Inspections, restructuring or a challenging job market: what is behind the rise in agency social workers?

Our investigation shows some councils employ up to half of their social workers through an agency, leading to concerns that they are caught in a 'vicious cycle' of deterioration

Credit: Design Pics Inc/Rex

Our latest investigation into local authority social worker recruitment and retention has found that councils are relying more heavily on agency social workers, but are they being used to paper over the cracks or are there other factors behind the rise?

As in previous years, the responses to our freedom of information requests show huge variations in the extent to which councils are using agency social workers. The average proportion of agency staff in local authority social work teams as of 2 September 2013 was 8.6%, but that ranged from 0% to around 50%.

England still relies more heavily on agency staff, with an 11% rate overall, compared to 7.9% in Wales, 2% in Northern Ireland’s health and social care trusts and 1.4% in Scotland. London has one of the highest regional rates (14.5%), beaten to first place only by the East of England (16%).

In 2012, local authorities were using an average of 16 agency social workers across both children and adult social services. This year, the average has climbed to 22.

Download the full results from our 2013 investigation (Excel spreadsheet)

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For many of the councils with the highest agency rates, this is nothing new. In their most recent inspections, Ofsted noted that staff turnover at Bexley “has been a feature for some time”, the lack of stability at operational and team manager level in Doncaster is a “long standing problem” and Sandwell has a “historical reliance on agency staff”. All three of these councils’ children’s services are currently rated as inadequate by the regulator.

The inspections may only cover children’s services, in England, but they give a sense of how a long-term reliance on agency staff can add to the negative image of an authority. Ofsted noted that each of these councils is making concerted efforts to address workforce instability, but it seems progress is slow.

Andrew Webb, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), says many local authorities get trapped in a “vicious cycle”, whereby their children’s services are seen to be failing, so they struggle to recruit and retain good quality, permanent social workers.

That was the experience of Herefordshire, which says it had a relatively low ratio of agency to permanent staff until it was rated inadequate. A combination of permanent staff leaving in the wake of the inspection and the need to increase the number of social workers on hand to drive forward improvements meant the council had to employ more agency staff. Almost half (49.7%) of its children’s social workers were employed through an agency in September.

Restructuring

Others explain their high ratios of agency staff as necessary to deal with periods of change. In this climate of cuts, scarce resources must be used to full effect, so an increasing number of authorities have restructured their social services departments at least once; and many use agency staff to smooth the transition.

A third of Bedford Council’s social workers are employed through an agency, rising to almost two in five in adult services. A spokesperson confirmed there were “elements of restructuring taking place over the next two years, which see the need for short-term locums”. They added that a number of agency staff are covering vacant posts pending recruitment and some have been brought in to undertake specific pieces of work. While Bedford is working to secure more permanent workers, it also pointed out that using high numbers of agency social workers could increase capacity of a team to work seven days a week.

Everybody agrees that agency staff are vital, because they can fill vacant posts, cover for those on periods of maternity or sick leave or they can be brought in without much notice if there is a sudden increase in workloads. As Jonathon Coxon, managing director of social work recruitment consultancy Liquid Personnel, puts it: “Use of agency social workers will vary significantly across different councils, depending on the particular conditions that they are facing at the time – there will always be a need for a flexible and skilled temporary workforce to address areas of increased need.”

However, when levels reach 40-50%, alarm bells start ringing. Anne Mercer, professional advisor for the College of Social Work, warns against becoming over-reliant on agency staff. “It is important that the children and adults who depend on social workers are given consistent support, and this is best provided by permanent staff with solid experience of working in that community.”

Webb agrees: “It’s not so much that they’re agency, but the turnover that’s associated with it. So much of social work with children and families relies on continuity and stability of relationships.” It also costs more to recruit agency social workers, he notes, making them a less sustainable solution to workforce planning issues.

The inspection effect

Webb says the new Ofsted inspection framework, which came into force properly this week, is not helping matters. Our investigation showed councils currently rated inadequate by Ofsted use, on average, twice as many agency social workers as the national average for children’s services (18.6% compared to 9.2%). Webb is not saying the new inspection framework is responsible, but rather that it contributes to the vicious cycle of deterioration in some troubled councils.

Somewhat ironically, although it was rated inadequate at its latest Ofsted inspection, Herefordshire was praised for reducing its reliance on agency staff in children’s services. However, as mentioned above its ratio has jumped back up over the past year – and this, the council says, is as a direct result of that same inspection. Jo Davidson, director of children’s wellbeing at Herefordshire, says that, “in common with other authorities in intervention”, the council’s agency numbers significantly increased as a result of its inadequate rating.

Webb says this reflects a wider trend and warns that, under the new inspection regime, more authorities are likely to be rated inadequate. “Ofsted has said it is raising the bar,” he warns.

Does it then follow that the workforce will become more unstable, as more and more authorities are judged inadequate and forced to take on more agency social workers? Webb is more cautious about making that leap. “We’re into a period of having to wait and see what the impact will be.”

Ofsted’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has already publicly recognised that the new inspection framework presents a “very real challenge” to local authorities. But the inspectorate’s director of social care, Debbie Jones, adds: “Naturally it is the role of the ADCS to champion and protect the staff in their services, but they should also recognise that Ofsted inspections are a catalyst to help promote improvement.

“Inspectors will continue to report their findings objectively based on the evidence to hand, while striving to help local authorities deliver a good service to all their most vulnerable children and young people.”

In the meantime, Webb says councils that are trying to reduce their reliance on agency staff must take a methodological approach: “Local authorities need to take a long-term workforce development view, creating a workforce strategy, working with training providers and thinking about career paths and development.

“You can make short-term gains by offering golden hellos and poaching staff from your neighbours, but the sustainable way to improve things is to go back to the Social Work Reform Board’s recommendations and enhance the working environment for social workers.”

Local authorities with the highest agency rates across the UK

Overall

Children's

Adults

 

Bournemouth Council and Ofsted have been contacted for a response.

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