Council proposes to increase social worker caseloads to help address financial crisis

Interim director says proposed rise in average caseloads from 16 to 17 will not create unmanageable workloads for Croydon’s children’s social workers as authority sets out plans to close budget black hole

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Croydon council has proposed to increase children’s social worker caseloads from next year as part of plans to close its gaping financial black hole.

It will consult, from next week, on plans to raise average caseloads across children’s services from 16 to 17 by 2023, saving £1m in 2021-22 and reversing years of reductions in caseloads made as part of the authority’s journey from an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating in 2017 to a ‘good’ verdict this year.

The London authority is predicting a £67m overspend for 2020-21, with just £7m in its reserves, and will need a government loan of up to £70m this year to balance the books.

The government recently launched a review into the council after a scathing report by auditors found it had repeatedly failed to control its finances, particularly in social care, prompting local government secretary Robert Jenrick to say the the authority had been “entirely irresponsible with their spending and investments”

Caseloads ‘will stay below London average’

The plan to increase social worker caseloads came after Ofsted had highlighted how “significant investment [had] resulted in manageable caseloads” – except in care leaver teams – enabling staff to carry out more direct work with children, in upgrading the authority from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’ this year.

Speaking to Community Care last week, Debbie Jones, Croydon’s interim director of children’s services, said that although caseloads will increase, the council was not “proposing to do anything that will actually create unmanageable workloads”, and that average caseloads across London were “in the region of 18”.

She added: “We’re proposing an average of 17. That doesn’t mean every social worker is going to have 17 cases… it will vary on the types of families that you’re working with, with the types of demands.”

The biggest proposed saving in children’s services for next year, worth £1.45m, involves creating a single team to deliver Croydon’s services for adolescents, where the council said it had “duplications” resulting in “additional costs which are not sustainable”.

The proposal follows Croydon’s response to a highly critical 2019 review into its work with vulnerable adolescents, which found that young people had been subject to short-term interventions that did not address underlying trauma, and to high turnover of social workers, and that there was no framework to address risks to them in the community.

In its 2020 inspection report, Ofsted found evident investment and improvements in this area, with strengthened arrangements to identify young people at risk of exploitation ensuring “increasingly swift and well-targeted responses to reduce risk”.

Job losses ‘inevitable’

Jones acknowledged the impact of the “very sound” review into adolescent services in 2019, and said the plan was to streamline provision.

While she said that there would “inevitably” be job reductions in the service, it was likely that practitioners would be redeployed elsewhere.

She said “there will never be a shortage of work for social workers within Croydon”, so “even if they’re not working within a specialist adolescent servicethe idea is to embed, for example, the skills that they’ve got into the mainstream fieldwork services”.

Croydon also intends to save £270,000 by “[reducing] support” for its systemic practice model, introduced in 2019, which involves therapists working with families and training social workers and managers in family therapy.

Croydon’s 2020 Ofsted inspection said that workers valued the systemic model of practice at the council as well as the training and “new culture that is being embedded.”

Jones said the model had been “extremely important” and had “both recruited workers in and encouraged them to stay”, but investment in it could now be safely reduced as it had been embedded.

Risk of more workforce instability

She acknowledged that the council’s financial troubles risked increasing instability in the workforce, a longstanding problem for Croydon, which it has had some success in controlling recently. In an Ofsted monitoring visit to the council in 2019, inspectors found that the overall vacancy rate at Croydon was 40%, reaching 80% in assessment teams.

But, by its 2020 ‘good’ Ofsted inspection, inspectors noted “increasing stability and capacity in the workforce” which resulted in a lower turnover of staff and less reliance on agency staff.

Jones said Croydon had reduced its proportion of agency staff from “an incredibly high position to a rate of about 19%”.

She said the reality was that social workers were “always very much in demand, they have choices and that’s why we’ve been very careful in the proposals that are being put forward in terms of the value of staff”.

Jones added: “Staff like the support, the supervision they get and we’re not proposing to suddenly increase their workloads and indeed take away that support… but one has to be realistic.”

While she expected some movement to happen, she confirmed that Croydon would “be doing everything [it] can to minimise that, absolutely, because we know that the staff like working in Croydon, they like the approach, they like the culture. Do they like what’s going on at the moment? Well of course they don’t, but we’re doing what we can.”

Planned reduction in care numbers

Croydon also plans to reduce its numbers of children in care, saving almost £800,000, through weekly care panels to review all requests for care and fortnightly meetings to review whether children could be reunited with families and to assess the value of high-cost placements.

Jones said that, as with other authorities rated ‘inadequate’, numbers of children in care “shot up” in Croydon following its 2017 Ofsted inspection, but they had more recently been reducing and were now in line with similar authorities’.

Jones said her aim was to reduce the number of children in Croydon’s care further, adding: “Keeping children in the care system doesn’t by definition keep them safe. What keeps them safe is the work that you do with the young person and the family, whether they are in the community, whether they are in foster care or in residential care.

“And that kind of work will continue and we’ve actually got quite significant capacity and expertise in that business” which she said has already been demonstrated by the reduction in the number of children in care so far.”

Targeting early help

Early help services at Croydon, which Ofsted said in its 2020 inspection were received in “a timely way” by the majority of children and families, are due to become more targeted, saving £425,000 next year.

Jones said that Croydon has “no intention” to take away all its early help services and that the proposals were designed to streamline the service and ensure there was enough capacity so that “families get services at the right time and the right place so that [they] don’t get excessive bombardment at the front door”.

The council also plans to save £288,000 by removing support, on a “needs-based basis”, for unaccompanied asylum-seeking young people whose appeal rights against asylum or immigration decisions had been exhausted, to support planned and safe returns.

As the home of the country’s asylum intake centre, Croydon has a significant number of unaccompanied children, who make up a third of its looked-after population.

Jones said that these changes would bring Croydon in line with other authorities, adding: “We would of course be ensuring that the human rights assessments which they would then be entitled to are taking place, so that any move and any transition is safe. But it just brings us in line with everybody else.”

8 Responses to Council proposes to increase social worker caseloads to help address financial crisis

  1. A Man Called Horse December 1, 2020 at 5:50 pm #

    If looks like Austerity it certainly smells like Austerity and probably is Austerity part 2. Do more for less pay in Croydon after freezing public sector pay.I have read that book and seen the movie and it doesn’t end well for Croydon. Same tired old solutions attack the staff and cut services to vulnerable people. Sick of worn out failed ideas, work harder, do more and get less. No doubt the staff will not be excempt from large Coucil Tax rises while having pay reduced in real terms.

  2. Julie December 2, 2020 at 9:53 am #

    Social work cases 17 to 18 that’s a joke social workers are dealing with 25 plus cases honestly increase are workload and yet they still expect us to.perform for offsted when will these people ever be open and honest

  3. Mark Monaghan December 2, 2020 at 3:54 pm #

    1 case increase is of little difference. Most are on 25 30! When will managers understand it’s the volume of work and complexity not the number itself. Good luck with that, I hope more managers are willing to practice themselves as social workers will leave. Even agency staff like myself would say no thanks.

    Croydon, one to avoid I think!!

    Returning children without clear plans and well resourced interventions doesnt make children safer either. Seems like messaging the numbers to me unless its LAC we are talking about. I find it hard to fathom that frontline workers are on less than 23 unless they can evidence otherwise.

  4. Simon Cardy December 3, 2020 at 12:04 am #

    I could be wrong of course but a couple of observations tell me as a trade unionist with a slight bent in favour of a worker’s perspective, Julie is on the money.

    Leaving aside all the usual questions as to how the magical ‘average’ figure of caseloads has been calculated – which may include ASYE, part-time and social work qualified none case holder managers – the link in the article to the planned savings is instructive but not conclusive.

    The council’s savings plan indicates social work job losses to the Looked After, Adolescent, Leaving Care, and undocumented children’s teams on the grounds that the number children in care in Croydon is falling and the increase in staffing in 2017 to improve the ofsted rating has been achieved.

    The savings report claims (s2.13) that “The number of local children in care has steadily reduced since April 2018”.

    That’s odd because the statistical return Croydon provided to the DfE shows that it increased from 771 in September 2018 to 819 the same time in 2019 – an increase of 48 children see:https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/statistics-looked-after-children.

    Also of note is Debbie Jones’s report to the Councils Children and Young People’s Scrutiny Committee on the 3rd November last at agenda item 8 https://webcasting.croydon.gov.uk/meetings/10906. This tells us that the council have been busy making social work job cuts in the current financial year too.

    Section 3 of said report tells us that the total number of social work posts across children’s services fell from 298 in December 2019 to 268 in September 2020 a loss of 20 FTE posts. In the same period, in the LAC service, 18 agency social workers were ‘let go’ and whilst there was an increase in permanent staff from 56 to 66, that still left a net loss of 8 posts previously funded by agency workers. 13 social work FTE posts were lost in the social work with families teams in the same period. 6 jobs are at risk of redundancy and yet there are still 56 agency workers in post. How does that work?

    And, by some process of alchemy – if we are to believe the interim director’s assessment – this will only see an increase in case loads from 16 to 17.

    I think the Scrutiny committee should speak to Julie, don’t you?

  5. Nicola December 4, 2020 at 1:23 pm #

    No wonder 500 social workers per month leave the professional. Cases need to be weighted it is not a numbers game. Geographically 17 sounds ok but it depends on the complexity. Agency staff have decreased due to HMRC with the help of LA of not allowing agency staff to be ltd companies so many jumped to employment. It was a crafty move

    • mercy December 8, 2020 at 1:43 pm #

      I’m 1 of those 500 Social Workers who left practise in frontline child protection after 22 years, but I would say even 17 cases is too much. I worked at a LA where every practitioner (bar an AYSE) had 3 cases in court at the same time. The SWEAT document which replaced the old Statement (i.e. Court Report) is like writing a book – this is not even to mention the parenting assessment which is included in it, and 1 of my 3 court cases had six children. Then add on top all the CP & LAC procedures, which means you don’t have a life outside work, and this is not including the visits and direct work expected as well! I had a 15-year-old who use to fail to return home every other day, so I was spending every other day doing a MISPER risk assessment, and the carer would call me 3 times a day. So glad to have left, as life’s too short to spend it at work.

  6. mercy December 8, 2020 at 1:15 pm #

    No other industry could get away with resolving their organisational financial difficulties caused by bad decisions made by senior management; through increasing the workload, pressure, and responsibility of their staff, and for no extra pay. This is not only morally wrong, as it is slave labour, but also dangerous to the health and safety of both Practitioners and Service Users. Increasing caseloads means the Social Worker assumes more risk professionally, due to being overloaded and overworked, but also more at risk of physical and mental health burnt out. Shame on the Interim Director, Debbie Jones for treating her Practitioners so badly, and without thought or care for their personal or professional safety. Will she strongly advocate for her Practitioners if they cannot cope with the workload or if something goes wrong, and they are reported to SWE? Of course not!!! If Practitioners don’t leave Croydon Council en masse, they only have themselves to blame. Get out now, before you are the one to bear the burnt of this organisational abuse we as Practitioners have put up with for way too long.

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