English councils recorded up to 36 children in need per social worker in 2013, new data shows

One in seven social workers left their local authority jobs last year, figures collected by the Department for Education for the first time reveal

Children's social worker data
Credits from left: I Love Images/Rex; Jeremy Maude/Mood Board/Rex; Gary Brigden (posed by models)

The average number of children in need per social worker in England last year ranged from six to 36 depending on the local authority, according to data collected by the Department for Education (DfE).

In the first annual release from its new Children’s Social Care Workforce data collection, the DfE revealed there were 22,850 full-time equivalent (FTE) local authority children’s social workers in England in the year ending 30 September 2013. Councils also employed 3,190 FTE agency social workers in that time.

The average number of children in need per FTE social worker was 17, but, at a local level, this ranged from six to 36.

In general, regions with the highest number of children in need per social worker had the lowest vacancy and agency worker rates. The West Midlands was an exception, with above national averages for both.

The region’s vacancy and agency rates were both 16%, compared to national average of 14% and 12% respectively, and it recorded on average 19 children in need per social worker.

Child in playground

“We are concerned at the ratio of children in need to social worker,” said Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers, on seeing the findings.

“Many social workers are already well over their numbers in terms of caseloads. Social workers are under impossible pressure. We regularly hear from members who are feeling totally burnt out, sometimes after just a few months in post.”

Annie Hudson, chief executive of The College of Social Work, said the data needed further investigation. “There are likely to be some variations due to differing levels of experience and the complexity of family needs,” she said.

“What is very important is that social workers have manageable workloads backed up with good management support and supervision. These are pre-requisites for high quality professional practice and staff retention.”

London had the lowest number of children in need per social worker, at 15, but the highest vacancy, turnover and agency rates (19%, 21% and 20% respectively).

At local authority level, vacancy rates ranged from 0–50%, while the proportion of agency social workers ranged from 0–51%.

The data also showed that one in seven children’s social workers in England left their local authority job in the year ending September 2013 – a turnover rate of 15%.

Woman leaving her job

This is similar to the average turnover rate for occupational therapists (14%) and lower than registered nurses in adult social care (29%), according to a national minimum dataset for social care briefing released in June 2013.

However, at a local level, children’s social worker turnover rates ranged from 0–82%.

Hudson said this was “worryingly high”. She added: “A range of factors can impact on a local authority’s ability to recruit and retain good social work staff; for example, poor Ofsted inspection reports, workload pressures or being a neighbour to a higher performing borough can all have an effect. Investment in high quality continuous professional development is pivotal to retaining skilled social work professionals, as is the provision of high quality supervision and a supportive organisational culture.”

Mansuri said: “The disproportionately high turnover rates suggest something is drastically amiss. This poses a serious threat to vulnerable children and the wellbeing of those local authority social workers.

“Perhaps these authorities need to take a leaf out of Birmingham’s book and be transparent and simply tell it how it is and work in a way that is conducive to social workers to address the issues. No more blame culture, but one of honesty of the scale of the problems and a commitment to address them with the workforce on board.”

Man with cold

The data also showed that the average children’s social worker in England took 10.5 sick days in 2013 – almost one day per month.

This was in line with NHS nurses, midwives and health visitors, who took an average of 10.6 days off sick in 2012-13, according to the Health and Social Care Information Centre, while hospital doctors took only 2.8 sick days on average during the same year.

In total, 240,000 days of work by FTE children’s social workers were lost due to sickness absence in 2013.

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3 Responses to English councils recorded up to 36 children in need per social worker in 2013, new data shows

  1. Alan March 11, 2014 at 4:55 pm #

    The government are not interested in this sort of thing, as service is provided so it ticks their boxes. If another child dies in care or lack of care then local social service are “always to blame” so for for the government it is a win win situation, boxes ticked scapegoat included.

  2. Matt March 12, 2014 at 12:38 pm #

    Why is this a surprise to anyone? When I worked front line safeguarding this would have only been unusual in the fact the number is low and the children are not subject to child protection plans and this was before the government cuts started. For years governments and local authorities have decreased the amount of social workers and the support they had to do their job, thus increasing social worker tasks and more demand on their time. As for Alan’s comments towards child deaths… It is a question of when and where, not if. Social workers cannot police everything. As for the blame. Let’s start thinking about who is committing these cruel offences not those around them trying hard to stop it happening!

  3. Phil Welton March 13, 2014 at 11:34 am #

    When I moved from front line children & families social work to family group conferencing, a succession of friends remarked how well I was looking. It became a little embarrassing. When I retired altogether, I apparently looked even better. As Social Worker numbers slip down and experienced workers cut their losses and leave when the opportunity arises, while referrals go steadily upwards, the threshold for receiving a Social Work services rises to the point that the role is changed from positive support to pure policing and rescuing children from their families. Most of us did not sign up for that.