For its first three years, Community Care’s annual vacancy rates investigation made for bleak reading. Each year the results showed fewer and fewer social work posts, reflecting the national drive to curtail government spending.
In 2010 and 2011, the average UK local authority had 226 social work posts. In 2012, this number fell to 214.
But 2013’s investigation appears to show a sharp reversal. Not only has the decline stopped, but the average number of social work posts has bounced back to exceed the figures recorded in 2010. This year’s results, which were gathered using freedom of information requests as in previous years, show that the average authority has 241 social work posts.
In this year’s request, we clarified that social workers of all levels should be included as long as they were carrying a caseload, however, we have always asked for data relating to all qualified social worker posts, so this should not have accounted for a significant rise in the numbers reported.
The rebound is good news says Ruth Cartwright, England manager of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), who says that the return of social work posts may reflect how councils cut too deeply at the height of the downturn. “It is encouraging,” she says. “Some local authorities did overreact when the recession came in with Draconian cuts.”
But the recovery is not evenly spread between adult and children’s services. The figures for 2013 show that the average authority has 137 children’s social worker posts, up three on the previous high of 2010. By contrast, adult social work has only made a partial comeback, rising from 2012’s low of 93 posts on average to 102 in 2013 – a figure that is still down 10 posts on 2010.
Anne Mercer, professional advisor to the College of Social Work, said: “The increasing number of social worker posts overall is welcomed and is very likely a reaction to increasing demand on services.”
Yet the creation of more posts does not necessarily mean more social workers, so the percentage of social work posts that remain unfilled also matters.
On the surface it seems like more good news. The overall vacancy rate for the authorities that provided figures for both adult and children’s services has declined since last year, dropping from 7.1% of posts to 6.5%. But once adult and children’s services are separated the picture is more mixed.
It turns out that there has been significant progress in filling adult social work posts in the past 12 months. In 2012, 7.2% of adult social work posts were vacant, but this year the figure has shrunk to 6.7% despite the increase in the number of posts.
However, vacancy rates are up slightly in children’s social work, from 7% in 2012 to 7.1% in 2013. While it is not a major rise, it does suggest that children’s social work posts are being created faster than they are being filled.
Another factor in the fall in vacancy rates is the greater use of agency social workers, which rose 37.5% between 2012 and 2013. In 2012, the average authority had 16 agency social workers working for them, but this year’s investigation found the figure had jumped to 22. The increase in the use of agency workers is a trend common to both adult and children’s services.
In 2012, adult services employed an average of six agency staff and children’s services an average of 10. The latest figures show that the average authority now has eight agency workers in adult services and 14 in children’s.
Mercer warns that, even in the short term, excessive use of agency staff can have a negative impact on services. “Good quality agency staff can be very positive in terms of flexibility, but their use should be viewed as a short-term solution.
“Extensive use of short-term agency social workers may negatively impact promoting and sharing good practice across teams and the professional development of staff. A stable social worker workforce is also essential to ensure that important continuity of contact with service users is maintained.”
The survey also suggests that some parts of the country are faring better than others at recruiting and holding onto social workers.
The East of England has for the second year in a row ended up the region with the highest proportion of vacant posts. The region’s vacancy rate is not just the highest in the UK; it is close to double the region with the next highest rate, London.
That only two of the 11 local authorities in the East of England – Central Bedfordshire and Southend-on-Sea – failed to provide data suggests that the high vacancy rate is no statistical quirk.
But a clear explanation of why the East of England is struggling to attract social workers is hard to find. The prime culprit, Cartwright suggests, is that the region suffers from its proximity to London. “The East of England does suffer a bit from the London effect. Social worker wages are higher in London and East Anglia is close enough to London for people to commute in and so people often do that. Also property in the East can be quite expensive, even in places like Norwich, again due to it being commutable to London.”
It is a point echoed by a spokeswoman for Luton council, where 22.5% of social work posts are vacant: “Like many other authorities, we have been less successful in recruiting experienced social workers. Luton’s close proximity to London and to a number of neighbouring authorities means there is significant employment choice for the experienced worker.”
That the South East, which faces much the same London effect, has the fourth highest vacancy rate in the UK with 7% of social work posts unfilled lends weight to the theory. But other factors must be involved, given that the East of England has more than twice the level of vacancies than the South East, which also has higher average house prices to contend.
The Luton spokeswoman says the authority’s high vacancy figure is also the result of efforts to cut costs and restructure its social services.
“Due to the significant cuts in council funding, and to allow the authority to continue to protect the most vulnerable members of our communities we have had to look at new ways of working. This has involved restructuring departments and where appropriate establishing new posts. Clearly, during the transition process it has had an impact on the retention and recruitment of employees.
“In our Children and Learning Department we currently have 14 social worker posts vacant, with eight newly established posts yet to be filled. The ratio of vacancies to established posts will therefore be skewed by these newly created positions.”
The council, she adds, is working with the University of Bedfordshire and Step Up to Social Work programme to attract newly qualified social workers. In addition the council says that progress in filling its social work vacancies has been made since 2 September 2013, the date for which we requested the information.
For Cartwright, the East of England’s high level of vacancies suggests that local authorities in the region may need do more attract and retain staff than they currently do.
Some authorities have also begun to reintroduce ‘golden handshakes’ for social work recruits, she notes.
“They disappeared when it seemed as if there were more social workers than posts but it is coming back,” she says. “What’s more important than things like this, however, is that there are structures of on-going support for provision to keep caseloads manageable. Good support for staff is what increases retention.”