More than seven in 10 children’s social workers performing statutory work in England were struggling with their caseloads in the days leading up the the UK government’s first coronavirus-related self-isolation measures, research suggests.
Just under 800 children’s practitioners responded during early March to a Community Care survey about their social work caseloads. The results make for troubling reading, particularly in the context of fears that Covid-19, and the isolation measures taken to combat it, could deplete the children’s social care workforce, while increasing needs and making it much more difficult for practitioners to do their job.
Seventy two per cent of respondents, all of whom work for English local authorities or children’s services trusts, said they were having difficulties with their social work caseloads.
Almost a quarter of social workers (23%) who completed the survey described their workload as ‘completely unmanageable’, while 49% said it was ‘hard to manage’.
Just 4% of practitioners perceived their work as ‘comfortably manageable’, while 24% said it was ‘mostly manageable’.
“The government needs to pay attention to the figures presented by Community Care,” John MacGowan, the general secretary of the Social Workers’ Union (SWU), said of the survey results. “Unmanageable caseloads do not help with the retention of social workers and attracting new permanent staff members to a team.
“With large numbers of social workers off sick, work is often allocated to already stretched social workers or, in some examples, unqualified assistants,” MacGowan said. He reiterated concerns – which the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) research has highlighted – that personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, and the absence of national guidelines for practising during the pandemic, will see pressures increasing due to social workers being sick or self-isolating.
Rachael Wardell, the chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ (ADCS) workforce development policy committee, said the results, though mixed, “overall paint a worrying picture” around social work caseloads.
“Undoubtedly, if social workers feel overwhelmed by their work this will have a knock-on effect on their mental health and wellbeing, as well as on their work with children and families,” Wardell said.
“There are some definite practical constraints on employers in a context where need for help and support is increasing and we struggle to recruit and retain enough social workers nationally already,” she continued. “This is likely to be exacerbated at this time as members of staff fall ill or need to self-isolate because of Covid-19.”
Wardell said local authorities were working “very hard” to mitigate any impact on caseload pressures, by redeploying existing qualified staff where possible and safe to do so. She expressed hope that the Coronavirus Act, passed last week, which paved the way for measures enabling former practitioners to return to social work roles, would also help keep caseloads manageable.
Numbers not the whole story
Community Care’s research was prompted by the annual release in February of workforce statistics by the Department for Education (DfE), which gave a figure of 16.9 as the average caseload held by children’s social workers in England.
As with the last time we conducted such a survey, in 2018, practitioners said the numbers of cases they held was considerably higher, despite being asked to calculate them by the same formula, counting each child as an individual case.
How we surveyed
Community Care’s survey ran during the first two weeks of March 2020. We asked all respondents, 784 of whom gave complete responses, to identify themselves as children’s social workers employed by English local authorities or children’s trusts and to specify whether they worked full- or part-time hours. Average caseload numbers were calculated using the responses from the 679 social workers who said they worked full-time.
Nationally, the average caseload among our survey respondents was 24.4, while the median was 23.
Our survey was answered by a self-selecting sample of people who identified as practising social workers. The government’s census, on the other hand, counts any registered practitioner at any level of their organisation who is allocated a case, whether in a caseholding role or not, including many managers.
Also, while we did not ask people to specify their level of experience, it is possible that newly qualified social workers, whose caseloads are typically lower, were disproportionately underrepresented in our data.
“We cannot do our best for children and families without first taking care of our staff who work with them, and it’s important social workers feel able to raise any concerns they may have about their work with their managers in regular, reflective supervision,” Wardell said. “Good managers will be able to assess how well a social worker is managing and will challenge upwards where allocations are too high.”
Wardell added that it was important to remember that there was no “magic number” of cases that social workers should hold, given that different families’ situations inevitably varied hugely in terms of challenge and complexity.
“Generally, lower numbers are better, enabling social workers to work more intensively with children and families and address their needs more effectively,” she said. “However, a range of factors needs to be considered during the allocation process from complexity, risk and the experience and professional confidence of the social worker.”
‘More social workers than ever’
Responding to the survey findings, the children’s minister, Vicky Ford, pointed out that February’s DfE statistics showed that the number of children’s social workers in England had reached its highest recorded level in September 2019, when the government data was collected.
The figures showed that the number of children’s social workers employed directly by local authorities that month was 32,917, up 4% from 2018, with 30,720 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff.
The number of agency workers also grew by 10% over the period, rising from 5,530 to 6,090 (or 5,356 to 5,754 FTE).
“We are investing in routes into the profession – more than 4,000 students enrol on social work courses every year,” Ford said.
She added that, “now more than ever”, social workers were playing a vital role supporting children and families during the ongoing pandemic.
“We are working urgently to address the additional challenges social workers face, including through [the Coronavirus Act], which will reduce burdens on social workers and help others return to the profession, keeping vital services going as we ask people to stay home to protect our NHS and save lives,” Ford said.