In my time in child protection social work, I’ve had caseloads ranging from eight to forty-six. Having progressed from student to senior social worker you’d think the number, and complexity, of cases would have naturally increased alongside my developing confidence, abilities and experience.
Sadly not. My highest caseload came at a time when I’d been qualified for just over a year and I was already handling the most complex case I’ve ever had. I was working in an environment where social workers were resigned to working 12 hour days just to keep up.
At the other end of the scale, when I’ve had low caseloads I’ve often felt under-utilised and bored without the pressure of always having something to do. Perhaps that’s due to the environment my social work skills were steeled in having been so frenetic.
I understand that every individual we support is unique and, especially in times of crisis and severe risk management, one case can ‘kick off’ and monopolise your time. As is so often the fate of social workers, these cases of severe risk tend to come in groups. A seemingly stable caseload can see you forced to burn both ends of the candle in an effort to effectively safeguard.
However, when I weigh up the current situation in child protection I firmly believe that the government must consider implementing a national cap on caseload numbers – my recommendation would be 20 – if it is serious in its efforts to improve social work.
A cap has been mooted before. The 2009 Social Work Taskforce review, commissioned by the last Labour government, rejected the idea – concluding there was no consensus on the number any cap should be set at and that the proposal would not deal with issues around professional development.
Instead the taskforce recommended a set of employer standards be drawn up that would set out the conditions, including workloads, needed for good social work. The standards were, in time, published by the Local Government Association but have never been mandatory for councils to follow. As a result they have often been ignored.
Looking back it feels that an opportunity to take a bold stance on the workload issue was missed. Instead the buck was passed to individual councils, without the teeth to make sure they took the necessary action.
Impact on practice
Seven years on and the issues identified by the taskforce are worsening. Social workers are practicing in a context of increasing inequality and austerity measures. Care applications have hit a record high, partly due to the continuing reverberations of the ‘Baby P effect’.
At the same time there is growing evidence of the effect caseloads can have on outcomes. In June, Ofsted warned that social work caseloads being “too high” was a common feature in ‘inadequate’-rated authorities, with inspections finding that too many social workers were simply “pressing on in conditions that are unacceptable”.
On the other hand, services in Westminster – one of two authorities to receive “outstanding” ratings under Ofsted’s new single inspection framework – have been praised for supporting “delivery of social work to a very high and, in most cases, outstanding quality”. This outstanding work was apparently “supported by low social worker caseloads”.
With lower caseloads we can do better work, who’d have thought it?
There are signs some councils are waking up to this. A few months back, Manchester council announced plans to invest an extra £10m to tackle what the authority called “unmanageable caseloads”. The move aims to cut average caseloads from 24 to 18, after the council found “high caseloads are at the root of poor and inconsistent social work practice”.
As well as damaging practice, this issue damages retention too. Going back to 2014, Manchester, Cardiff and Lambeth councils published three reports that, independently of each other, raised the same issue of councils struggling to retain staff due to high caseloads.
In the context of an increasingly fluid labour market, rising competition for experienced staff and more and more people choosing to work independently, social workers are more empowered to vote with their feet by leaving unsafe working environments than ever before.
The lesson here appears to be simple – lower caseloads create a more stable workforce. Yet despite frontline practitioners, Ofsted and senior council figures from across the country all pointing this out, a recent investigation by ITV found ‘huge variations’ in caseloads within neighbouring local authorities. Child protection caseloads ranged from 45 to 14 among a group of councils within 50 miles of each other.
This is a postcode lottery for safeguarding vulnerable children I feel could be addressed by introducing statutory legislation capping caseloads. This may seem like an unrealistic pipe dream on my behalf, but we only have to look towards our multi-agency colleagues in education to find an example we can emulate.
School admissions regulations (2012) provide a legal cap on classroom sizes by dictating that “no infant class may contain more than 30 pupils while an ordinary teaching session is conducted by a single school teacher”. This cap is a recognition that effective teaching can only be undertaken in a realistic environment and a limit is needed to ensure positive outcomes for both the professional and children.
This begs the question why, when we are faced with a recruitment crisis and care applications at an all-time high, the government is not taking a similar course of action within child protection? It could help free social workers to be the best practitioners we can be.
The author is a child protection social worker in England who tweets at @socialworktutor