Most authorities don’t know whether social workers’ caseloads are at an unsafe level

A Community Care investigation has revealed implementation of the employer standards has been inconsistent, and many frontline workers don't know they exist

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Less than one in 10 councils know whether social worker’s caseloads have exceeded safe benchmarks in the past year, figures obtained by Community Care have shown.

The responses of 112 local authorities in England to a Freedom of Information request revealed take-up of the recommended standards for employers of social workers has been patchy, and only a small minority have implemented every standard.

Patchy implementation

On average around half of councils had not set a safe caseload benchmark and even for those that did, over 90% of all councils were not able to say whether their social workers had exceeded the safe benchmark.

Stand Up for Social Work logoThis article is part of Community Care’s Stand up for Social Work campaign. We’re standing up for social work by being honest, offering support and providing inspiration.

As part of our commitment to supporting social workers in their roles, we are providing selected Community Care Inform guides for free for a limited time. Click here for your copy of our Guide to effective caseload allocation. The guide helps managers meet this employer standard and ensure safe caseloads and tells front line workers what they are entitled to expect from their employer.

70% of councils responding said they did not have, and had no plans to implement, a workload management tool in adults’ services, while the figure for children’s services was 57%.

Just a quarter of adult’s services and a third of children’s services published an annual “health check” to evaluate whether caseloads, vacancies and workloads were at a safe level.

Sharing the responsibility

Cath Holmstrom, the academic representative on the employer standards working group said this was a disappointment because the standards were the only reform which asked  employers to support their workers, rather than placing the burden on the social worker. She added there were well-known problems not just in education and training, but with workforce development and support.

“All the recent focus has been on qualifying education and not what on employers need to do, and I think that’s why the employer standards are important because it shares that responsibility.”

The standards for employers, developed between 2009 and 2012 as part of the work of the Social Work Reform Board, recommended implementing systems that would allow for safe workload management and case allocation.

The standards were designed to make employers accountable and ensure they provided social workers with appropriate support. They were refreshed in May last year but it was decided against making them mandatory.

Off the radar

Many in the sector expressed surprise at the high levels of non-compliance with the recommended standards given the activity spent promoting it by the Local Government Association and the positivity with which they were received in the beginning.

However, Holmstrom attributed it to the constant stream of changes in the sector.

“There is a frustration when we have these reviews and reforms and can’t ever let anything bed down because we have to respond to the next thing.

“Within that context, thinking about employer standards hasn’t completely fallen off the radar, but it has taken slightly less of a priority.”

Managing risk

Dame Moira Gibb, chair of the Reform Board which developed the standards, said she was disappointed by the figures but agreed it was difficult for councils to do workforce planning when they were under so much pressure.

“Managers think this [the health check] will just tell them what their problem is and not actually solve it. In fact it is  a way of managing risk – you’re identifying where the pressure points are in an organisation so you can do something about them.”

Collecting this information is vital so social care can be resourced properly, she added.

“Social care needs to be able to tell its story – what are the pressures and where are they arising? It’s important in these conditions that the public understands the pressures and the workload that translates to.”

The Standards
1. Clear Social Work Accountability Framework
2. Effective Workforce Planning
3. Safe Workloads and Case Allocation
4. Managing Risks and Resources
5. Effective and Appropriate Supervision
6. Continuing Professional Development
7. Professional Registration
8. Effective Partnerships

Source: Local Government Association

Professional officer for the British Association of Social Workers, Nushra Mansuri said, while there might be activity around the standards at a high level, in her experience this wasn’t trickling down to the frontline.

She described the standards as “one of the best kept secrets in social work.”

“Social workers are always put under the spotlight of scrutiny…but you have to look at the safety issues, the workplace issues, the caseload issues: all of those environmental factors that people conveniently ignore.”

A necessity, not a luxury

“These standards are a minimum. They are not an add-on, they’re not a luxury – they’re a necessity. The fact that so many councils are remiss in so many of these areas does not bode well,” Mansuri said, describing councils’ failure to implement them as “deplorable”.

However, among inconsistent implementation, the Freedom of Information responses showed there is some good practice taking place.

Several councils including Essex, Windsor and Maidenhead and Worcestershire have published comprehensive health checks and several are using workload management tools to help ensure caseloads are kept at a safe level.

President of the Association of Directors of Adults’ Services (Adass) David Pearson said: “The standards were launched…into the teeth of the most severe financial storm that has ever afflicted the profession and it is perhaps understandable – if unfortunate – that some authorities have been forced to delay implementation.

“I am sure that this is a temporary delay until our services are founded on a fair and sustainable basis.”

This article is part of Community Care’s campaign to Stand up for Social Work. We’re standing up for social work by being honest, offering support and providing inspiration.

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2 Responses to Most authorities don’t know whether social workers’ caseloads are at an unsafe level

  1. Ruth Cartwright March 11, 2015 at 4:55 pm #

    I’m not sure I am as optimistic as David Pearson, President of ADASS that employers of social workers (and this includes third sector and private employers as well as Local Authorities) will get round to implementing these standards eventually. When they were first launched the sector was not in nearly so much financial trouble as it is now and little was done (with the few honourable exceptions mentioned in the article). Three ways to get these standards implemented – make them mandatory and part of the inspection regime; ADASS, ADCS and Chief Social Worker publicise and push them; Social Workers ask about them at interview when applying for jobs and employed SWs ask their employer about them with the expectation that they will not work for any employer who ignores them. These standards could give us power to get better working conditions for ourselves and better services for our service users. The excuse of financial hardship is no excuse at all – ‘it’s too expensive to treat our employees reasonably and fairly’ does not sound convincing.

  2. Andy West March 12, 2015 at 10:12 am #

    Before my retirement I had raised the “standards in social work” with my employer in connection with the decline in the physical working conditions in the agency as a result of financial cutbacks. However i was just doing this on my own as an individual and as a consequence received a nil response. My impression over 37 years experience of working in social care is that the sector is not very hot on solidarity; this was not great in the past but this has been accentuated by the increasing working pressures and blame culture that have increased for those in the profession. This leaves them exhausted and demoralised. In my view employers and politicians will not take much notice of professionals in this sector until they are prepared to act together to protect themselves.