Story updated 6 March 2020
The average number of cases social workers handled last year varied from 12 to 33 across councils according to government figures.
The statistics, compiled from the annual children’s social work workforce census, showed that on 30 September 2019 the average social work caseload was 16.9 – a slight fall for the second year running, from 17.4 in 2018 and 17.8 in 2017.
The figure is arrived at by dividing the total number of cases held by full-time equivalent (FTE) social workers by the number of FTE social workers – both permanent and agency – holding one or more cases. Each individual child is counted as a separate case, including within sibling groups.
In all, 20,007 FTE social workers held 337,411 cases at the point the snapshot was taken.
Community Care research has previously suggested that average caseloads are higher than the official figures, which the government acknowledges should be treated with caution, as some councils have reported difficulties linking cases to individual practitioners. Nor do the raw numbers shed light on the different levels of pressure that identically-sized caseloads may exert on practitioners, depending on their complexity.
Highs and lows
Between regions, the average social work caseload showed considerable variation, with a clear North-South divide. All three northern regions (the North East, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber) had averages of at least 18; the two Midlands regions (East and West) had averages between 17 and 18, while the southern regions and the East of England all had rates of below 17. London was the lowest, reporting just 15.2 cases per worker.
All five of the boroughs with the lowest caseloads were in the capital, with Westminster, Sutton, Merton, Southwark and Kensington and Chelsea each recording less than 13 per practitioner, the latter reporting 12.1, the lowest figure in the country.
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But in North East Lincolnshire – the subject of a recent focused visit from Ofsted that warned of “exceedingly high” caseloads the figure was reported as 32.7 cases as of 30 September.
The east coast authority – which also had the highest average last year, at 26.8 – was an outlier, according to the figures. The next highest average caseload, in Redcar and Cleveland, was reported as 24.2.
In all, 15 councils, all but two of which were in the north or Midlands, recorded average caseloads of 20 cases or more. Of these, one-third – Blackpool (20.4), Sunderland (20.3), Medway (also 20.3), Newham (20.0) and Wakefield (20.0) – are currently rated ‘inadequate’. This compares with 13% of all councils who are similarly rated.
In terms of year-on-year caseload changes, North East Lincolnshire again saw social workers faced with the steepest rise – of 5.9 cases compared with September 2018.
Four other local authority areas – neighbouring North Lincolnshire, Redcar and Cleveland, Slough and York – were also recorded as having rises of four cases or more on average, though North Lincolnshire said that the caseload figure reported in the statistics (21.9) was wrong. A spokesperson for the authority said: “The figured published are incorrect. As of 30 September 2019 North Lincolnshire Council had 797 cases and 43.5 fte staff, meaning the average caseload was 18.3.”
Meanwhile six councils – Thurrock, Wiltshire, Merton, Devon, Luton and Calderdale – returned average caseloads that were four or more cases lower than last year. In Calderdale the drop was 7.9 cases, from 22.7 to 14.8. Overall, 60% of councils saw a reduction in caseloads.
Handle with care
As in the previous two years, the average has been included, the Department for Education (DfE) warned in its report that the figures – which are based on a case total typically lower than the number of children in need captured by another data collection in March – should be treated with caution.
“[The difference] may be explained by a number of factors, including different count dates for the data collections and variance in the interpretation of the department’s guidance,” it said. “Furthermore, not all disabled children are allocated to a social worker.”
The report added that it “should be noted that local authorities have reported some difficulties in linking cases to the social worker holding those cases”.