Children’s social worker caseloads continue year-on-year fall, according to DfE figures

Annual workforce statistics also show ongoing rise in number of council-employed practitioners and fall in agency worker, turnover and vacancy rates

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(credit StockPhotoPro / Adobe Stock)

Story updated 2 March 2021

The average number of cases held by children’s social workers in English councils has fallen for the third consecutive year, according to Department for Education figures.

Frontline practitioners practitioners were responsible for 16.3 cases as of September 2020, down from 16.9 in 2019, 17.4 in 2018 and 17.8 in 2017, said the DfE’s annual children’s social work workforce statistics. 

Though the DfE figures have been strongly questioned by practitioners in the past as a significant underestimate, and the department itself has said they should be treated with caution (see box), this year’s fall may well reflect the drop in referrals triggered by Covid-19.

Separate DfE surveys of local authorities have shown that referrals to children’s social care from the end of April 2020 to the start of 2021 were 9% lower than the average for the same period from 2016-19.

Overall, two-thirds of local authorities reported that caseloads fell for their practitioners. Reported numbers ranged from 9.7 to 24.9 between authorities.

How the DfE calculates caseload levels

The DfE calculates caseloads by dividing the number of cases held by employed and agency full-time equivalent (FTE) social workers by the number of caseholding FTE practitioners.

Cases are defined as any person allocated to a caseholding child and family social worker, including individual children – so siblings are treated as multiple cases – and carers, for fostering and adoption practitioners.

Since it started publishing caseload figures, the DfE has said that they should be treated with some caution, as councils have indicated difficulties linking individual cases to specific practitioners. In addition, the total number of reported cases – 334,800 as of September 2020 – is typically smaller than the number of children in need recorded in official figures for the same year.

Rise in practitioner numbers

The fall in caseloads may also reflect year-on-year increases in the number of practitioners employed by local authorities.

The 31,854 full-time equivalent (FTE) child and family social workers in post as of September 2020 was 3.7% higher than in 2019 and 12% up on 2017 levels.

By contrast, the number of FTE agency social workers – which rose sharply in 2019 – increased only slightly in 2020, from 5,754 to 5,806, with the proportion of locum staff in the workforce falling, from 15.8% to 15.4%.

Three-quarters of agency staff were covering vacant posts, a similar proportion to last year, with others likely to be covering seasonal peaks in workload or backlogs.

There was also a fall, from 16.4% to 16.1%, in the FTE vacancy rate, though the number of vacancies rose, from 6,000 to 6,113.

As in previous years, there were large variations between regions, with vacancies ranging from 7.5% in the North East to 23.8% in London.

Turnover fell significantly, from 16% in 2020 to 13.5% in 2019, which may reflect an increase in workforce stability in response to the pandemic.

Sickness absence down despite pandemic

Despite the pandemic, the sickness absence rate in the year up to 30 September 2020 was 2.9%, down from 3.1% in 2018-29.

However, the DfE pointed out that this would not take into account the number of social workers who were working from home but unable to carry out face-to-face work due to shielding.

In response to the figures, Social Workers Union general secretary John McGowan said they highlighted “a move in the right direction regarding caseloads and absence rate but it is a concern that the vacancy rate remains static”.

He added: “We all know that social work continues to be an incredibly challenging profession – On top of pressures for hard working social workers, we are also hearing that first line managers are feeling squeezed on one side by pressure from their own managers and on the other side by pressure from trying to support the staff they manage. In addition, the amount of time social workers were having to spend on admin and other tasks was further exacerbating the situation.”

19 Responses to Children’s social worker caseloads continue year-on-year fall, according to DfE figures

  1. Karen February 26, 2021 at 6:27 pm #

    It’s like when ofsted come in, it seems like senior management love to fudge reality, everything is hunky dory, course it is. Unless social work stops this emporer’s new clothes approach, nothing will improve or change for our young people and families

  2. Mark February 26, 2021 at 6:33 pm #

    Trust me social workers can have 20-30 cases. This isnt always based on experience. Even 15 -16 cases (families) could be 25+ children, theres little consideration of how complex the issues can be.

    SWU as always is so far off the mark. Why not ask about the vacancy rates again. People leave because they are exhausted!!

    Good authorities keep workers and bad one dont.

    Talk to real social workers and ask why a lot of us cant wait to leave. We will give you all the answers you need!

    We are a profession dying when unfortunately the need isnt.

    Makes my blood boil…..

  3. Gail T February 26, 2021 at 7:38 pm #

    Don’t know where they have taken these figures from. Since I’ve worked in safeguarding I’ve never had a caseload below 23 and in the LA I’m currently working in, there are staff with caseloads in the late 20’s with pressure to take more. And it isn’t just about numbers of children, my caseload is low 20’s in terms of total children but I have 14 families. A colleague has 16 families, all but 2 are subject to CP Plans. The amount of paperwork is rising, processes are largely lengthy and complicated, good quality supervision is non existent and managers are generally obvious to workers’ stress levels with an unspoken expectation that staff will work over and above their hours to stay on top of their cases. I’m retraining because I’ve had enough after being in the profession since 1992. New staff coming in are generally enthusiastic and want to make a difference but staff turnover is high so families often receive a poor service despite the hard work and good will of the Social Workers who burn out very quickly. Local Authorities would all be operating at a dangerous level if agency workers weren’t plugging the gaps.

  4. Anonymous February 26, 2021 at 10:27 pm #

    I would like to know were these statistics are coming from. The Borough I work we continue to see increase in caseloads especially throughout the pandemic. The average caseload I would say is between 30-35 children. Really like to know were these statistics are coming from

  5. Frontline CSW February 27, 2021 at 4:25 pm #

    This is a joke. I have a caseload of 25 and this has been the case for everyone in my service for a while now, some even have higher numbers!

  6. Hazel February 28, 2021 at 9:07 am #

    This is not my reality. How about adding the cuts to our services have we have compensate for, how about the increasing reliance on food banks, the levels of poverty we have to some how deal with? How about the cuts to NHS services which means adult and childrens social workers having to compensate for that with little to no alternative resources. How about daring to mention what benefits “reforms”, reduced public housing, zero hours employment and what that means to our work. If numbers matter, so does the inequity of austerity.

  7. Tee February 28, 2021 at 10:11 pm #

    Why do these figures never reflect the reality of frontline children’s social work? Please publish a table of the local authorities that these figures represent. I agree with most on here that caseloads are NOT falling but rather that workers are exhausted and carry high caseloads.

  8. Claire March 1, 2021 at 5:01 pm #

    Great. I can now confidently tell my supervisor that she has to be better at managing caseloads and should reduce my numbers. Wonder what she will say to that DfE?

  9. Dedicated Social Worker March 2, 2021 at 11:31 am #

    I don’t understand where the DfE is getting its numbers from.

    I have been a childrens social work for 17 years, with at least 6 LA’s. Never have I had a case load below 20. In the main my cases have been between 25-30, and over 30 for a small number of months. I have a personal policy to hand in my notice when my cases exceed 30 for more than 8 weeks.

    To add to how wrong the DfE figures are, I just received an advert today for an agency position in children’s social care which states “Caseloads are capped at 25 children and this is expected to come down”.

    This is worrying as the DfE/gov will believe that all is well in Children’s Services.

    I am unable to find the data and methodology used by the DfE. Perhaps Community Care could look into this and publish on this website.

  10. Karen March 2, 2021 at 5:46 pm #

    La la land as usual, cases of 25 – 36 where I work. Social workers leaving constantly, new ones come, then leave again, constant turnover.

  11. Sarah brown March 2, 2021 at 10:15 pm #

    This is completely false and inaccurate. I would definitely refute these findings and question those in charge of this so called research.

  12. frustrated March 3, 2021 at 11:54 am #

    I burnout and left a few years ago but it was not just complexity of cases, managing cases as Child in Need when should have been CP (managers controlling number of children at risk or experiencing of significant harm CP cases) . It was the cut back of admin staff so having to do more and more myself.

    I have never come across another trade/profession who are expected to work the hours SWs do for free and always in an unrealistic timescales. ( although realistic for safeguarding children and YP)

  13. Jo March 3, 2021 at 8:23 pm #

    Where I used to work they advertise an aim for caseloads of 15-18 but not even ASYEs actually got that protection. Caseloads for awhile went above 50, regularly hit 40+ and on average were in the 30s so 2-3 times what this article claims.

    The DfE must be counting directors, senior, middle and team managers who don’t hold any cases when coming up with this fake low average number. There’s also going to be a difference working in a busy big urban authority and quieter little rural setting that if added together and divided to make an average will distort the figures. CC you should ask councils directly for their figures and challenge this data manipulation that councils also use to lie to ofsted

  14. Alan March 4, 2021 at 3:50 pm #

    Hello, I echo much said earlier. I am a Advanced Social Worker and supposed to have reduced caseload to facilitate staff practice development. Currently holding 21 children before you factor in complexity. There has been even more pressure during the lockdown. Much is reported what schools are doing to support vulnerable children and some are exceptional. However what is not reported is the kids they do not want and exclude, though continue to ring in concers about them. In my opinion the system is broken and losing significant numbers with those left to pick up surplus. No amount of window dressing will hide this. Much of the dificulty stems from poor leadership at all levels. Sadly I fear nothing will actually be done.

    • Erin March 5, 2021 at 3:06 pm #

      Lies damn lies and statistics. Data manipulated to make local authorities look like they are keeping caseloads down and protecting staff. Whatever. Then why do we work well above contracted hours with caseloads of low as stated above? In what other profession is it expected/demanded that we work beyond our hours for free? When you add it all up you are working for a minimum wage. Shocking in this day and age and local authorities are getting away with it and always will.

  15. Selena March 5, 2021 at 6:19 pm #

    No social worker however much unpaid overtime they work earns the equvilant of the minimum wage. By all means show up the nonsense of small caseload claims but not like this. It’s alienating and offensive to those who have to work at least 48 hours a week without choice at minimum wage rates.

  16. Alice March 6, 2021 at 2:26 pm #

    The national minimum wage will rise to £8.91 an hour in April. I agree with your other points Erin but not the comment that we end up working for the minimum wage as social workers. Without Unions we might end up that way so please join whichever union you can.

  17. Hulkster March 7, 2021 at 7:40 pm #

    This may well be the case at any moment in time, but the 15 children that you have are all active and high profile!

  18. Sam March 10, 2021 at 8:31 am #

    As shocking is the statement that councils have “difficulty” in linking individual cases to specific practitioners. Just think about what that actually means.