The number of social workers leaving children’s posts in English councils or trusts has spiked to its highest point in at least five years, according to Department for Education figures.
Almost 5,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) children’s social workers left their roles in the year to September 2021, a 16% increase on the year before and the highest number since comparable data collection began in 2016-17.
The churn drove turnover rates to 15.4%, up from from 13.5% the year before and the highest rate in at least five years.
Vacancies at five-year high
Meanwhile, vacancies also rose to their highest levels in at least five years, by 7%, to 6,522 FTE posts, and the third consecutive annual increase. This took the vacancy rate up to 16.7% from 16.1%, the highest proportion since 2018 though slightly lower than in 2017, when it stood at 17%.
The figures also showed an ongoing shift in the composition of the workforce from the frontline to management. For the first time since at least 2017, less than half (48.4%) of social workers were defined as “case holders”, meaning they were neither senior practitioners nor a manager, down from 52% in 2019.
Those who were managers rose to 21.7%, up from 19.9%, a trend described as “concerning” by Josh MacAlister who is leading the government-commissioned children’s social care review.
Despite the sharp rise in leavers, more children’s practitioners took up roles (5,500 FTE) than left during the year, contributing to an increase in the overall number of social workers, by 2% FTE to 32,502 , a fourth consecutive yearly increase since 2017.
The number of FTE agency workers increased by 3% on the year to 5,977, a fourth consecutive annual rise. But agency worker rates have remained relatively flat since at least 2017, with 15.5% of all local authority or trust children’s social workers in England employed through agencies in September 2021. Just over three quarters (76.3%) of agency social workers were covering vacancies, a similar rate to last year.
‘Unmanageable caseloads’ prompt many to consider quitting
Caseloads held by frontline workers, meanwhile, have plateaued year-on-year at an average of 16.3, following three previous annual declines*.
However, in its response to the figures, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said “unmanageable” workloads were among reasons driving many practitioners to consider quitting.
“We have been warning government for years now about rising vacancy rates and the intent from social workers, especially older more experienced professionals, to leave the profession,” it said.
“Our member surveys over the past two years have shown over half of social workers are seriously considering leaving due to unmanageable caseloads, rising pressures and a lack of resources.
“Without a fully staffed and resourced workforce, we will not be able to meet our obligations as individuals and teams will be overstretched.
“The sector continues to face challenges from years of chronic underfunding in social services.”
In a nod to the government-commissioned national review into lessons from the murders of Star Hobson and Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, BASW added: “If there is serious intent by government to address child protection failures, giving the sector the resource and funding it desperately needs must happen urgently.”
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) expressed concern at the number of children’s social workers leaving council roles, saying that retaining enough staff had “long been a challenge” for local authorities.
“It is important for children to have a consistency of social worker in their lives where possible, but this is increasingly difficult with more social workers leaving the profession,” said Charlotte Ramsden, ADCS president.
‘Extra investment needed for recruitment’
Ramsden reiterated the association’s longstanding call for central government to launch a national social work recruitment campaign to support councils’ efforts.
“Local authorities are doing innovative work to improve the recruitment and retention of social workers but extra national investment is needed to recruit more social workers,” she said.
“The pandemic has compounded longstanding challenges in the wider the children’s workforce, not just social work. Added to this, successive public sector pay freezes and a cost of living crisis create additional challenges.”
The Local Government Association (LGA) said it was “properly funding” children’s services teams allowed social workers to be appropriately rewarded and could also allow them to work more flexibly, “which we know is important in retaining our staff”.
“We are keen to work with the government on a plan to address these urgent workforce pressures and to ensure that children’s social workers receive the recognition, support and reward that they deserve,” said Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board.
‘Employers should be more flexible’
In its response, the Social Workers Union called on employers to be more flexible to enable practitioners to stay in their jobs.
National organiser Carol Reid said: “Despite the pandemic enforcing changes to how and where staff work, social work roles are still predominantly full-time, with many practitioners working more than their allocated hours…
“Considering most large public sector workforces enable staff to work flexibly or part-time due to parenting and caring commitments, why is it different for social work? This focus on full-time recruitment misses an opportunity to retain, and even employ in the first place, experienced and committed staff who happen to have additional home commitments.”
As in previous years, there were large variations between regions, with vacancies ranging from 8.7% in the North East to 23.5% in London.
Staff turnover rate was highest in the West Midlands, at 21%, compared to a low of 13.6% in the East of England.
Care review concern at shift away from case-holding roles
MacAlister, whose care review is due to make recommendations in late spring, pledged to address the decline in case-holding social workers.
In its case for change report, published last June, the review said the proportion of social workers in management, along with practitioners’ administrative burdens, meant professionals were being “staggeringly misused”.
Responding to the DfE data, MacAlister said: “These figures show a concerning and ongoing reduction in the proportion of social workers who are working directly with families.
“Hundreds of social workers have told the review that they joined the profession to work directly with children and families and that they want to be supported to focus on spending time where it counts.
“Action is needed so that the potential of social workers can be realised and so that children and families get the support and attention they deserve.
“This is an area where the review will be making clear recommendations.”
No rise in sickness absence despite pandemic
The sickness absence rate in both the latest DfE survey and the year before has remained relatively stable, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the year to September 2021, the average children’s social worker was absent for 3.1% of their working days due to sickness, up from 2.9% the year before but level with, or slightly below, 2017-19 levels.
The DfE said that the data did not account for how many social workers were working from home but unable to carry out face-to-face work due to shielding or self-isolation, so it may not accurately reflect capacity shortages.
*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 case-holding FTE practitioners.
Cases are defined as any person allocated to a case-holding 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.