Four in ten English councils lack confidence they will have enough social workers to meet their needs over the next year, as the vast majority struggle to recruit experienced practitioners, a government study has found.
Thirty two per cent of directors of children’s services (DCSs) said they were ‘not very confident’ that they would have enough social workers to meet their needs over the next year, with 8% ‘not at all confident’, in response to a Department for Education survey, carried out in late 2019. Thirty nine per cent were ‘fairly confident’ and 21% ‘very confident’, said the report of the fifth wave of the children’s services omnibus survey, which was answered by 90 DCSs.
The figures do not take into account the additional demands most children’s services departments expect to face in the autumn as children return to school following the spring lockdown period.
As has been the case for many years, survey respondents said that sourcing experienced social workers was particularly difficult, with just 2% saying they found doing so was ‘easy’, compared with 83% who said it was ‘difficult’. Just under half of DCSs said they found recruiting team leaders difficult.
More positively, 87% said they found it ‘very easy’ or ‘easy’ to fill vacancies for newly qualified social workers (NQSWs). Yet only 26% believed NQSWs were “prepared for all areas of this role with appropriate support”, with 62% saying new social workers required more support than expected in some areas, and 12% saying this was required in all areas.
Responding to the findings, Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services workforce development policy committee, said: “The report’s finding that 40% of local authorities lack confidence when asked if they have enough social workers to meet their needs over the next year is worrying, particularly given the context we are working in and the expected increase in demand for services when all children return to school in September.”
Regional agreements on agency staff ‘not beneficial’
The survey also found most children’s services leaders believed regional memorandums of understanding introduced to reduce the turnover of agency social workers, and to limit rates of pay, were “not beneficial”.
The omnibus also found 52% of directors felt regional agreements on the use of agency staff had not been beneficial in terms of reducing locum staff costs, while 71% said they had not been beneficial in helping them reduce the numbers of agency social workers they used.
Directors blamed individual local authorities – especially those with low Ofsted ratings or facing workforce pressures for other reasons – for undermining the effectiveness of the agreements, which have been introduced over the past few years in an effort to tame instability and soaring pay.
Within several regions, some children’s services graded ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted have been unable to join, or to remain within, a local memorandum because doing so would leave them unable to fill enough vacancies. The study report also noted another longstanding practice via which agency social workers are hired by councils under misleading job titles, such as ‘project worker’ enabling them to artificially inflate rates of pay and get round memorandums.
Wardell said: “Where MoUs work well, they have delivered good outcomes for participating local authorities. However, there is definitely regional variation in the extent to which local authorities commit to the MoU, and providers of agency staff can be all too quick to exploit any lack of commitment to the principles, by pitting one local authority against another.
“This is unhelpful to local authorities trying to improve quality while keeping costs down, but the resulting workforce instability is – above all – damaging to children and to families, who tell us they really value continuity so they can build a relationship with their social worker. ADCS encourages all local authorities to participate in their regional MoU and to adhere to its principles.”
“[A memorandum] needs 100% signup from all LAs in the region, otherwise it becomes too easy for the agencies to continue to increase costs and play LAs off against each other,” one person who completed the DfE survey said.
Other respondents cited further pressures affecting the memorandums, including those exerted by neighbouring authorities that were part of a different region, where agreements may be weaker or nonexistent, or agreed pay rates higher.
A number of directors also simply blamed “a general shortage of good social workers” as a key reason why memorandums had come under increasing strain.
Keeping up with research
Away from recruitment and retention issues, councils completing the study delivered some more upbeat findings.
Eighty nine per cent of those surveyed said they believed their social workers kept up to date ‘very well’ (16%) or ‘fairly well’ (73%) with relevant research.
Almost as many (81%) had engaged with What Works for Children’s Social Care, with just under half (47%) saying they had applied to partner with the institution to generate good-practice evidence.
Most councils said their systems were effective for reporting data about children (91%), families (84%) and their workforce (73%), while 26% said they had made use of predictive analytics to understand the needs of families using children’s social care. This involves using data to predict future levels of need among families.
The latter area has been a highly contentious one, with a What Works ethics review published in January 2020 recommending that national standards should be introduced around machine learning in children’s social care, and that its use should be focused on systems not individuals.
Looking at data use more broadly, a Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NJFO) paper published in 2019 found councils’ performance was inconsistent, with many not making optimum use of information they collected because they did not have the resources to do so.