How councils can escape the cycle of high social work caseloads and poor performance

Addressing high caseloads is central to Coventry's plans to fix its children's social care but money alone is unlikely to be enough

Four-year-old Daniel Pelka (Credit: Rex Features)

It probably came as no surprise to Coventry council that last week’s Ofsted report of its children’s social care services delivered an inadequate verdict.

Since the murder of four-year-old Daniel Pelka in March 2012, the service has faced intense criticism.

The subsequent serious case review, published in September 2013, found failures in record-keeping and information sharing.

This was followed by an independent review sparked by criticism of the serious case review by children’s minister Edward Timpson. That review, published in February, found a service dogged by high caseloads and poor supervision.

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Now Ofsted’s three-week inspection has piled on the pressure, highlighting a long list of problems within Coventry’s social care services.

Although there are many problems for Coventry to address, one issue came up time and time again in the reviews and the Ofsted inspection: caseloads.

Coventry is, quite simply, drowning under a flood of cases. In the past two years caseloads have risen by 46%. In March 2013 it was handling cases involving 3,085 children, but at the end of February this year its active cases numbered 4,529 children.

The high volume of cases and a lack of people to handle them is a major problem for the authority, says Ofsted. “Social workers in the referral and assessment teams have very high caseloads, and this means that they cannot do their job properly,” notes the inspection report.

More cash to hire social workers

As a result the recruitment of more social workers has become central to Coventry’s recovery plans. The authority has found an additional £5.6m for children’s social services, most of which will be used to hire more social workers with the goal of making caseloads manageable.

“Many of the problems we face, particularly in the front line of children’s social care, is down to the fact of the unprecedented volume of work, which continues to increase,” said George Duggins, the cabinet member for children and young people at Coventry.

“We have already responded to this challenge by adding another team of social workers and we have funding to add more as part of the additional £5.6m because as a council safeguarding is one of our highest priorities.”

But even with the money in place, recruiting more social workers is going to be easier said than done.

Kent has been there. In 2010 its children’s social services were judged inadequate by Ofsted.

Today it has pulled itself back from the brink to gain an adequate rating and a crucial part of that improvement was down to addressing workload problems that meant some cases were not even being allocated.

“The bottom line about caseloads is you need enough social workers,” says Mairead MacNeil, director of specialist children’s services at Kent County Council.

“The primary thing you’ve got to do is acknowledge how many cases you’ve got and make sure the resource is sufficient – you’ve got to be prepared to pay for them.”

But bigger budgets in themselves don’t necessarily equal more social workers. “The difficulty is that yes it’s about finance and paying for them, but there are not enough experienced social workers, so it’s about recruitment and retention,” says MacNeil.

Filling gaps with NQSWs not an option

The nature of child protection work means that filling the gap with newly qualified social workers just isn’t an option.

“There are quite a few newly qualified social workers coming off courses, but they are not equipped to do children’s work for a range of reasons. They need protected caseloads for the first year and the reality is that the core of social work cases are about child protection and children in care, cases of a statutory nature that shouldn’t be held by inexperienced newly qualified workers.

“So the caseload has got to be commensurate with complexity and the capacity and experience of social workers. That sounds very simple in terms of equations but, actually, even if you have got the budget to fund them, many local authorities are having real difficulty in recruiting.”

Another problem is that more and more experienced social workers are looking to agency work rather than salaried posts.

“My belief is the recruitment market is shifting considerably,” says McNeil. “Because of the national shortage of good social workers, they can choose where they work so local authorities are chasing them and competing with each other and that means the costs are going up.

Agencies luring skilled practitioners

“You’ve also got the agency market. Most local authorities are using agency workers and as local authority pensions and other things that used to attract people to permanent work become less attractive, people are opting to do agency work and get paid considerably more per hour than they would by getting a substantive post.”

This recruitment challenge is even harder for inadequate-rated local authorities to tackle since fewer social workers want to work in a failing council.

The risk is that inadequate-rated councils get caught in a vicious cycle where a failure to recruit more experienced social workers means the problems remain, leading to more inadequate ratings and even bigger recruitment challenges.

“It is a very difficult cycle to break,” says MacNeil. “The costs to local authorities when they get the publicity around being relegated to special measures is that the resulting disaffection and loss of confidence of social workers means they very often lose a lot more staff at that time and it worsens the problem.”

Kent’s answer to this challenge was persistence.

“It’s a continuous process of recruitment, of putting the money in and making sure the sufficiency is there. Kent invested a lot of money in getting social workers, there were continuous rounds of recruitment so that quality improved and there was a more stable and permanent workforce. And that is ongoing.”

Good staff support, as well as higher pay

Higher pay alone, she adds, isn’t the answer. “It helps that you get a reasonable salary, but with this work people want to feel safe and supported and they will feel safe and well supported if their caseloads are reasonable.”

Having high-quality managers is another important consideration but they can be even harder to recruit.

Cornwall council, which was hit with two consecutive inadequate ratings from Ofsted before moving up to adequate in 2013, spent six months searching for a director of safeguarding of the caliber it felt it needed to fix the quality of its children’s social work.

You need, says MacNeil, strong managers who can not just manage but can also help social workers enjoy their work.

“You’ve got to drill down on the quality of social work, keep those caseloads under control, and have managers that are fit to support workers who are doing difficult work so that social workers can take pride in the work they are doing because they have the time and ability to do it.”

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6 Responses to How councils can escape the cycle of high social work caseloads and poor performance

  1. Tracey Waller March 26, 2014 at 12:29 pm #

    I loved Social Work but after more than 10 years of feeling overloaded and managed by inadequate management I have had enough and I am now in the process of taking myself off the register. Being a Social Worker has become exhausting, demoralizing and scary!

    • SSR March 27, 2014 at 10:16 am #

      When I qualified in 1997, the maximum caseload was 8 cases. When I started working as a locum, I found myself managing 34 cases at one time. To top, there was no supervision. How is one person supposed to manage such a large amount of cases. Unfortunately, the attitude amongst the permenant staff is ‘Well you’re being paid more money so you should be able to manage the caseload’. That is the most ridiculous thing. You don’t suddenly become superhuman because you’re a locum. This is the reason social workers cannot do a good job. There are limited services and funds and they are being overloaded to the point that disaster is inevitable.

      I took a career break 5 years ago but would like to return!

  2. Diana March 26, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

    I could not agree more with the article I have just read on how to escape high social work loads and poor performance. I beg to differ however, on the issue of using NQSW at the frontline. The so called experienced social workers that everyone keeps chasing after are few and far between. In the meantime there are loads of experienced social workers not on the frontline but who would not touch children’s frontline services with a barge pole! The reason being their notoriety for high case loads, poor supervision and management, high stress levels and risk of loss professional continuity should anything go wrong. Managers rarely take the blame it is always the put down to the social workers incompetence. So what choice have these councils got given the environment described in the article as well as the real issues I just highlighted above which are not new or news to anyone in the social work profession?

    To me the most pragmatic strategy is to invest time and money in the NQSW who need the exposure and experience at the frontline before being considered experienced enough. What is a year of supporting several NQSWs to the amount of resources being wasted in pursuit of the more experienced social workers who are on their way out after decades at the frontline, now exhausted and only wanting to make the most of their remaining time in service hence going agency? I know a lot of NQSW who two three years down the road are still jobless because they keep getting turned down on grounds of lack of experience. So they are forced to go on the dole yet they will have been given a student loan that is now beginning to look like a bad investment. They are so eager to get in there and apply their knowledge but of course the host of lazy, incompetent managers that plague many councils will not hire them either because they do not have the faintest idea how to work, train and support NQSW, or they plead too many caseloads plus experienced social workers will not need that much supervision. I am afraid unless councils undertake a proper soul searching and put the services needs above their own, focus on the long term even if the short term there will be many risks to manage, and recruit from the available pool of applicants experienced or not they will keep losing children never seeming to get off the “merry go round” or vicious cycle of high social work loads and poor performance among others. Not to mention the waste of resources training social workers who will never be hired. I simply cannot understand the argument being advanced for failure to recruit from the abundantly available pool of NQSW-which frankly speaking is nonsense.

  3. Alex March 26, 2014 at 3:25 pm #

    This really angers me. Local authorities are utterly ridiculous, on one hand they complain about NQSW lacking experience, but how are they ever supposed to develop any if they aren’t given a chance? These same Councils offer a paltry number of statutory placements and then complain about you not having statutory experience.

    In what other public sector would this be acceptable? You can imagine how central government would react of an NHS trust or an LEA announced that they weren’t going to bother training any doctors/nurses/radiographers/teachers, etc

    The upshot of this is more SW leaving the job and an entire generation of NQSW giving up and walking away thanks to the pampered baby boomers in senior management pulling the ladders up under them.

    SW needs root and branch reform and they should start by totally removing it from local authorities, lets have national pay scales, common job titles and a national organisation under the authority of a single government ministry. Enough is enough.

  4. Eleanor Skidmore March 27, 2014 at 2:06 pm #

    I disagree with Mairead MacNeil, director of specialist children’s services at Kent County Council.

    NQSW’s only get the experience if they work with it hands on. How can you say that they shouldn’t work in child protection or safeguarding? With the proper supervision,support and ongoing CPD, NQSW’s should be given the opportunity, through a good interview process, to embark on a career that supports children and families without the pressure of peer attitudes and media and social prejudices that they have no experience so they must be of no value in the field.

    I think there are a lot of high and mighty ‘managers’ who don’t want to share their mantle of ‘power’ with NQSW’s and have their head firmly entrenched in bigoted stereotypical prejudices because they themselves are scared witless that someone’s going to stuff up and another child will die.

    The plain fact is that there will always be children who for whatever reason, slip through the net. Yes, we must look at serious case reviews and make good the failings of the system, systems which are made up of people, people are not flawless, but to pin such prejudgement and conditions on NQSW’s will not help to integrate them into a workforce that already is badly in need of them. In fact, it’s no wonder they are looking for jobs in agencies other than Local Councils!

  5. Pauline Oliver April 3, 2014 at 2:23 am #

    Speaking from the point of view of a final year student who was studying on the social work degree programme, I would have to say that NQSW’s need to learn how to ‘cover their backs’ more so than ever. Unfortunately , for me I was ousted out of the profession and stopped from completing my degree due to unscroupuless and twisted parasite manager where I was based. I undertook my final year placement with the London Borough of Red-bridge, who I would like to say also received an Ofsted report of inadequacy in 2010. I started my placement with the LA in 2010 and left in 2011. During my time with them I held 17 case loads, and 9 of those cases were child protection. I received 5 supervision session in 10 months which was not adequate. I was not trained in the area of work where I working in. Instead of being treated like a student, I was likened to that of a qualified worker. In the end the agency made a number of allegations against me to the university of study, such as I was working from home on service users information, which they aledged was not permitted. Inspite of manager giving clear instructions for certain work that had to be completed with a set time frame. I was three or four days late with adding case recording, not to mention that I was interrupted while adding my case recording and asked to do something else instead. At the end I was accused by the agency of dangerous practice. Although I appealed, I was unsuccessful, because it was aledged that I had breached data protection procedures when I worked from home on one case which was going to child protection. At the time I only worked 3 days at the agency and the were dangerously under staffed and there was no one else around that could or would do the work while I was out.