Article amended to clarify that temporarily registered social workers are on the same register as those permanently registered
The Department for Education has renewed calls for children’s social workers who are not currently practising to return to the profession temporarily to ease staffing pressures caused by Covid-19.
With staff absences within public services a mounting concern since the rapid rise of the Omicron variant, children’s minister Will Quince urged non-employed practitioners temporarily registered with Social Work England to contact their council’s children’s services department or sign up with a local agency.
“Many local workforces are facing pressure due to Covid-19,” he posted on social media just before Christmas.
“We need those who can to consider stepping forward to support them, and most importantly our vulnerable families.”
Most non-employed social workers – those who are not registered and have not practised for more than two years – would have to take at least 30 days of refresher training before being allowed to return to frontline practice.
Some 6,449 practitioners are now temporarily registered with Social Work England, according to the regulator, which allows those who have not practised for less than two years to return to frontline practice without having to train or re-register, but the government will decide to end this arrangement when it deems it unnecessary.
“Social workers with temporary registration status can apply for roles with local authorities, health trusts and other employers in England, helping to protect the public amidst staff shortages,” the regulator said in a blog.
“If you can support on a temporary basis, we would encourage you to contact your local authority or sign up with a local agency.
“We would like to thank all social workers who have indicated that they want to return to practise, as well as all those currently practising in extremely challenging circumstances.”
Recruitment programme closed
The minister’s request came three months after a government-backed programme to connect councils and social workers returning to practice to support the local response to coronavirus closed due to a lack of funding.
Social Work Together launched in April 2020, was run jointly by Social Work England and the Local Government Association (LGA), and was backed by the DfE and the Department of Health and Social Care.
The programme had relatively low uptake, with just 32 social workers recruited through it as of December 2020 despite over 1,000 practitioners and 126 of the 151 councils signing up to the campaign.
When the scheme closed on 30 September 2021, the LGA said the scheme could reopen if it received additional funding.
Temporary registration set to end
Alongside the Social Work Together scheme, Social Work England enabled social workers to temporarily register from March 2020 to bolster the workforce during the pandemic, with anyone failing to renew their permanent registration since March 2018 enrolled automatically.
Social workers who failed to renew their registration in 2020 were also temporarily registered.
But, according to a survey published in May last year as part of the government’s review of the Coronavirus Act 2020, only around 100 of 13,500 former social workers temporarily registered at the time were practising.
The government will end temporary registration when it determines there is no longer a need for emergency cover due to Covid pressures. Since last November, Social Work England has been removing practitioners who have not renewed for more than two years from the register.
Social Work England said last month after its annual registration drive for 2021 concluded that practitioners who failed to renew would not remain temporarily registered.
It also warned those temporarily registered to apply to restore their full registration as the government was planning to close it and they could therefore lose their ability to practise.
Retraining for out-of-practice social workers
The LGA ran its Return to Social Work programme in 2020/21, offering free refresher training to those who had been out of practice for between two and 10 years, which led to 133 out of 183 practitioners who completed the scheme being restored to the register and 72 returning to employment.
But the scheme has yet to be replaced.
A spokesperson for the LGA called on the government to provide more funding for social workers’ retraining.
“We encourage non-practicing social workers to consider whether they can come forward to ensure these vital services can continue, even if that may be on a flexible basis, but recognise that adequate funding is required to ensure those who have been away from the profession for more than two years can be re-trained and re-registered to provide a long-term, safer solution,” they said.
“We would also like to see a greater focus on communication from government, engaging recruiting managers, HR and social work teams in this effort, to both plug the current gap and better equip the area moving forward.”
Support for returning social workers needed
John McGowan, Social Workers Union (SWU) general secretary, said the government’s recent call for practitioners to return to frontline service seemed a “quick fix” and that it should offer “suitable support for social workers who are keen to apply”.
“To use their expertise effectively, social workers must be inducted and integrated appropriately with adequate access to supervision and support,” he said.
“Previous participants in the ‘return to practice’ programme told SWU that there were huge pressures on them, given the excessive backloads and a lack of support.
“The reality is that this government’s austerity measures have led to the resource drain and additional pressures on social workers. Given the continuing problems of social work recruitment and retention, longer term action is required to stem the flow of workers leaving the profession.”
Councils plan for shortages
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) welcomed the DfE’s latest call for social workers to return to frontline practice.
Steve Crocker, ADCS vice president, said the Social Work Together campaign had supported authorities’ responses to the staff shortages during the first wave of the pandemic.
He said councils were now planning again for workforce shortages “should a high number of social workers fall ill with Covid-19 or need to self-isolate in line with government guidelines”.
“Nationally we need to recruit and retain more social workers so any additional workforce shortages as a result of Covid-19 will be a challenge for us, this is why any efforts to encourage experienced social workers to support the profession and children and families once again are welcome,” he said.