Government introduces target on percentage of agency social workers in children’s workforce

Directors back measure but BASW describes it as ‘distraction’, as fostering provider criticises new adoption waiting times target

Dial pointing at the word 'performance'
Photo: Coloures-pic/Adobe Stock

The government will assess the percentage of agency social workers in the children’s services workforce as a measurement of how successful its latest spending review has been.

The new measure, included in a Treasury list of ‘priority outcomes and metrics’, published along with the spending review on Wednesday, has drawn a mixed response from the sector, with directors backing it but the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) calling it a “distraction”.

It does not say what would be considered a positive outcome for this measure, but it is likely that a reduction in agency social workers over the next three years is what it is aiming for.

The measure is one of four new performance indicators for vulnerable children that the Treasury expects the Department for Education (DfE) to measure from 2022-25.

It will also track the proportion of council children’s services rated inadequate, school absence rates for children in care, take-up of, and outcomes from, its Supporting Families programme for households with multiple needs, and the number of children waiting over 18 months to be matched with an adoptive family.

The latter drew criticism from fostering provider TACT, who warned that the government’s focus on adoption covered only a small part of children’s social care, while charity Kinship called for an equal focus on supporting children living with kinship carers.

Sector split on agency worker focus

The number of agency children’s social workers working for local authorities and children’s trusts grew by 8.4% from 2018-20, though they account for a similar proportion of children’ social workers overall, hovering between 15.4% and 15.8% over that time.

In its ‘case for change’ report in June, the government-commissioned children’s social care review said the sector’s reliance on agency staff was costly and disruptive for children.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) backed the new government measure, saying that “having a high-quality, established workforce” was important for authorities to provide “consistent, long-term support” to children and families.

“The flexibility provided by the agency workforce can be useful in providing flexibility linked to short-term staffing pressures or in managing peaks and troughs in demand for our services,” said ADCS president Charlotte Ramsden.

“However, the market needs to be effectively managed to ensure it provides a quality, workforce which is good value for money.

“Local authorities face challenges with recruitment and retention of social workers and are keen to focus on sustaining a permanent workforce that reduces the need for agency spend.”

Ramsden urged the DfE to launch a national campaign to help councils to recruit and retain social workers, a longstanding objective for the ADCS.

But BASW criticised the new measure, calling it a “bit of distraction technique”.

“The best social work comes from a settled, confident and supported workforce, within which agency workers have a role to play, especially when demand for services is high,” a BASW spokesperson said.

“Instead of looking at arbitrary numbers, employers and the government urgently need to put recruitment and retention of good social workers at the centre of their focus by improving working conditions and fully funding extra resources.”

‘Myopic focus on adoption’

The adoption measure comes off the back of the DfE’s latest adoption strategy, published in July, which said it was “unacceptable” that over 1,000 children were waiting over 18 months after a placement order to be matched.

The strategy also pointed out that, proportionately, children from ethnic minorities, those over five, disabled children or those in a sibling group were more likely to face long waits, and also highlighted significant variations.

However, Andy Elvin, chief executive of TACT, warned that the measure risked diverting resources away from the vast majority of children supported by social care.

“Rishi Sunak is the latest in a long line of politicians stretching back to Blair who have no comprehension of the children’s social care system, and seemingly no interest in learning,” he said.

“Adoption, though important, is a very small part of the system and the measure suggested will have no material impact on the overwhelming majority of children and families supported by children’s social care.

“The measure will, however, divert resources that could be far better spent enabling children in foster, kinship and residential care to be supported lifelong or to recruit much needed new foster carers. This myopic focus on adoption is as depressing as it is predictable.”

Dr Lucy Peake, chief executive of charity Kinship, called for “an equal focus on supporting children to live with kinship carers”, pointing out that more children left care on a special guardianship order than to adoption.

“Kinship carers are providing permanency, stability and loving homes for children as they grow up, but having to battle for financial, practical and emotional support at every turn. Our recent survey of nearly 2,000 kinship carers found that 70% felt they did not receive the support they needed from their local authority.”

She urged the government to offer more support and investment for special guardians and other kinship carers.

Focus on ‘inadequate’ children’s services

The Treasury has also told the DfE to assess the percentage of local authorities rated inadequate by Ofsted for their children’s social care services, currently 12.5%.

Its previous provisional list of priority outcomes, published alongside the 2020 one-year spending review, instructed the DfE to measure the number of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ authorities instead.

Ramsden said it would be best for the government to identify authorities that were struggling to deliver children’s services before they are rated as inadequate.

“The services we lead are complex and there is no certainty that two local authorities in receipt of the same single worded judgment are providing exactly the same quality of services nor achieving the same outcomes for children in their respective areas,” she said.

“We share the government’s ambition that all children and families should have access to strong services and support wherever they live. We believe that we should be focusing collectively on minimising the number of authorities who struggle to deliver these services, identify them ideally before a negative inspection and offer effective support.”

‘Poverty of ambition’

Elvin also criticised the Treasury’s focus on school absence rates for children in care.

The list of priority outcomes retains a requirement from last year for the DfE to assess absence rates for children ‘in need’ but explicitly states in the new document that this will also include looked after children and that “persistent absence” will be measured separately.

Elvin said it was “unforgiveable” that “educational outcomes for children in care are viewed in terms of promoting attendance”.

“We should be focusing on raising our aspirations for the qualifications we want them to achieve and for how many of our children then progress to vocational or academic tertiary education,” he said.

“The priorities are emblematic of a poverty of ambition for improving the lives of children in care and care experienced adults. Less high skills/high wage and more low expectations and zero interest. It seems that levelling up has levelled off for children in care.”

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20 Responses to Government introduces target on percentage of agency social workers in children’s workforce

  1. Sid October 29, 2021 at 9:15 pm #

    Might the response from BASW be a tad different if it didn’t also moonlight as an Umbrella Company for agency workers?

    • Ruth November 2, 2021 at 8:02 am #

      BASW fully supports the importance of a stable employed workforce to ensure high quality practice and believes better permanent working conditions are needed to achieve this. However there will always be a need for some flexible agency staff. BASW supports agency staff through the only not for profit ethical umbrella company in the country to protect people choosing to work through non PAYE contracts whether for the short or longer term, in a variety of organisations. This also offers full trade union protection and helps stabilise the workforce through reducing worker stress and also ensures agency staff always pay correct taxes.

      We have had an impact at national level includiing in parliamentary debate on calling out the terrible way agency staff in all fields have been treated by many unscrupulous agencies and umbrellas. So cheap and uninformed shots taken at a carefully provided ethical, unionised and affordable service don’t wash.

      • Sid November 2, 2021 at 11:55 am #

        Oh dear. So any questioning of the self-affirming narrative by BASW is just an uninformed cheap shot is it? I am an agency worker and more than most aware of the competition BASW is engaged in. Off to have a deep scrub to rid myself of my “misinformed” views on the unionised, ethical and affordable service. Funny how only certain personal experiences are validated mind.

        • Karen November 2, 2021 at 12:00 pm #

          Now where else have I heard the justification for “flexible” work arrangements? Whatever gloss it’s still zero hour “ethics” isn’t it?

          • Elody November 11, 2021 at 6:15 am #

            Hello Karen. Been an agency duty SW for over 15 years. I think flexible working means I can work 8 months a year if I choose to. Not zero contract hours!

      • Alison November 5, 2021 at 8:46 am #

        Whatever fantastical justification of the “need” for “flexible” agency workers, a spin is a spin really isn’t it? For a supposed professional association with a claimed strong trade union ethos, championing the gig economy as good for social workers is just daft. We were told by Thatcher governments that full employment was bad for ‘the economy’ and led to high inflation. I never thought that BASW would seek to justify insecure employment as being necessary for our morale. I am giving myself my own personal pay rise by jacking in my BASW membership. I am trully appalled by the response from Ruth.

  2. Alec Fraher October 30, 2021 at 10:59 pm #

    Every now and then, like every ten years or so, the OFT undertake a study of markets. In social care this happened in 2008, when the Care Home sector had been valued at £8bn. By 2014 this value was £45bn.

    The OFT guidance on what is included within the gambit of Public Sector Buying includes, Children’s Services.

    So where is the data?

    The last I checked the guidance was updated around 2011/2.

    One would hope that post Be exit measures have required new guidance.

    Indeed, such a thing may have been done and that I haven’t looked hard enough.

    This said, I am reminded that when examining black holes it’s best to look at what’s happening around the hole. So, what are the commercial and economic interests shaping the sector and how fair are they? What are the arrangements between the contracting bodies and how are the delegated power schemes organised?

    The last time I looked there wasn’t sufficient information and when pressed for it Greater effort was made to evade otherwise ordinary FOIA requests. So much so that the most contracting was in fact null and void, in some instances the post Soham Protocols were unworkable. and the statutory reviewing, giving primacy to the Children’s Care Plan, undermined by service level contract obligations, despite the shaky ground of such documents.

    BASW, like the ADCS, have known about this since 2007.SOLACE in a meeting with Senior Procurement Officers raised concern at a Summit meeting in May 2007. Nothing, it would seem has been said since despite the increasing commercialisation of the sector. Is it any wonder that Kinship Care is the poor relative?

    Category Sourcing Programmes can offer invaluable insight into the effectiveness of services and give both legitimacy and legal primacy to the Children’s Care Plan. A hard look at this reality is long over due.

    *I am former IRO and have undertaken a study of Children’s Service Commissioning and Contracting in 2007*

  3. Carol456 October 31, 2021 at 1:06 pm #

    Reflexive reactions to scrutiny impacts heavily from top down. Leading to major migration to agency work or to leaving the profession altogether. Very little real learning opportunities realistically offered nor exist to those who need to learn and reflect in a safe environment. So more and more I see a “google” of workers poorly treated, who hate leaving LA work but are left feeling safer doing so. Caseloads are too high to be able to resolve this as many say but it’s only part of the problem.

    • C owen November 1, 2021 at 3:15 pm #

      I was a social worker for 15 years- I am glad I am out of this now. Same old stories, no change.

  4. Simon Cardy November 6, 2021 at 5:04 pm #

    BASW’s position is dulutional and ​full of contractions. They have sadly become part of the problem not the solution. It is not helpful for any more agencies to enter the market albeit dressed up as a non-profiit making enterprise. There is nothing ethical about precarious employment or sucking cash out of local authorities by taking a fee on top of paying the wage of it’s agency worker.

    In becoming an employer BASW cannot now be relied upon as an alley in the struggle to improve social work working conditions. They need to decide whose side they are really on?

  5. Polly Baynes November 8, 2021 at 11:18 am #

    I think that many experienced social workers use the agency role as a way of managing the intolerable demands of local authority social work and regaining some control. I completely agree that reliance on agency workers is negative, disruptive and expensive for local authorities but I think the reasons why people are willing to do this job on that basis rather than take a permanent contract need looking at. I did supply work (directly for the local authority) for many years when my children were young as this allowed me to take the summer school holiday off and work part time. I am now an independent social worker and was previously a self employed guardian – this allows me to work the number of days that I want, take leave when I want, invest in t I am an independent social worker and was previously a self employed guardian – this allows me to work the number of days that I want and take leave when I want, invest in my own training and take on interesting pieces of work without drowning in an overwhelming caseload. Not everyone is in a position to do this and local authority social workers are the people who keep everything going and really matter. If more flexible, family friendly working conditions and better opportunities to learn were available to permanent staff, there might be more of them and experienced workers might stay on the front line for longer.

  6. Ines November 9, 2021 at 8:53 am #

    Well at least now we know what passess for ethics in BASW world. Insecure employment for social workers, draining the public purse by employment agencies. A very strange hill to raise the principles flag on really. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

  7. Lynn November 9, 2021 at 9:02 am #

    So a “Professional association” dominated by and serving the interests of independent social workers champions “flexible” agency work. Ofcourse.

  8. Kitcat November 9, 2021 at 2:52 pm #

    Children are not assets , they are not a business , they are not a means of profit , they are not property .stop treating them like they are …

  9. Cathy November 11, 2021 at 7:08 pm #

    The hours you ‘choose’ to work are dependent on your employer agreeing to allowing you to work them Elody. So actually it is the equvilant of zero hour employment as you are not in control and the employer hasn’t given you a contract. Those paying you decide. Not having an employment contract with due rights is not my idea of choice. If being given your notice to leave without any termination goodies is flexible working than you are right, the employer holds all the cards.

  10. Andy November 12, 2021 at 9:58 pm #

    As with many other issues these days, the opposing views on the subject of agency social work can appear rather entrenched (and almost vitriolic) with some viewing it as “flexible” whilst others view it as “zero hours”. I’ve worked in both capacities over the past twenty years or so whenever it suited me. I used to enjoy the challenge of periods of agency work because I would never quite know exactly which specific discipline or geographical area I’d be spending the next few months or maybe two or even three years. Additionally I often valued the wholly independent external support mechanisms available from agencies.
    LAs do indeed pay a big headline figure to agencies but I think this compares quite reasonably with the overall costs to LAs of permanent staff (annual leave, training, sick leave – sometimes very lengthy periods indeed -, pension contributions and their eventual payments which of course can go on for many years after the employee’s retirement, Human Resources and payroll).
    Ultimately social workers are more than capable of weighing up the pros and cons of agency work and are free to make the choice between that and a permanent position.

  11. Sean November 14, 2021 at 3:35 pm #

    Why is having differing opinions entrenched and confrontational positions? I happen yo beleive that LA’s manipulate agency worker numbers to undermine the recruitment of permanent staff with all of the political subterfuge that goes with this. That doesn’t mean I do not listen to agency staff when they tell me I have it wrong. Is diversity only restricted to the prescribed parameters now?

  12. Grace November 15, 2021 at 10:07 am #

    Ofcourse social workers are more than capable of making choices about their employment status. Trouble is choices aren’t just the pros and cons of the individual. Agency staff have massive impact on how services are delivered, how teams function, what deranged management prejudices are unleashed around them and more importantly, whether there is a consistency and continuity to the experiences of people they work with. Since January 3 agency staff have come and gone in my team. Great for the workers who choose to move on with one weeks notice when the work is not to their liking but demoralising to everyone else who grapple with the impact. No one is an island and all that.

    • Melody November 15, 2021 at 2:22 pm #

      We are agency workers not other peoples servants. If we like how we are treated we stay and people gets a good input from us. If we don’t like it we take our skills elsewhere. It’s not the responsibility of agency staff to provide consistency and continuity. If managers want that they should do their jobs and treat their staff well. I feel no shame in leaving each job after a few months because that suits my own needs. If my wellbeing is threatened I walk after a few weeks. My health and happiness is more important than any so called professional responsibility.

  13. Claire November 16, 2021 at 5:32 pm #

    I disagree with every word written by Melody but commend the honesty and the non-defensive expression. Refreshing to read a comment that eschews whataboutery.