PROBLEM: Excessive caseloads, lack of supervision and insufficient time for professional development.
RECOMMENDATION: Introduce binding standards by which employers will be expected to support social workers, including high quality supervision, manageable workloads and time for professional development.
It’s not hard to find evidence of the insidious influence of high caseloads in social work.
With local authorities dealing with increased referrals to children’s services in the wake of the Baby Peter case, they face a tricky task in balancing the need to assess new cases with that of managing staff workloads.
The problem doesn’t only exist in children’s services; a Unison survey in August reported that funding gaps in adults’ services were putting enormous strain on social workers.
In its interim report in July, the Social Work Task Force said employers were “struggling to find effective methods of managing sizeable, complex workloads of frontline staff in ways that give due weight to different levels of experience and expertise and also allow staff time to learn and develop as professionals”.
Access to supervision was “often threatened or put on hold due to staff shortages and mounting caseloads”, it said. Lord Laming, in his report on child protection in March, recommended the introduction of “national guidelines setting out maximum caseloads of children in need and child protection cases, supported by a weighting mechanism to reflect the complexity of cases”.
One tool that could offer greater protection to frontline workers, and make explicit the responsibilities employers have towards their staff, is a binding code for employers. The idea has been floated several times this year, notably by Lord Laming, and could become reality following the taskforce’s recommendation on binding standards.
The current General Social Care Council code of practice for employers refers to “social care workers” rather than specifically to social workers, and is not binding, unlike that for staff.
To bring about the degree of change envisaged by the taskforce, it is likely that the code will need significant strengthening and link to sanctions for employers that fail to meet their duties to staff.
However, a joint statement from Adass president Jenny Owen and ADCS president Kim Bromley-Derry warned such a change must be underpinned by increased resources. “New responsibilities must be matched with additional resources,” they said.
The associations called for sustained investment in frontline services to allow local authorities to meet their responsibilities to the workforce.
“Placing new binding responsibilities on employers to provide supervision, support and a limit on numbers of cases must be matched with an increase in resources available to meet those demands.”