Four in ten councils lack confidence they will have enough social workers to meet needs

DfE survey finds 83% of authorities struggling to recruit experienced practitioners, while most say regional agreements to limit agency pay not beneficial

The word 'recruit' spelt out
Photo: patpitchaya/Fotolia

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.

12 Responses to Four in ten councils lack confidence they will have enough social workers to meet needs

  1. James Appledore August 3, 2020 at 9:57 am #

    Their problem is not just one of difficulty recruiting experienced workers. One down in my resigning after 32 years as a frontline social worker. Why? Fed up of blame culture, meaningless admin tasks, defensive and often aggressive management, caseloads that don’t allow for meaningful mutually agreed interventions, expected but unpaid overtime, idiocy of half baked CPD requirements by SWE, pay and in particular galling bonuses awarded to “Senior Strategic Managers”. I could bore on with a longer list.

    • Karla Forgaard-Pullen August 4, 2020 at 12:31 pm #

      Same all over. Reading the report it sounds like they want highly professional services at bargain prices. You get what you pay for.

    • Jo August 4, 2020 at 12:44 pm #

      Im write behind you and echo the same but tires of in experienced social workers after 1 and 2 years going into senior positions never seen anything like it. Not enough value or respect is given to experienced social workers so why woukd they stay

    • Mark August 9, 2020 at 11:56 pm #

      Agreed James, and jump through hoops for nothing.I cant wait to be free of it all. The job has changed dramatically over the last ten years. Managers think workers will put up with the long repetitive hours and sitting at a desk for years…. newly qualified will always get roles, my concern is how many will stay? Good luck with whatever you ho into next.

  2. Bob Peters August 4, 2020 at 8:54 am #

    The simply fact is that SW pay has not reflected the demand of the job. Neither could I provide for my own family or cover the basic cost of living on a permanent position pay. Accross the professional bodies their is a collective voice to advocate for the profession and increase the pay and improve working conditions; however, those who are close to government and suppose to be representing SW are well not advocating. I will not name names IT.

  3. NAMUBIRU MADINA SWAIBU August 4, 2020 at 9:03 am #

    I am social worker by professional. And I would like to be hired as a social worker.

  4. Fog August 4, 2020 at 9:56 am #

    As a social worker with more than 30 years post qualification experience I would never work for a local authority again. The pay and conditions are dreadful given the amount of work and responsibility front line social workers have. Their are some good senior managers but overall most seem to be selected for their psychopathic qualities and ability to put the needs of the local authority first re budget over the needs of service users. Without a robust Ofsted llthe standards in local authorities regarding children’s services would decline rapidly.

    I now work in the charity sector and the Work culture and environment is much much better.

    There should be a wholesale move of social work from local authorities into social work practices which have been found to be at least as good as a local authority model and much better at retaining social workers.

  5. J K August 4, 2020 at 2:00 pm #

    Many LAs are crippled with the obsession with targets, bureaucracy and over complicated processes primarily due to ‘adding on’ instead of investing in succinct IT systems. Virtual paperwork has taken ‘SOCIAL’ away from Social Work. The administrators and fund holders rule.. without knowledge of what social work is…. they have no genuine idea of person centred work.

  6. Chris Sterry August 5, 2020 at 10:28 am #

    The article and comments so far, are very worrying, especially for family carers such as myself and also the persons in need of care, I hate the terms ‘service users, clients, customers, etc’.

    We the recipients of Social Care rely on Social Workers to undertake to ensure the needs that are required are provided, unfortunately many of use are not aware of the pressures Social Workers are under, for we are too engrossed in our own problems.

    I, for one, do not blame Social Workers, when situations occur when problems are not being solved and thereby creating more problems, especially when the social workers are doing all they can and many instances even more.

    I know social workers have very heavy workloads and COVID-19 is only increasing these workloads and in many instances do not have the support of their supervisors and managers, who, in turn have their own heavy workloads and have pressures from below and even more from above.

    Austerity cuts have decimated social care, even though some local authorities did try to shield social care from cuts initially.

    But social care was short of funding, well before the austerity cuts, although these cuts made the funding much worse and now there is COVID-19 on top of all this.

    This Government and many, if not al,l before, have a lot to answer for, as I believe these Governments have treated social care as an add on service, where funding was the main lead, rather than need. Some of this is referenced in HISTORY OF SOCIAL CARE, ,

    It is now abundantly clear that the administration of social care by Local Authorities (LAs) is not working and this may be that Social Care has been treated as a Political Football’ in that some funding was provided to LAs for use on social care, but insufficient, when funding was available, but to reduce this funding to, in some instances, below subsistence levels, when funding was not available.

    This is all occurring when the need for social care is forever increasing, due to advances in medical science where people are living longer, but while this is so for persons with disabilities their mortality is still way below that of persons who do not have disabilities, _LeDeR,

    It is my view that social and health care should be under one organisation and both should be free at point of delivery. This would reduce the amount of duplication and streamline some areas, such as Aids and Equipment, which can be health for some items and LAs for others. It would also remove the need for discussions on who pays for what, which can lead to care packages being delayed, when they should not be.

    Funding should be from taxation, may be as a surcharge to National Insurance (NI) contributions.

    There are many other issues and some of these are referenced in my Petition, ‘Solve the crisis in Social Care’,

    and even more information,

    Unfortunately many, if not, all of us see the need for health care, but this is not so for social care, that is until you are a relative is in need of it.

    The Government, again, does not help with this and they appear to promote that Social Care is a drain on UK resources, in a similar way to how they view ‘welfare benefits’, this is then taken as the ‘norm’ by the media and certain parts of the UK population. This can be shown in all the programmes which the media show on people claiming benefits, for in most cases it is the person claiming being blamed or highlighting fraud, when the later is being done by a small minority of people, while for the majority welfare benefits are the only way they can survive.

    People do not decide to have disabilities, as many have them from birth and even if not, they should not be made to suffer or be blamed.

    We are supposed to be a civilised country, but at times I do wonder.

    I do realise I have gone some lengths away from the article, but social care is very much in my life and that of my families and many other families.

    Social Care needs YOU

    #care #socialcare #crisis

  7. Samuel Culpar August 5, 2020 at 5:17 pm #

    Lol….typical of the ADCS and Local Authorities blaming Agency Social Workers time after time. Here we go again, you roll out the rhetoric and have to blame everyone else but yourselves and Local Authority Social Services etc…This boils down to the continuation of Local Government taking advantage of people’s good natures so they scrape by as employed Social Workers under rubbish remuneration and employment conditions. You need the freedom to be able to tailor bespoke employment terms and bespoke money outside of the antiquated pay structures of the public sector. i.e. In the private sector, I could employ a person because of their skills and knowledge etc and tailor a package bespoke to their needs but in the LA’s you are shackled.

    Some one said, you get what you pay for and that is true. The reflected pay grades of the LA structures versus the risks attributed to the job is crap when being employed in a Local Authority..ok, its better than a lot of jobs (or no job at all) but the detriment on a persons work life balance and health is untold and often unsupported. YOU ARE TAKING ADVANTAGE OF PEOPLE WHO WANT TO HELP AND MAKE CHANGES – JUST IN THE SAME WAY CARERS ARE DISADVANTAGED FINANCIALLY TOO.

    Why would a person not be an agency worker?. There is loads of work, if your stuck in an employed position and your treated like crap, then you have to give notice etc..where by agency workers can leave and also run the risk of being given a weeks notice too.. But ultimately there is more money in your arse pocket each week so why give that up?

    Agency workers get the money they deserve (Mostly – but agreed some are left wanting) and so they should get more money.. If that is a problem, then up the wages of the employed workers, they are not their to be taken advantage of because they are caring people, they want to make a difference to peoples lives but by undermining their value by paying them crap is disgusting.

    The answer here is not to bash agency workers but to put your own social work houses in order and recognise the risk and start paying staff much more money with better working conditions.
    It is not their fault, it is your fault for not providing the right environment or financial reward to become employed directly.

  8. Anna Triesman August 5, 2020 at 8:48 pm #

    Income tax avoidance scheme number one: I am a private limited company that employs only me. Lots of money back please. Number two: I am on a zero hour contract for my agency even though the local authority I work in pay my agency for a 35 hour week. Lots of money back please. Two tax avoiding attractions of being an agency worker. Perhaps if these scams were truly curbed and everybody paid the tax they should, we would have a more equitable pay structure. Some of us still believe in each according to their needs, each according to their means.

  9. Jim August 17, 2020 at 3:43 pm #

    They can buy them from BASW now thus completing a charade that LA’s are serious about safe staffing levels and BASW is interested in quality work experiences for social workers. Rather than relying on a dubious inducement to increase their membership, BASW should look at why social workers don’t join what many of us regard as an impotent professional association. Promoting insecure employment is not a good strategy really is it? That’s the job of LA’s.