from experienced, professionally qualified social workers, that would help them to better maintain and sustain the roles that they are in. That would make a huge difference. That is just speaking from my own experience.

Given the lack of supply, I assume it would be very difficult to find social workers to supervise or mentor because they may not be there or their workloads are very heavy.

Ms Brenda Feeney

I have had conversations with colleagues around this, and we have brainstormed around how we might be able to set up a graduate programme. I have a number of colleagues with many years' experience who feel that they should be taking on a mentoring role.

Would they have the time to do it, given the pressures?

Ms Brenda Feeney

It would be something they would do in their own time, outside of their working roles. There needs to be more thinking about it.

I understand. I am just trying to tease it out. What age does somebody have be to retire from Tusla? Is it 66? Do they have to retire?

Ms Brenda Feeney

I think it is 68 now in the public sector.

Professor Michelle Norris

The retirement date has been extended to 70.

Would there be merit there for former social workers who have had to retire at 66 to come back into the system solely in a mentoring capacity? Would there be an avenue for that, or an appetite for it? They would not be working full time. They may be in a mentoring role or a support-type role, which could be ten or 20 hours a week. This goes back to one of the other issues I have been working on, namely, older people trying to look for work in the workforce and being covertly discriminated against. I am not saying it is happening in Tusla, but it is happening covertly across the board as a culture. We are seeing people retiring at 66 and walking out the door with a huge amount of skills. If they want to retire and finish with that, that is fine, and they should be allowed do that because they have worked all their lives. However, there is another cohort who are walking out the door with an abundance of specific skills, there are younger people who do not have the life experience who need that support, and there is no synergy between the two groups. This is exactly what Ms Feeney is speaking about, that there is probably a cohort who have retired, who would work maybe ten or 15 hours a week just to keep in touch from a mentoring point of view, but who would not have the pressures or the added weight that are part of the full-time role.

Facilitating the likes of that is something that could be looked at as part of this committee's report. We are at 5.4% unemployment, and I think there are a huge amount of skills. Working with people who have retired is something the witnesses might want to brainstorm themselves when doing their own studies. I am sure there are some people because I see them working in community organisations and giving back in that way. They are going from 100 miles an hour to zero, and this is a way for them to taper off for three or four years. The amount of knowledge and support they could give back is phenomenal.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

This is a very important issue about different forms of support for people in their careers at both early and later stages. One of the issues I hope the committee might give consideration to mentioning is a systematic and structured approach to continuing professional development. This would include opportunities like structured approaches to mentoring and so on. To make social work an attractive option in career terms, employers should be offering a clear and structured pathway of professional development so that people, by staying in the system, gain access to various opportunities which would enhance their careers, their promotion opportunities, and their capacity to do the job in a satisfying way. Maybe those are the kinds of things they hear about on offer in other countries and that may draw some of them away. If we can reduce to some extent the numbers of people who feel motivated to leave by better conditions abroad, that would have an impact. If we can also attract back some of those people by offering them good opportunities similar to the ones that attracted them away in the first place, that would have an impact. Making the hole in the bucket smaller is very important, and it is done by a series of incremental measures, but continuing professional development is a very important piece in the jigsaw that we should not lose sight of. It makes for a more stable, committed, and effective workforce.

Dr. Carmel Halton

In response to the Deputy's question on mentorship by staff who are leaving, that exists regionally and is working very well. We would have examples of it in the south and it is a very good suggestion. On the other issue around supervision, it is a requirement to have supervision as part of being a registered professional with CORU. It is required as part of continued registration with the profession to have supervision. It is our belief that that supervision should be provided within the establishments where people are employed. There may be a place for external supervision as well, but it is necessary that people who are employed by organisations are provided with appropriate supervision to respond appropriately to the demands of the job.

When Dr. Halton says supervision, she is separating supervision from mentorship. They are two different avenues.

Dr. Carmel Halton

Yes. Supervision is based around the provision of administrative and management supervision, educative supervision, and support. Any supervision arrangement should be contracted with the inclusion of all three elements of a supervision agreement. What our workers on the ground, not just in Tusla, are telling us is that supervision is often dedicated to the management and administration of the work, and aspects of the emotional and supportive side of the work are not attended to. We also know from the retention research that has been done that those aspects become the variables which influence people in making their decision either to stay or leave.

It is to do with the softer things, for want of a better word, the emotional support, support groups, or the lack of them.

Dr. Carmel Halton

Yes. Practitioners are setting up their own reflective peer support groups throughout the country in recognition of the need for this quality of support and engagement. They are doing it themselves, and that is a good and positive step forward, because we have proactive professionals working on their own behalf to address issues. We do not have a workforce which is waiting for people to deliver services. Practitioners are actively attempting to address serious concerns that they have about their own needs for support, and we would like to support them in that. We would be happy to support anything that can be done to progress these kinds of developments.

On recruitment, would it help if we were to move from a centralised national level of recruitment to more of a localised recruitment setting?

Dr. Carmel Halton

I certainly think it would.

Ms Brenda Feeney

I think that would definitely help. My experience from practice was that the national panels were clogging up the system, for want of a better word.

Can Ms Feeney give me an example?

Ms Brenda Feeney

There were a number of professionals on panels who were already in posts but were hoping to use that opportunity to move from their current post to another post, while newly qualified graduates sometimes were not even making panels. There was a backlog then where the panels were there, but the people on them did not necessarily want the jobs that became available because they might already be in that department or service. There were a number of times when we had to recruit from agencies such as TTM or CPL, and the people we brought in told us that they did not make the national panels because they were so competitive and there were a lot more experienced practitioners coming high up on those panels. We felt at that point that if we had been able to run a local campaign for recruitment, we would have been able to recruit far more quickly.

Professor Michelle Norris

I want to respond to Deputy Neville's point about requiring graduates to work for a certain period of time.

That is if they get paid through their practice-----

Professor Michelle Norris

My view is that I have ethical concerns about requiring things of people who decide to qualify in a very socially valuable profession, like social work, that we do not require of graduates in other areas such as business, etc. I have an ethical issue about it. Of course, it is entirely appropriate where bursaries are provided, and in the 1990s, as Dr. Halton mentioned, when we increased our output of students very radically, there was a practice of providing bursaries and students working for a number of years, which worked very well. The other point I want to make is that in UCD we run a two year professional master of social work programme, and our students are largely self-funding. They are not entirely self-funding, but all the universities are less than 50% State-funded, and I think in UCD we are in the high 30% range. Most of that money is for the so-called free fees for undergraduates, and we get a proportionate block grant to run the university. The students for a masters programme are paying the vast bulk of the cost of their student fees, which are between €8,000 and €9,000 a year. They are the fees to cover the programme. I can understand why it would ostensibly seem attractive, and there is certainly an argument that it is entirely reasonable to request that when people are being funded by the Government. For our students I have an issue about it, as well as around attracting people into these professions with these requirements. That is my view.

Dr. Breda McTaggart

We have had more students this year. I would not really agree with a graduate programme, but I certainly would agree with a bursary programme. There is a slight difference within them. We have had a lot of people working in posts within Tusla who would have liked to come on the programme, but they could not afford it financially, so this would have been an opportunity for them. Tusla approached us about trying to find funded bursaries when were doing the programme originally, because people intended to stay with it anyhow. However, there were difficulties with the systems of both grants and bursaries. When I worked in the health services, I got partially funded for a programme, and I had to stay there for a year and a half. I had to commit to that, but I did not find it a barrier because I intended to stay there. That is a definite option for people who are in Tusla particularly, who want to transition or develop their careers in another direction, because we had quite a number who were interested in that but could not afford it. I would definitely be supportive of it within that kind of frame.

I want to tease out the panel question. It was said that the panels get clogged with people, and I am just trying to understand the minutiae of this. They are offered a role and if they turn it down, they just stay on the panel. Is that right?

Ms Brenda Feeney

I can only speak from my experience, and that is what I and the department or service would have felt at the time. The other issue was that there were a number of people accepting posts in a certain geographical area, which was not necessarily the geographical area that they wanted to settle in. They would accept that post and be gone again within a year because they got a post in a geographical area that suited them better. That was causing a lot of movement in departments as well, which was not ideal for service users, as they would have a social worker for six to 12 months, and then that would change when they had only just begun to build a relationship. These were the issues that my colleagues and I would have noticed at the time, and had we been able to recruit locally or run local campaigns, it would have alleviated a lot of that.

It would have stopped the people trying to move from Galway to Dublin and so on. When recruiting in Galway, it is Galway-oriented candidate who come in.

Ms Brenda Feeney


If students were to benefit from a grant or bursary to support them, particularly in relation to their placement, which is an absolute requirement, could the witnesses put a figure on that because I do not know it?

Professor Robbie Gilligan

As a little bit of personal history, both Dr. Halton and myself were beneficiaries of bursaries back in the 1970s. Imagine doing that in the 1970s, and struggling to do it today.

I acknowledge that.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

It was a good investment, because we are still around.

Dr. Carmel Halton

They retained us.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

Scoring high on retention. My recollection is that at that time, we were paid a bursary of £3,000.

A huge amount of money in the 1970s.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

If one translated £3,000 into today's money, that was a substantial commitment.

That was a salary. That was a house.

Dr. Carmel Halton

Professor Gilligan might have gotten more than me.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

We would need to check the figures.

In the early 1970s, that is what a house in the suburbs of Dublin, or Beaumont to be precise, cost.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

We would need to check the exact figure, but it was certainly worthwhile. Some work would need to be done on that, but we are talking about a salary, and it has to be a reasonable proportion of a salary. In many disciplines, people are being paid some kind of a trainee salary. Maybe that is where we need to get to, and then build in some kind of requirement that people stay on afterwards.

In terms of being able to practice, solicitors, for instance, have work placement, and although they are still solicitors, they are not permitted to practice until they do their placement. From what I am gathering, the witnesses' qualification is structured slightly differently. The placement arrives and the award arrives thereafter. Is that right?

Dr. Carmel Halton

The placement and the actual academic qualification are done together.

From a practical perspective, perhaps that is something that the witnesses, as experts in the field, might consider, and compare their industry to another one. This is my perspective as a complete outsider, making an observation of the observation made that individuals in most work placements are paid, albeit a small amount. That would go a long way, particularly in relation to Ms Feeney's point, which I think is quite stark, that even though they may have zero income and very small savings, individuals are not going to get a grant under any circumstances because the chances are they were working in the previous year. I can think of plenty of other industries, including one I am involved in through marriage, that is horrible in that sense. It is not just about the education, but is also about the practice afterwards. It takes years before one breaks even, and then one has to figure out how to pay back the debts from the preceding ten years. That is from experience.

Dr. Breda McTaggart

I would add to that. Students are finishing college on a Friday and they are doing night duty on Friday, Saturday, and possibly Sunday night, to try to sustain this. They are effectively working a full-time job over the weekend. We are in the north west, so obviously it is a different socioeconomic place, but everybody has experienced this. Everybody has students who fall into these categories. When I was a nursing student, I got paid. It was not very much, but I got paid to do my training, and it is a training to be professional in one's practice. I can come up with any figure, but it would need to be evidence-informed and it definitely needs to be comparable to what would be earned in a job because the addition of working the whole weekend is compromising their learning. They are tired, without a doubt, when they come in on Monday morning, so if we can mitigate against that, we will have better results and better professionally qualified social workers.

The profession is currently in a self-fulfilling spiral. There are no placements because there are no social workers, and there are no social workers because there are no placements. That will continue until there is an intervention.

Professor Michelle Norris

Even just making the Civil Service mileage rates available to students on placement would be an enormous help. We find that students in the Dublin region are loath to take placements outside inner-city urban areas, where they are required to use their car, because they simply cannot afford to fund it.

I can understand that. It is also breeding an environment where only those with the financial support of their families are capable of fulfilling the role. That is all understood and accepted. I call Senator Clifford-Lee after whom we will wrap up.

I thank the Chairman. Before I ask my question, I want to point out an inaccuracy in regard to solicitors' training. I am a qualified solicitor. When solicitors are on their work placement, they are not qualified solicitors at that point. They are doing their work placement or traineeship in between their professional practice courses in Blackhall Place.

Perhaps I was incorrect, but I understood they completed their educational training and that the certificate to practise only came later.

No, that is not the case.

Then I am wrong. I thank the Senator for correcting me.

They do their academic training between pockets of a traineeship that lasts two years, meaning that they do a couple of months here and there. Do the delegates believe the pay levels of new entrants are sufficient? Some 90% of social workers are female and there is a gender pay gap in Ireland. Traditionally, female dominated professions are low paid. Do the delegates have any comment to make on that fact? Is it a factor where pay levels for new entrants are low? I note the comment to the effect that some time ago a man might have got more than a female colleague.

Ms Brenda Feeney

The current pay rates for newly qualified entrants do not reflect the work done and need to be reviewed. General social work salaries need to be reviewed because the pay scale for a basic rate social worker stops after seven years' experience. If they are not interested in management, there is no incentive for social workers to continue in what is a highly challenging job. The senior practitioner role has been reintroduced, but the pay rates do not reflect what is required of somebody in that role.

Dr. Carmel Halton

I agree with my colleague. Child protection and welfare social workers in other jurisdictions are paid higher salaries for the particular work than colleagues in other areas. Whether this approach would be attractive is being debated with unions. The levels of complexity of the work are very high, as are the demands made. I agree that a reconsideration of pay levels would help to attract people into the profession. When one asks people why they come into the area of social work, they say that, while the salary is important and they could be on a similar salary in other, less onerous, areas, they would still choose social work. It is primarily a female profession which used to be considered to be a vocation. The people who come into the profession have a vocational attraction to the work and are very committed and dedicated in responding to the complex challenges facing and needs of service users.

Professor Michelle Norris

At the risk of making myself unpopular among my social work colleagues, I do not think there is an issue with entry level salaries in social work which are comparable to those in other social and educational professions and compare well to entry levels for academics. My students say the issue is salary levels are uniform across the profession. Some areas of social work are particularly stressful and demanding such as child protection, but pay levels are uniform and people tend to move out of specialist child protection social work into other areas that, although challenging and valuable, are less stressful. That is a concern. The other issue is progression. I was very pleased when at the last meeting of the committee Tusla representatives spoke about the systems they were putting in place to develop a better career structure for social workers. We need more graduates at entry level, but the issue is retaining them. Part of the solution is providing a career structure.

As I have just been called to attend a vote in the Seanad, I must leave. I apologise, but I will look at the answers the delegates will give.

Is the salary scale also a barrier? The delegates spoke about career progression. That means promotion and extra responsibilities, with a move up the scale.

Professor Michelle Norris

The pay scale at entry level is short.

The gender pay gap arises because women experience a loss of salary as they work their way through their careers on account of not being able to avail of promotional opportunities. The delegates say, however, that there are no promotional opportunities in their profession. This is very serious and something I would like to see addressed.

Dr. Carmel Halton

It is not that there are no opportunities for progression but that progression in social work is through management and many want to stay in direct-line practice.

Professor Robbie Gilligan

That is a crucial point. We need to create structures that will allow people to stay in front-line practice which will help to keep expertise on the front line, not necessarily in management. People should be rewarded for staying on the front line.

I do not think anybody here would disagree. The profession is essential, but the actions of both Houses of the Oireachtas and several Departments, including the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, are exerting more and more pressure on it every year. There has to be recognition of that fact. I would not wish anybody to think the committee does not acknowledge the critical work done, while we would also not want to devalue other professions by having long service increments or such things. They are provided for in other professions, but there is no uniform approach to public service pay, which is one of the biggest issues we have. Judging by the looks I have just got, I am assuming everybody is in agreement with me.

I thank the delegates for coming. It has been a very informative session, one of the few in which the people before us have experience and come forward with solutions. The opening statements gave us the material to move forward on the issue. It has happened in the past and can happen again. It is incumbent on us to put pressure on, as necessary.

On behalf of the joint committee, I also thank the delegates for their presentations and dealing with all of the questions thrown at them. It is appropriate to seek the views of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and ask for a submission before we put a report together.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.20 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 8 May 2019.