The government must urgently consult with social workers, employers and representative bodies in order to understand the recruitment and retention issues most children’s services face, a group of MPs has concluded.
In a report published today, the housing, communities and local government committee, chaired by Sheffield MP Clive Betts, called for the government to report back, by December 2019, on options to mitigate pressure on social workers.
The select committee also recommended a national recruitment strategy be funded to encourage people into the children’s social work sector.
It suggested the new regulator, Social Work England, should evaluate what additional measures could be put in place to help councils facing particular recruitment difficulties because of poor Ofsted ratings.
The report, which sought to assess whether children’s services – many of which are reporting huge overspends – are being sufficiently funded to fulfil their statutory duties, concluded the system was “at breaking point”.
MPs recommended providing a minimum extra £3.1 billion in core grant to local authority children’s services – which in 2018-19 were budgeted to spend £8.6 billion – by 2025, a figure calculated by the Local Government Association as being necessary to main service levels without enhancement. They also called on the government to review the financial burdens that rising statutory interventions are placing on councils.
The report concluded that in order for children’s services to become sustainable, financial measures must sit alongside “systemic changes”. These include understanding regional variations in demand – which the National Audit Office has criticised the government for failing to get to grips with – and reforming the children’s care market, as well as tackling social work and social care workforce issues.
‘Too much risk and people leave’
The select committee observed that many councils, facing growing demand at the same time as non-statutory early help services were being cut, had been able to maintain their performance primarily by asking social workers to do more.
One practitioner told a survey that fed into the report that “the system would collapse if it wasn’t for the goodwill of practitioners going above and beyond because of their values and not wanting to let kids down”.
Nonetheless, between 2013–14 and 2017–18, the number of full-time equivalent children’s social worker vacancies rose by 61%, the report said.
Yvette Stanley, Ofsted’s national social care director, told MPs: “If you ask frontline social workers to take too much risk, they will leave… they want to work somewhere where they think the risk balance is appropriate and they are going to be supported in taking difficult decisions.”
The select committee report backed a campaign by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) into reducing the admin pressures – a key factor in burnout – that children’s practitioners face.
BASW found many social workers spent 80% of their time on paperwork and only 20% working directly with children and families, and is advocating measures to reverse the ratio, including more support staff and better IT systems.
Experts told the committee that levels of staff turnover were having a range of negative impacts.
“In cases that we are upholding, there are often numerous reallocations of social workers,” said Sharon Chappell, assistant ombudsman at the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.
“There was a case that has just been referred to me for some advice where there were 10 different social workers involved since July 2018, eight in a three-month period,” Chappell added. “That young person has no opportunity to build any relationship.”
The report also noted that the amount spent on agency workers, who cost considerably more than permanent staff, had doubled between 2012-13 and 2016-17, exacerbating councils’ financial woes.
While a range of initiatives to increase permanent social worker recruitment – ranging from fast-track schemes such as Frontline and Step Up to Social Work, to councils setting up academies – had had some impact, such measures had inevitably led to a relatively inexperienced workforce, the report found.
“The front line is now largely staffed by newly qualified social workers with little experience in managing and dealing with risk and complex cases,” BASW’s submission to the committee said. “This cycle can result in cases escalating into care proceedings too quickly.”
Responding to the select committee report, Rachel Dickinson, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), observed that “countless others” had already come to the same broad conclusion that children’s services funding was insufficient.
“Rising child poverty and greater prevalence of domestic abuse, poor parental mental health and substance misuse exacerbates the pressures already in the system – it is a vicious cycle,” she said. “This is unacceptable and takes us to a place we are not professionally, or morally, comfortable with and far from the principles underpinning the Children Act 1989.
“In addition to helpfully setting out a series of financial and systemic recommendations for government, the committee recognises several factors placing further pressure on already overstretched council budgets and services [including] pressures on the social work workforce and a lengthy and growing list of new responsibilities,” Dickinson added. “Moreover, our preventative duties have never been sufficiently funded to enable us to work with families earlier, addressing needs as and when they arise. We hope the Treasury is listening and is ready to put children first.”
‘Social workers need the right tools’
Maris Stratulis, BASW England national director, said: “Skilled, professional social workers have been delivering the best service they can, often within a fragile context of ever-increasing demand and limited financial and infrastructure investment.
“They need the right tools to support them do their job properly – if this was happening in any other profession there would be an outcry,” Stratulis added. “BASW calls upon the government to implement the recommendations in this important report.”
Meanwhile Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, described the report as a “wake-up call”.
“We cannot just continue to cross our fingers and hope that vulnerable children will be alright,” she said. “This year’s Spending Review is the moment to act. Ministers must accept that children’s services are in desperate need of funding to improve what they offer children, rather than just stand still or go backwards, and that some failing authorities need more help.”