Cutting pay but improving training for agency social workers

London is thinking differently about agency social workers in an effort to regain the balance with permanent staff

mind the gap

London Councils recently announced a pay cap on agency social workers working in children’s services in an attempt to get on top of spiralling costs and concerns about quality control.

However, on a mild, spring afternoon, looking out over a busy Southwark street, Nick Hollier, Bexley’s deputy director of HR and corporate support and one of the leads on the project, is keen to point out the cap is only part of the story.

“We recognised that we had a big issue with agency pay rates and we were all leap-frogging each other because there is a lack of supply. It got to a point where there was no longer any correlation between pay rates and the quality or experience of staff.”

Need to do more to develop staff

The other problem was that not enough newly qualified social workers were becoming high quality, experienced social workers, he says.

“We weren’t doing enough for the learning and development of staff – both permanent and agency staff.”

The driving aim behind the London Council’s Memorandum of Cooperation Working together to improve the workforce of children’s social work professionals (which currently has 31 out of the 33 local authorities signed up to it) is to get permanent and agency social workers back on a level footing.

Andreas Ghosh, head of HR in Lewisham and fellow lead on the project points out it is incredibly divisive to have agency staff sitting next to permanent staff doing the same job but earning so much more.

Agency should not be a career route

“We want the choice to become agency or permanent to be far more finely balanced. There are good and valid reasons for becoming an agency social worker but it shouldn’t be a career route. Particularly in this sector where the people we work with, vulnerable children and families, get better outcomes if there is stability and permanency in the workforce.”

Hollier says it means thinking about agency staff differently.

“Quite often boroughs create this differential because we are trying to improve the attractiveness of permanency – so we don’t apply the employer standards to agency staff, we don’t give them as much supervision or let them access training.

Part of the workforce

“But what we are saying to London boroughs is they [agency staff] are a part of your workforce and you have to look after all of the workforce and apply best practice to all of them.

“Ultimately all of us are contributing to the supply chain. We need a recognition that people do move around; that you might train someone up only for them to move on but that can be helpful. Agency and permanent staff can share strategies or policies that are successful in other boroughs and help share good practice.

“In the end all of us need high quality agency staff so we should all try and help achieve that.”

While London is not the only area to cap agency pay, with consortiums in the Midlands and East Anglia doing so, it is arguably a more difficult task in a city where the sky-rocketing costs of living have exacerbated children’s social worker recruitment woes.

Pooling data

“We had to make sure we set the cap at a rate where directors of children’s services would still be confident they could get enough agency staff to meet their caseloads,” Hollier agrees.

In this London Councils has the advantage of a long history of members being prepared to pool data and this was used to not only set the pay cap at a reasonable level but has also been crucial in dispelling myths that had sprung up.

“In the past we would quite often be told ‘such and such is paying this amount’ so we would feel we would have to offer the same or more. But once we pooled some standard data we discovered that wasn’t the case so we could be far more robust,” Hollier says.

Referencing issues

Recruitment agencies also had a vested commercial interest in the status quo continuing but Hollier says they have been able to have a ‘mature’ discussion about the issues with agencies.

“They told us there was a real issue in getting references for agency staff, so we said ok, we’ll deal with that as a part of the memorandum as well.”

Ofsted requires uninterrupted references for each agency social worker dating back two to four years. But when every agency social worker is often signed up to five or six agencies, team managers are often getting a huge number of requests for references on top of their busy day job.

As part of the memorandum London Councils developed a template for references that should, Hollier hopes, also improve the quality of agency social workers.


“We’re asking people to be honest about their references and put some thought into it. An agency doesn’t observe the social worker on the job so how are they supposed to know if there are concerns if we don’t tell them? And if we are recording concerns then we need to be ensuring that we have tried to do something about those concerns in terms of developing the social worker.”

While the pay cap and the referencing template have been essential quick wins to consolidate support for the memorandum, Hollier and Ghosh are adamant that improving social worker training and development is an equally important goal.

“There is all sorts of research and surveys showing that, in this sector, pay is important but not necessarily the most important factor as to why people do the job. It’s about the work itself, the caseloads and the terms and conditions.”

National scale

Hollier and Ghosh would like to see the work they have begun with the memorandum continued on a national scale and applying to both adults’ social workers as well as children’s. They are both keen to try and consolidate the different approaches to pay caps that have sprung up around the country and they highlight the potential advantages of pooling data on a national scale.

But for now both are happy with the success achieved so far. “When we started this there was a degree of scepticism. We had people telling us ‘we’ve been trying to crack this for 20 years and we’ve never done it’. What’s helped has been the collective sense of a win/win which has been very positive,” Hollier concludes.

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8 Responses to Cutting pay but improving training for agency social workers

  1. Andrea June 22, 2016 at 11:13 am #

    Who are these people making sweeping (and inaccurate) statements – I’ve worked in several boroughs- all of which offered the same training to agency staff as their permanent staff.
    And, again, temp staff get more cash in hand because they don’t get paid to be off work as permanent staff do!

  2. Dorinda Bennett June 22, 2016 at 11:40 am #

    I’m an ISW working directly with a local authority and the same is happening. My concern is will capping take into account no holiday or sick pay, no guarantee of work and we cover the cost of PL and PI insurance, pension contributions without the employers contribution, utilty bills of working from home and stationery costs etc. We may also be taxed at source and recover any overpayment from HMRC is a nightmare. We also have to pay to attend training. These issues must be taken into account in fairness.

  3. Jacob Daly June 22, 2016 at 5:31 pm #

    This seems utterly unfair. Wholeheartedly agree with previous comment. The real question is why authorities need locums in the first instance and secondly to explore issues around retention for permanent staff.

  4. Natalie June 22, 2016 at 6:25 pm #

    Many choose to work agency as the cost of living has increased. People should not jump to conclusions. If we don’t work, we don’t get paid, our choice, but that’s why we get the increase in pay. We don’t get the same benefits as perm, therefore LA’s need to ensure they pay us for our work.

    There are many exceptional agency staff – don’t judge us by the few who do hop around doing a poor job.

  5. Sandy June 23, 2016 at 12:14 am #

    Should the Local Authorities offer better incentives, which includes a reasonable living wage for all social workers, were they are able to pay their bills without being broke before the end of the month. Then there would be no need for agency staffs.

    As it stands no matter what agency workers will always be on demand in social work as we are the ones who get all the complex cases no body wants and is often thrown in the deep end, which makes us either sink or swim. Agency workers also do not get sick pay, holiday pay etc.

    The bottom line is that if social workers was being paid a decent wages that reflects the most stressful and demanding job there will be no need to recruit agency staff to fill the gap in the market

  6. billyjean June 23, 2016 at 6:43 pm #

    Don’t worry. The cap is only voluntary and some councils are already ignoring it. We work in a service driven industry. Even the full time staff are on different deals, that’s what happens in a capitalist society. So if you sit in a room with full time, part time and agency staff – it’s a good guess nobody is on the same money! You do have to laugh at the schemes they try. Maybe they should work on better deals for us like benefits and stop blowing hot air.

  7. Right to Reply June 24, 2016 at 12:05 pm #

    I am an agency worker and have been for a long time. I have also worked in several different places and tend to stay quite some time when I am in a post because I am asked to. When a post has been short time wise, this has either, as my very first job as an agency worker in 2005, been because suddenly that particular council was over budget and ‘pulled’ all agency workers with 2 weeks notice. Luck of the draw. I have also left when I have found the standard of appreciation of workers, sometimes just agency, is awful and when you think I am not enjoying this role (done this only once). My last position was for 2+ years as the employer I worked for couldn’t recruit to it. I moved when they could get someone.
    I already work for the one of the lowest paying employers who use agency; my choice I know, but if the pay was standardized I have already found out then the rates in this case would likely go up to be evened out with surrounding employers, LA’s, etc. As a SW with 11+ years experience I will possibly get more recognition within the banding given the London example, but taking into account a lower rate for outside London.
    My current employer offers some training for agency, but you may be eligible to attend other courses depending on the role you are currently in. Some teams have tried to not allow agency workers any training within the same employer, but there is support to challenge this and it usually succeeds for the agency worker. I am not paid enough above what a lot of the permanent Social Workers are paid for me to try and pay for my own training, so this helps being allowed to access training. My employer finds it very difficult to recruit SW’s via agency due to low application to work there and the rates if a SW wanted to ‘work away from home’ would not meet costs for boarding elsewhere even with any incentives back tax wise.
    I would be glad to have the training of agency taken seriously wherever one worked and it is heartening to see how the above LA does this and acknowledges the importance of supporting agency in this way.
    I do feel sorry for those in permanent posts who are short sighted and offer comments such as ‘agency workers get double or near enough’ so shouldn’t be allowed to access training. I know these people are few and far between as most of my colleagues, agency and permanent have been really good and made me feel a part of the team.
    I would like to see agencies supporting agency SW’s more with their CPD and supporting higher qualifications as they usually don’t and then if an agency worker wants to go for a permanent job, especially if they have been doing SW for years, they can’t afford to as they are then offered basically the rate just above NQSW (no offence to this group of SW’s intended) because of it. Has anyone an answer to this.
    P.S. I feel very loyal to my current employer as they have given me some great chances with roles and as I am often made to feel as a permanent worker would, but am disappointed I cannot get the job I sometimes want due to a lack of higher qualifications.

  8. TNB June 26, 2016 at 5:24 pm #

    As an agency SW it makes me really angry when I read remarks aimed at agency SW’s rates. Yes, we are paid at a higher rate which is to make provision for holidays, sick leave, insurances and pensions, all of which we are responsible for paying.

    I was with a LA for a number of years and had I been afforded better working conditions then I would not have been forced into making the decision to leave my post in order to gain control of my work / life balance, and overall happiness!

    Local authorities MUST take responsibility for their part in the overall of increase in experienced SW’s leaving the profession and becoming agency workers. Yet here we are again with them failing to acknowledge this and instead looking at how they can force our hands and try and bully us back into their control by capping rates. Do they not think that as professionals that we can take responsibility for identifying our own training needs and how we can best meet these?

    Local authorities need to listen to their workforce and treat their employees with respect instead of using force and bullying as a means of getting what they want, THAT is the way forward in regaining and building experienced and committed workforce.