Average social work caseloads range from 12 to 33 between councils, according to official figures

Average number of cases for children's social workers falls slightly for second year running, to 16.9, though previous research suggests this is a significant underestimate

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(credit StockPhotoPro / Adobe Stock)

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.

Take our survey: How does your caseload compare?

Community Care would like to hear about how social workers’ caseloads measure up to the government’s figures – and how the numbers translate into caseload manageability, depending on the team you are in and the impact of local pressures and working arrangements. If you are a children’s and families’ social worker practising within an English local authority or children’s services trust, please complete our survey, which will take no more than five minutes of your time.

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”.

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9 Responses to Average social work caseloads range from 12 to 33 between councils, according to official figures

  1. Peter Ward March 3, 2020 at 6:40 am #

    Caseloads numbers are notoriously manipulated by senior managers, in one authority 3 to 5 years ago the official average was 16 for fte, most fte sw had case loads of 25 plus, there were a number of sw who had over 30 cases.

    • Darcey March 3, 2020 at 7:36 pm #

      Smoke and mirrors; distorting the truth. Who do they think they are fooling. In their dreams.

  2. Social work unicorn March 3, 2020 at 6:15 pm #

    I am always highly sceptical of these reports, especially since funding decisions can be made when policy makers think we are all coping just fine. From my experience up and down the county, social workers are on their knees with increasing cases, high referral rates and an increase in the complexity of day to day case work.

    These figures do not correlate with high turnover, vacant posts, increasing absences due to stress.

  3. Michelle McNally March 3, 2020 at 6:54 pm #

    The reason they are showing so low is whilst ASYE caseloads are capped this affect overall figured. Average caseload for ASYE is anything from 10 to 16 depending how far they are within their assisted year. Average cases for experienced staff ranges from 25 to 35. This is also dependent on how large sibling groups are. You cannot reflect average caseload if you’re including both ASYE and experienced together as some LA’s are top heavy with ASYE staff due to recruitment and retention crisis in Social Work of experienced staff.

  4. Carole Parr March 3, 2020 at 7:06 pm #

    Hi can you do survey of Adult Social Care caseload.
    In Liverpool Adult social workers are 45 full time and 22 partime 17:05 hours
    In Liverpool we also have at least 2 to 4 safeguarding cases on top of the 45 cases.

    • Mithran Samuel
      Mithran Samuel March 3, 2020 at 8:46 pm #

      Thanks for that. We are surveying children’s workers just to do a direct comparison with the government statistics. But it’s a good idea to do an adults’ one, so will put that on our list of things to do.

  5. Helen March 4, 2020 at 7:40 am #

    Does this take into account AYSE lower case loads? Therefore a distorted figure. Case load and task load should be measured. Some cases/families are full time response others minimal. For me 3 staff down in team, another leaving this week, leaves one just finished ASYE, 2 ASYE, 1 agency and I. This means case loads of around 20 + most child protection so children to be seen fortnightly. Crunch those figures to fit into 5 days a week…. Oops 4 as we lose 1 day per week covering duty.
    Government need to respond. We talk of NHS crisis but not social work crisis, why? Because we don’t strike, we’re not as publically popular due to nature of the job and when we stand up for ourselves it’s on too much of an individual level, our voice gets surpressed and we get replaced, or our cases spread wide.
    My working week averages nearer 50-60 hours that’s no better than minimum wage when broken down into hourly components.
    The system is like a bald man’s comb over… How ever much you spread it out it doesn’t cover it 🤔

  6. Chris March 4, 2020 at 6:58 pm #

    These figures clearly suggest a pattern and tolerance to exceptionally high caseloads at North East Lincolnshire which is really worrying for the children and families living there.

  7. Phil Sanderson March 11, 2020 at 7:16 pm #

    One recalls Thatchers continuous changes to the unemployment figures in the 1980’s this has no credibility whatsoever!