One in nine social worker posts in England are vacant, according to exclusive research by Community Care.
The statistics, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that on 31 January 2009 there was an average 10.9% vacancy rate in the 96 councils that responded to our national survey – equivalent to 8,317 vacant posts in England.
The figures, collated from councils over the past two months and published for the first time here, also show a marked increase on the national vacancy rate, which has been close to 10% since 2006.
The results also show a substantial regional variation. London as a whole had the highest vacancy rate at 18.6%, followed by the West Midlands at 17.8% of all posts, and in the East Midlands at 15.4%. The North East had the lowest proportion of vacant posts at 6.5%.
The overall highest number of vacancies was at Lambeth Council in south London, where a third – 33.7% – of posts did not have a permanent member of staff, although almost all were filled with agency or temporary staff. Jo Cleary, director of adults services at Lambeth said: “We have been putting in a lot of measures to ensure recruitment of qualified staff to those vacancies across children’s and adults’ services.”
The total proportion of agency and temporary staff stood at 6.9% of the workforce in England, but was higher at many struggling councils. Agency and temporary staff made up 30% of Haringey Council’s social workers, while the rate was 26% at Doncaster Council.
Hilton Dawson, incoming chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, called the results “exceptionally worrying”, and blamed the problem on a lack of experienced staff rather a shortage of social workers in general.
“Very hard-pressed departments want experienced staff to fill demanding roles very quickly,” Dawson said. “We’re hearing evidence that people who have qualified very recently can’t provide the services they require. We know what the answer is – transform the standing of social work with a career development path to enable the most experienced social workers to remain at the forefront of practice throughout their careers, and to pay people properly.”
Blocking new staff
Helga Pile, Unison national officer for social care and a member of the Social Work Taskforce, said that councils needed to invest in newly qualified staff. She also pointed to anecdotal evidence that some councils’ reliance on experienced agency workers was blocking the uptake of newly qualified social workers.
“Councils should see the benefits of investing in new social workers, and, crucially, in offering good practice placements,” Pile said. “There should be much more emphasis generally on support, with guarantees about workload and working conditions and access to learning and reflection opportunities.”
Pile attributed the regional variations to the easy movement between jobs in local authorities in the Midlands and London, and to “pay-leapfrogging” as councils tried to attract the best staff. She said there was a “danger of high vacancy rates being seen as inevitable” without recognition of the seriousness of the situation.
Dawson said: “We need a cross-party response to this issue to ensure that whoever wins the next election doesn’t dump whatever comes out of the Social Work Taskforce.”