Social worker vacancy rates have increased despite the millions of pounds that have been pumped into staff recruitment and reforming the profession, Community Care can reveal.
One in 10 social worker posts in local authorities across the UK are vacant, according to our second annual Freedom of Information investigation.
In England, where the government has invested £11m in recruitment campaigns and at least £28m into the reform programme, vacancy rates have risen from 10.9% in 2009 to 11.3%.
As a result the pressure on existing social work teams is growing and services are suffering.
“A shortage of social workers on this level represents a growing crisis for the care system,” said Andrea Warman, deputy chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust. “It means that too many young people in care do not have a professional who has built up a relationship with them.”
Experts have blamed the persistently high turnover of staff in both adults’ and children’s services on a combination of negative public perception, low morale, high caseloads and spending cuts, which have led some authorities to freeze recruitment.
Governmental national recruitment drives, Help Give Them a Voice and Be the Difference, aimed to improve public perceptions of social work and encourage people into the profession. The latter, a series of national TV, radio, press and billboard advertisements, ran for four months from September 2009 and attracted 56,000 responses.
But the benefits have yet to filter down to local authorities.
“While it was done with good intentions, it came at a bad time for the profession and felt like too little, too late,” said Andy Pepper, head of neighbourhood services at Coventry Council.
He suggested the money would have been better spent locally: “Most research into the profession indicates that the recruitment market is a local one.”
Keith Brumfitt, director of strategy for the Children’s Workforce Development Council, which ran the campaigns, said the next phase would be down to individual councils. “Our intention is to provide all the materials we have to those employers.”
Staffing shortages are compounded by a poor public image, which creates problems for recruitment, the Social Work Task Force warned last year.
The government-appointed panel found there was a “vicious circle” within the English social work sector, in which recruitment problems compromised services and put pressure on the workloads of existing staff, encouraging them to leave the sector. Our findings suggest the profession remains trapped in this circle.
“The financial situation has worsened and demand in many settings has increased, so it has got harder for leaders to give time and attention to these pressures,” said Moira Gibb, chief executive of Camden Council who chaired the taskforce.
She said implementation of the taskforce’s proposed reforms, which included an overhaul of education and training and a national career structure, would lead to lower vacancy rates.
But Helga Pile, Unison officer for social workers, said high vacancy rates would make it more difficult to effect significant changes in the profession.
“Once the reforms kick in, they will be starting from a lower base in terms of staffing, which means an even greater strain on fewer staff,” she said.