Inadequate-rated council finds £1.1m from reserves to tackle children’s social worker shortage

Devon says it needs to recruit 100 social workers amid high vacancy and agency rates, with latest funding coming nine months after previous attempt to tackle problem

Image of County Hall, Exeter, seat of Devon council (credit: Lewis Clarke / geograph)
County Hall, Exeter, seat of Devon council (credit: Lewis Clarke / geograph)

Devon council has agreed a £1.1m package to help recruit 100 children’s social workers, just nine months after ploughing £700,000 into practitioner recruitment.

The money, covering the rest of the financial year, will come from its reserves and is designed to be backed up by £3.4m in additional annual funding from 2022-23 to tackle high numbers of vacancies and reduce reliance on agency staff.

The move comes just over three months after Ofsted – in a focused visit to the council it rated inadequate last year – found that workforce stability was “still a major problem”, the result of years of neglect of social worker recruitment and retention.

It quoted the council’s leadership as saying that high vacancy and agency rates were “affecting our ability to develop meaningful and sustained relationships with families”.

Last week, cabinet members approved chief officer for children’s services Melissa Caslake’s plan to raise salaries for hard-to-recruit-to roles, boost retention payments, expand social worker training and increase administrative support to attract and retain practitioners.

Agency costs

Caslake’s paper said the council needed to reduce reliance on agency social workers, who  cost the authority £28,000 a year more each than in-house staff and whose use has led to the authority foreasting a £1m overspend on staffing this year.

On the back of the investment agreed in December 2020, the council increased salaries for 38 experienced social workers and 23 team managers to match rates paid by neighbouring Torbay council, which is also rated inadequate. This year so far, the council has appointed three permanent team managers, 12 advanced social workers, 11 permanent social workers and 14 newly qualified social workers.

But while agency staff rates had fallen from 44.5% to 30% of the 195 full-time equivalent frontline roles, the permanent staff rate was just 51% (100 staff). Nineteen per cent (37) of vacancies were not being filled, though it had used pandemic funding to cover 18 on a temporary basis.

Also, Caslake’s report said, 12 permanent social workers had left the council this year, with some saying in exit interviews that they were joining other local authorities for better terms and conditions, lower caseloads, improved supervision and management and better work-life balance.

Salaries ‘not competitive’

The report said that salaries – particularly at the top end – were not competitive with neighbouring, and outstanding-rated, Cornwall, while caseloads were rising. This was because Devon, like other authorities, was seeing increased demand since the second lockdown ended, with more children subject to child protection plans (590, up from 530) and in care (806, up from 780) compared with this time last year.

Specific measures agreed by the cabinet last week include:

  • Higher salaries for experienced social workers in hard-to-recruit-to teams – the multi-agency safeguarding hub and the initial response, children and families, disabled children’s, permanence and transition teams.
  • A £2,000 annual retention payment to social workers, assistant team managers, team managers and area managers in those teams.
  • An increase Devon’s cap for funding for social workers to relocate from £5,171 to £8,000, to match Cornwall.
  • Boosting investment in overseas recruitment to bring in up to 15 social workers, including by covering leave to remain application costs at a cost of £2,389 per application.
  • Expanding its social work academy beyond students and those on their assessed and supported year in employment by recruiting six learning development roles.

Bringing in 13 additional business support officers, one manager and 16 family practitioners into identified teams to offer additional support to social workers.

The new measures will cost £1.1m for the rest of this year, funded from reserves, with £3.4m per year needed from 2022-23, though funding beyond 2021-22 is yet to be agreed.

 ‘Aspiring to a fully permanent workforce’

In an interview with Community Care, Caslake said that it would be difficult for the council to find the extra £3.4m a year but said she expected to save some money currently being paid to “lots of agency staff”.

She also said she hoped the council’s plans to invest in preventive roles, such as family support workers, would save money further down the line by reducing the number of children being put on child protection plans or going into care.

“It is always difficult for any council to find additional money but we have made a strong business case for investment and we are currently spending additional money on lots of agency staff and we would prefer, I think, to invest our money into long-term measures that will grow our own workforce for the very long-term and retain the good permanent staff that we have,” she said.

We recognise the value of really good agency staff but I think every director of children’s services in the country would tell you that they would aspire to a fully permanent workforce wherever possible.”

But Caslake, previously national director of safeguarding at the Church of England, said she was most keen for the investment in permanent staff to lead to a better service for children in Devon and, subsequently, an improved Ofsted rating.

“We are very ambitious to improve and to get to ‘good’ and beyond,” she said.

“The most important thing is doing the best that we can for all of our children. If you are doing that right, Ofsted should see that and judge you accordingly. In order to do that, we need to invest in our permanent workforce […] so that they have the conditions they need to do the best work.”

Recruiting during a pandemic

Devon received its ‘inadequate’ rating just before Covid-19 restrictions were introduced in the UK but Caslake said the pandemic had “intensified” pressures on the council’s children’s services.

She said recruitment and retention of staff had become more difficult over the past 18 months, and she had even found it difficult to recruit agency staff over the summer.

“We think people are re-evaluating their lives, they’re not wanting to move around so much. That has been a really big challenge for us with some significant rising demand for children’s services,” she said.

She said the combination of increasing referrals and a shortage of staff had created a “perfect storm”.

“That trend may have been there coming before the pandemic but it has been intensified by what’s happened,” she said. “We are seeing really significant demand for children that are in vulnerable situations and their families have been suffering through the pandemic and everybody has been under more pressure.”

Attracting workers to Devon

Despite the council’s current struggles to attract workers, Caslake said it has not historically been more difficult to attract workers to Devon than other areas.

Devon works with other local authorities in the South West, in a group led by Swindon council, on strategies to attract workers to the region.

Caslake said it was not yet clear what effect Brexit would have on recruiting from overseas but said there might not be a direct impact as the council does not necessarily target European social workers.

“There hasn’t been an overseas recruitment campaign in my time so I don’t what specific challenges might be for Devon in doing it again,” she said.

“We have confidence based on having done it before that we can do it successfully and it does bring particular value and diversity and good things to our workforce already here.”

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3 Responses to Inadequate-rated council finds £1.1m from reserves to tackle children’s social worker shortage

  1. Oluwatoyin Adenugba-Okpaje September 14, 2021 at 4:29 pm #

    Until LAs start treating social workers right (good pay, better work/life balance, excellent benefits, good management support systems, reasonable case loads, recognised expertise, and good admin support) then this type of situation at Devon will become the norm!

  2. Simone September 15, 2021 at 7:13 am #

    I left Devon last May after 2 years as a permanent SW and no exit interview ! Despite my request to have one to be able to share with them my experience but they were constantly brushing such ‘constructive feedback’ to the side and they are now wondering why they cannot recruit!! The area manager and locality director were inconsistent in their responses and never supported their staff-sadly they are still in higher level roles and their reputation puts people off of considering re joining Devon sadly.
    i know of many others too so the information gathered from the so mentioned 12 does not reflect the true number of permanent SW i personally know that left and therefore now they wonder why noone who lives in Devon wants to work for them!!
    I now work alongside Devon chlldren in care in my new role and they rarely have the same SW for more than a few months and seeing the impact that has on them is sad and unacceptable.
    It will be interesting to see if in the next year this changes but sadly Devons reputation will need more than money invested.

  3. Cynthia September 15, 2021 at 8:53 am #

    I am unsure why this belief that better working standards for social workers will suddenly aleviate all of the retention dilemmas. These pervasive issues have been around for the last 10 years on and off, so my question would be what is so different about this time? I hooe that these interventions do ring the bell for change, and that they can be sustained. An average of £28000 extra a year in agency fees, so much could be done with that.

    Financial incentives are a bonus, but people need as the article suggest, a better work life balance, lower case loads, better supervision, all help. But adding diversity into the job role, including extending learning and giving creative workers some side money to follow their passion with investments of time and research in social start ups could aid in attracting not just thos interested in money, but also those with a strong creative motivation for social change. The council would benefit not simply from the projects generated, but the ethos of such individials that would pervade. In addition, new projects would then create further opportunities for workers to diversify, but stay within the LA.

    I do hope the changes described make the right waves, however my cynical side feels that these are very 2 dimensional methods, already part of the jonurney that has led the council to its current location. As Einstein suggests, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.