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%.
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.”