Social workers twice as likely as the general population to work as locums, study reveals

A feature sponsored by Caritas Recruitment

Woman talking with child

Caritas Recruitment logoGovernment figures show that over 12% of qualified social workers in children services departments in England are working on a locum basis. This compares to an average of just 6% of the general workforce of the UK working on a locum or temporary contract basis. Yet despite the on-going use of these workers by most local authorities, a negative perception of the practice persists.

In a recent study commissioned by Caritas Recruitment, WorkLab (a research house specialising in workforce trends) seeks to provoke debate over the implications of this on-going trend.

Demand for social workers far outstrips supply

Ongoing staff turnover rates for qualified social workers in English local authorities are running at well over 10%. In addition, adult services are operating with a permanent staffing vacancy rate of 8.7%, and this rate is higher still within children’s services, at 13%. Local authorities nationally are investing heavily in attraction campaigns, but are failing to secure social workers in sufficient numbers to reduce these vacancy rates.

High usage of locum social workers is not an indication of poor performance

Contrary to the prevailing logic, there does not appear to be a correlation between the use of locum social workers and poor performance. In fact, while children’s services departments deemed ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted had higher than average locum social worker usage, the same was also true of those services considered ‘outstanding’ by the inspectors.

Negativity towards the use of locum social workers persists

Following completion of the research Belinda Johnson, research director at WorkLab, commented, ‘There appears to be an inherent contradiction in the perception of locum social workers. On the one hand, they are recognised as a critical resource without which social services could not function, on the other, their use is broadly viewed in a negative light.’

During in-depth interviews with a range of service heads from across the country, WorkLab discovered that there are a small number of significant factors influencing the on-going negative perception of the use of locum social workers.

Uncertainty over worker tenure – while staffing needs are ongoing, the general operating practice of most local authorities is to offer strictly time-limited contract durations to locums, making it harder to allocate caseloads effectively and diminishes the ability to build meaningful relationships with service users and their families.

Continuity – with local authority locum / temporary worker notice periods typically just one week, locum social worker contracts can be ended abruptly. This lack of continuity is a major concern to stakeholders seeking to improve services.

Lack of professional development – with locum social workers moving between authorities far more frequently than permanent staff, and with authorities not actively managing the professional development of locums, there is a sense that the practices of these social workers may not be keeping pace with developments in a fast moving sector.

Cost – while the extra cost of using locum workers was a concern for all those interviewed, the lack of an alternative source of staff meant this was a secondary issue.

Developing better practices

Locum social workers are, in the main recruited, to provide cover for the shortfall of availability of permanent staff, whereas local authority recruitment practices have been designed to provide short term flexible staffing solutions.

Contributors advised that authorities should move away from a one size fits all approach to the recruitment of locum workers in order to overcome this challenge. Recommendations included:

  • moving to fixed term contracts that better reflect actual service needs
  • increasing the notice period for service critical locum roles to one month
  • working more closely with specialist social care recruitment agency partners to offer better supervision and more opportunities for continuing professional development to locum social workers

Continuing the debate

Debbie Smith (CEO of Caritas Recruitment) added, ‘We specifically commissioned this study to spark a much needed debate within the sector as to how the challenges associated with the use of locum social workers can be overcome, for the benefit of all stakeholders and service users’.

If you would like a copy of ‘Realising the Value of the Locum Social Work Professional’, or would like to contribute to this debate please email

* For details of the research and statistics referenced in this article, please request a copy of the research from

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