Agency social worker numbers up 10% over last year, statistics reveal

Overall number of employed children's social workers reaches highest level but official statistics underline workforce challenges facing councils hit by poor Ofsted reports

Image of social worker with family (credit: Monkey Business / Adobe Stock)
(credit: Monkey Business / Adobe Stock)

The number of agency social workers in English children’s services grew by 10% last year government statistics have revealed.

In the 12 months to 30 September 2019, the number of locums employed by local authorities increased from 5,530 to 6,090, figures published by the Department for Education showed.

By full-time equivalents, the rise in agency workers was 7% (from 5,356 to 5,754), and equated to a 1% uptick in the national agency worker rate across all councils, which stood at just under 16% as of 30 September 2019.

The statistics contrast with research published by Community Care in October 2019, which suggested that agency work was losing its appeal for many social workers in the wake of tax changes that have made it a less appealing option financially.

The DfE figures showed that the number of children’s social workers employed directly by local authorities reached its highest-ever level in September 2019, 32,917, up 4% from 2018, with 30,720 full-time equivalent staff.

Inspection impact

The DfE’s figures provided a stark illustration of the impact that adverse Ofsted inspections can have on councils’ workforces.

Of the five councils with the highest growth in the use of agency social workers by headcount, three – Bradford (up 90 year on year), Stoke (up 81) and Blackpool (up 53) – were deemed ‘inadequate’ by inspectors over the period covered by the statistics.

Of the remaining two, Torbay (up 66) has struggled with successive ‘inadequate’ judgments and the recent end to its partnership with nearby Plymouth, while Southampton (up 59), recently judged ‘requires improvement’, is investigating whistleblowing allegations against senior staff.

All five councils had agency rates of 28% or above as of 30 September 2019 by headcount. Torbay, at 57%, was one of four councils – also including Barnet (48%), Swindon (47%) and Newham (43%) – to have rates over 40%.

In all, 13 authorities at least doubled their agency worker rate since the last statistical release a year ago – though some of these, such as the East Riding of Yorkshire and Bath and North East Somerset, started from very low numbers.

The new statistics showed considerable discrepancies in how agency social workers are used by councils. Overall, 4,686 of the 6,090 agency social workers were used to cover vacancies, a slight fall proportionately on 2018 (77% as opposed to 78%).

However, while in authorities such as Surrey (164 agency staff), Northamptonshire (143) and Gloucestershire (133), all agency staff were used to cover vacancies, in others a small minority were so used – for example, 30 out of 112 in Stoke – with the remainder likely to be providing extra capacity.

At the other end of the scale, 65 local authorities lowered their agency worker headcount over the period covered by the statistics.

Static turnover

Despite the rise in locum numbers, the national turnover rate for social workers year-on-year remained constant at 16% by headcount (15% FTE), while the number of leavers increased by 2.6%, to 5,300, following a much sharper 15% rise the previous year.

London saw the highest turnover rate, at 19%, as well as the highest vacancy rate (FTE), at 24%. The North East had the lowest vacancy rate at 8%, with a national figure of 16%, unchanged from 2018.

Many of the patterns visible in agency social worker rates were predictably mirrored in individual councils’ vacancy rates, which in Blackpool quadrupled from 7% to 29%. St Helens, the subject of an unfavourable inspection that saw it downgraded to ‘inadequate’ just before the statistics were collected, saw vacancy rates rise from 7% to 25% and in North East Lincolnshire, ordered to improve by ministers after social workers warned of unmanageable caseloads, they rose from 6% to 22%.

The time social workers spent in their jobs continued to make for concerning reading, with 68% of leavers (by both headcount and FTE) departing their roles within five years, the same rate as 2018.

The DfE collected data from councils as to the reason social workers had left their jobs, but did not publish this information, citing the fact that councils recorded ‘not known’ or ‘not yet collected’ for 10% of leavers.

The government also asked councils to specify the destination of leaving social workers, but said this was recorded as ‘not known’ or ‘not yet collected’ in 79% of returns.

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9 Responses to Agency social worker numbers up 10% over last year, statistics reveal

  1. Vince McMahon February 29, 2020 at 12:16 pm #

    I see more and more black workers turning to agency working rather than remaining permanent staff in the West Midlands, I have no idea why this is, but it is worrying!

  2. Denice Sealy February 29, 2020 at 4:34 pm #

    No surprises there as caseloads are often unrealistic and leads to stress and burnout. In addition too much time is spent on paperwork as opposed to face-face work.

  3. Frederick February 29, 2020 at 9:08 pm #

    Local authorities in general dont look after their staff. Some authorities bully their staff and cajole their experienced workers into poor practice and threats with the regulator and action plans. Hence people who want to stay in the profession and give their best to provide the required services go agency. It pays more and if you have the misfortune to work for a bad authority, you can leave. Better to do that stay put and become unwell. We dont want to be bullied and we wont be! Therefore we go and do the best we can for the families and not get involved in their political manipulations! I would never ever work permanent for an authority again, they generally dont value you.

    • Anonymous March 2, 2020 at 3:09 pm #

      Well said Frederick. I could not agree with you more.
      Like you, I will never be treated with disrespect and bullying by those tm or SM who think they know everything but gave up practicing sw as they were frustrated and could not do it anymore. I would rather leave the profession altogether!

  4. Diana Macdonald March 1, 2020 at 11:19 pm #

    Many LA SW’s are leaving for a variety of reasons ranging from low staff morale, high caseloads, limited opportunities for training etc. Agency is becoming a lot more attractive as it pays vastly more than the LA & you have more freedom to move around so you don’t get that ‘swamped’ feeling!

  5. Catherine March 2, 2020 at 11:01 am #

    I’m not sure that you can equate poor Ofsted out comes with increased locum workers. Surely investigating senior staff at Southampton probably largely contributes to their poor rating rather than the number of locum workers they have. Choosing to be a locum is for a number of different reasons and most of the locum workers I know have worked in their placements for over 12 months. I wish we would stop bashing locum workers who help support teams that are struggling with the increase in child protection cases as well as an increase in adult safe guarding cases. Surely we are all working within a system that is beginning to fail the most vulnerable of society due to lack of funding and a reducing work force.

  6. Edmond March 3, 2020 at 6:36 am #

    I am fortunate I don’t have to worry about a pension. To me, regardless of pension considerations, not being permanent staff in a LA = freedom. I am looking at going permanent in a London borough now that I have worked with them long enough and know how they work. It is a bit of a scary prospect. But after a few years locuming, I have seen great jobs pass me by because I was locum. So some locums want to go the other way. I personally feel there are too many unskilled Social Care staff out there. And the fact that many are locums doesn’t affect my judgement as a managr, but certainly makes my job easier when I need to strengthen or reduce staffing levels, rid of someone who is not working up to standards. Most of my team are locum and are great, highly skilled, taking pride in their work, committed to the service. I value them for what they bring and their energy. Permanent staff, I find, have often stagnated too long and specialised in local interpretations of the law and policies, but boy, don’t they know who is who and where to go for what. Need hem all…as long as they pull their weight.

  7. A SW for too long March 9, 2020 at 9:03 pm #

    I have been agency for nearly 5 years, it is the fastest route out for me when I decide I do not want to be a SW any more.

  8. Frasierfanclub1 March 12, 2020 at 12:58 am #

    I tried locum for a couple of years and the money was lovely. The freedom to pick and choose where to work was tantalising. However there were downsides, the worst being a poor manager who told my agency to refer me to HCPC. So no job and unemployable for a year until fully vindicated. There was no evidence of any wrongdoing, the agency referred me soley on the basis of hearsay and hcpc also said that the local authority had unrealistic expectations. Had I been permanently employed I would have been better protected.