Sharp rise in children’s social workers leaving council roles, government figures show

Vacancies rise 7% to highest level in at least five years, while care review chair says shift from frontline to management roles ‘concerning’

Picture with a postit note that reads 'I quit!'
Picture: photoprodra/fotolia

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.


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29 Responses to Sharp rise in children’s social workers leaving council roles, government figures show

  1. sandra Dykstra February 25, 2022 at 4:35 pm #

    Rise in caseloads
    Not really any respect from other professionals
    Senior managers not always as experienced as you would expect
    And now the social work England want extra evidence for registration
    Keep piling it on people

    • Nicola February 25, 2022 at 5:12 pm #

      It’s not a numbers game. It’s a weighting of cases and sadly having inexperienced workers being thrown into high profile cases with supervision that is lacking and management being three years post qualified. Blind leading the blind. Bums on seats and no quality guidance. New SW getting burnt out working to keep up with trackers and not doing quality social work as they don’t have the time and skills. Sadly social work is in a dire state. People retiring early as well impacts teams as the experienced staff are fed up managing the new staff as the manager lacks experience and so it goes on.

      • Maria February 25, 2022 at 6:28 pm #

        My line manager was given his job as his dad was a Service manager & he was only a qualified SW for 2/3 yrs & a level 3 SW for a few mths! No wonder there is so many failings,errors & incompetence in children’s social care!

      • Maria February 25, 2022 at 6:30 pm #

        Newly qualified & student SW’s are also being given complex/high risk cases to manage too when they don’t possess the confidence, skills & expertise to deal with them!

    • Tom Nagle February 25, 2022 at 5:20 pm #

      Agree that SWE are becoming more of a burden with additional paperwork, demands and scrutiny My profession of 36 years is very broken and little central effort is forthcoming. I feel for colleagues in the current circumstances and agree that it is tempting, or even sensible, to walk away, how sad.

  2. AYP February 25, 2022 at 5:28 pm #

    In addition to decades of unresolved issues of over work and underpay, there are other serious issues needing immediate resolve.

    Ofsted reports include information about senior staff members incompetence and those who have significantly contributed to failing our children, other staff members and local authorities.

    However, I am not aware of any specific support/recommended actions/consequences to encourage and enable them to acquire the skills necessary to effectively manage services.

    There needs to be acknowledgement of the serious impact, senior staff members who bully in the work place have on recruitment and retainment. Effective management of such issues is required.

    Senior staff members who depart authorities failing children, usually move on to other authorities without any redress of their previous incompetence. This needs to change.

    Senior staff members who require support/training/supervision to manage services effectively, should receive such and not be enabled to move to other local authorities without demonstrating they have completed appropriate recommendations in relation to their competence.

    • Maria February 25, 2022 at 6:33 pm #

      Yes these incompetent & dangerous directors/managers etc often move to different LA’s to cause even more chaos & mayhem!

    • Saskia March 10, 2022 at 7:55 pm #

      You right. Bad senior management and their entourage are moving from one local authority to another and causing havoc wherever they are. Principal Social Workers ignore what is happening to social workers and ignore complaints of bullying made to them.

  3. Simon Cardy February 25, 2022 at 5:53 pm #

    The Case for Change argued that: “As members of a regulated profession, social workers willingly take on wide-ranging professional responsibilities towards the children and families that they work with. However, too often bureaucratic process-driven practice means social workers don’t have the freedom to follow their judgement of what is in the best interests of children and families…
    A significant proportion of social workers’ time is currently absorbed by activity away from direct work with children and families. If we consider that the greatest value of social work is in the interaction between social workers and children and families, then it should be an ongoing source of alarm that 1 in 3 of all social workers in children’s services do not work directly with children or families (Department for Education, 2021a). Even those in direct practice spend less than one third of their time with families (Department for Education, 2020a). This is a staggering misuse of the greatest asset that children’s social care has – its social workers.”

    In this naïvely simplistc narrative, accountability, placement approval, writing court reports, meeting performance indicators and basic case recording – all of which take our time away from ‘direct work’ – are conflated with a pejorative use of an undefined concept of ‘bureauracy’. It’s a repetitive all too familiar theme that McAlister has put his name to from his early proposals for Frontline, to the Blueprint based on the Buurtzorg model (which incidentally pay no regard to the single Status Agreement), and now to the Case for Change.

    The ‘radical’ Blueprint suggested that IRO’s, first line managers, and service managers, all experienced and qualified, should be allocated cases to avoid the fact that ‘1 in 3 social workers do no direct work with children’. A variation on this may well be part of what the Review of Children’s Social Care comes up with. I can’t see however social work grades being authorised the placement budgets or being allowed to make decisions about placing a child at risk in care. Neither can I see the need for case recording being cut back or the reducing the hours we spend burning the midnight oil writing court statements – can you?

    So what options does the review have other than to re-arrange the furniture without calling for the end of Performance Indicators, a meaniful PQ programme, a massive nationwide increase in preventive family support services, caseload ceilings to bring in managable caseloads, and increasing in social work administrator roles and support staff. Who knows MacAlister may yet suprise us and breach his contract with the DfE to deliver zero cost recommendations. Until then we can only live in hope.

    • Julia February 26, 2022 at 10:34 am #

      Your contribution to this debate rings painfully true.
      I have a relatively low case load, having been signed off with stress for a number of weeks, but since I have been back, I have been ‘burning the midnight oil’ regularly. I have needed to get documents into court that are written with care and take the hours because I am writing about the lives of other humans and not just commenting on a service that will not have a long term impact on a family’s life. This takes an emotional toll that is not factored in by other professionals.
      In the four weeks I have been back, I have had a week long contested final hearing, a private law case for which there was a section 7. I have had other hearings on another case and have yet to write the 2 parenting assessments, the SGO support plan, a together or apart assessment and the final evidence. I know that once these are over, I have other complex cases that are likely to go down the MBA or LOI route and I need to get out before that.
      I feel for those in authorities where the management is inexperienced as my LA is ofsted rated outstanding and there is the support available. However there is only so much paperwork I can take, when as you indicate, there is so little time for doing what I actually want to do, which is sit down with families and listen to them about what it is they think they need.

  4. Imelda February 25, 2022 at 6:09 pm #

    This is no surprise to us social workers. Our teams are never stable for very long and despite those in charge disagreeing with front line workers, we DO have way too much work!. I’ve just had 2 weeks off and I feel sick that I have such an enormous amount to get through upon my return. I know now that I won’t finish when I should!! Another colleague handed her notice in last week – so that leaves just 2 of our original social workers within 12 months or so. We all raise this issue. There’s tears, anxiety, tiredness and stress but when you try to raise that you have too much work, you often get back that you need support in managing your diary. That’s a good one!! Best passing the book example I know and it’s followed me round my lifelong carreer!! I know it’s not me. I’m dedicated, work far more hours than I get paid for, do a thorough job, put people first, support my colleagues and the list goes on…..I’m like most other social workers in the land because I’ve never yet met a lazy social worker who couldn’t manage a diary for an appropriate sized case load. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had the best managers and my gripe is not with them. They are merely trying to support a workload of depressed and stressed out social workers. I blame successive governments and the erosion of services that support us to do our job. The lack of funding for other bodies in the office, or lack of a decent pay rise that gets overlooked by the media so goes unreported. The poor relation of public service!! I Love my job. I just have too much of it!!!

  5. David Smith February 25, 2022 at 6:13 pm #

    Good, long this may this continue. The statutory social work sector should no longer be able to abuse its staff with abandon. There are diamond mines in Sierra Leone which have better working conditions

    • Maria February 25, 2022 at 6:37 pm #

      Yes it’s a very toxic, hostile & oppressive environment to work in with no support whatsoever!

    • Abigail February 25, 2022 at 9:35 pm #

      No there aren’t. Its absurd to compare the exploitation of mine workers to us. Actually it’s offensive. My father was a coal miner and everyday we didn’t know if he would come back from work. Our conditions are nowhere near being 90 meters below ground. We have it bad there is no denying that but please talk about us on our terms. We are all workers but as far as I know none of us are indentured labourers like the majority of African miners are.

      • Billy Tell February 28, 2022 at 10:10 am #

        I was a coal miner before coming into social work in the 1970’s. I once wrote to the CEO of Cafcass that a pit pony in Bullcroft Colliery in the 1960’s had more control over its workload than his social workers. He laughed

        • Abigail February 28, 2022 at 11:37 am #

          Billy, I understand the joke you are making but that’s not true either is it? Pit ponies hauled what was loaded on didn’t they, they didn’t say stop I am exhausted now? Our managers might not listen to us but we can protest our conditions. Should we choose to we can take action collectively. Plain truth is that social work culture encourages woe is me I am helpless fatalism. Last time I looked no one attended a union meeting.

          • Billy Tell February 28, 2022 at 3:12 pm #

            Full story Abigail, I asked the pony handler why did he put a chalk mark on the inside of the tub about a third from the top and he then loaded the material into the tub to this line. I, as a youth asked him why he didn.t fill it to the top of the tub and he said to me that is what the pony will pull, any more and no pull. He then illustrated this to me by loading it to the top. He walked in front of the pony and gave the command to move. The reins tightened as the pony took the strain and the wheels began to move. Then full stop and no movement even when he pulled out a carrot….no movement until the additional weight was removed…..hence my claim. Tell others this story…see your managers laugh

  6. Maria February 25, 2022 at 6:15 pm #

    There are many reasons why SW’s are leaving the profession in droves not just unmanageable caseloads! What about institutional racism, sexism & discrimination, a hostile, toxic & oppressive environment, lack of management support & chronic work related stress, also management bullying, intimidation, harassment & victimisation is rife in social care & SW’s are to afraid to speak out due to reprisals!

    • Gemma February 25, 2022 at 10:27 pm #

      Well said!

  7. Maria February 25, 2022 at 6:21 pm #

  8. A Thomas February 25, 2022 at 8:13 pm #

    The university degree for social work does not prepare social workers for the real world. The teaching is lleft to practice educators in the workplace who are invariably overworked and overloaded social workers themselves, trying to keep up with the often duplicated amount of paperwork and admin that takes up so much time. They do not have capacity to teach new and vulnerable s/w students whilst doing their own job. The universities need to seriiously look at their course structure and spend less time on pointless academia and more time on practical aspects of social work practice.

  9. SillySausage February 25, 2022 at 9:04 pm #

    Bit rich of MacAlister to pledge a reverse in the decline of case-holding social workers. He founded Frontline on the premise of attracting the “brightest and best” graduates and to accelerate these “high-potential” staff into management posts.

  10. Andrew February 26, 2022 at 10:48 am #

    You should take a moment to reflect on what you just wrote David Smith.

  11. Georgia February 26, 2022 at 4:08 pm #

    The senior managers are absolutely detached from the frontline. Instead of supporting SW to do their job, they make things more complicated by creating numerous forms which are time consuming and by setting up a range of meetings, which do not help at all to address the needs of children and families. Too much bureaucracy, too much paper work just increasing the level of stress on staff leading to SWs giving ups the profession love.

  12. Les Mis March 1, 2022 at 12:38 pm #

    This article really resonated with me.

    Although I’m an Adults SW it echoes what’s happening in the wider profession, and how SW’s are feeling right now after the worst global health crisis in our lifetime.

    This was already happening long before the pandemic as SW’s were suffering stress/burnout due to poor working conditions, poor pay, lack of resources/supervision etc.

    The pandemic has just brought it into sharp focus; many SW’s can’t take any more as it impacts their physical/mental health/family life/wellbeing, with negative consequences.

    There are many reasons why SW’s are leaving in droves; and I agree with much of reasons above (not all David Smith)

    However, my individual situation is one that’s more ‘nuanced’.

    I left my full time SW NHS role just as the pandemic started due to family caring needs: I planned to find a ‘part time’ or agency role within reasonable travelling distance from home which would mean I could continue working whilst meeting my families needs.

    We all know what happened next; pandemic, lockdowns, working from home etc etc.

    Since then I have been earnestly trying to find a ‘part time’ SW role without success.
    I have devoted much of my spare time and energy into trying to find paid employment for best part of 2 years now.

    In my experience Invariably all SW roles advertised are full time; LA’s are without exception. The NHS have advertised the odd PT role (with a requirement of a 7 day shift pattern inc nights)

    Most Agency roles are also full time (although might be short contracts).

    If I spot a SW role advertised in my area (within a 20 mile radius) even if FT, I always email asking if there’s any scope for PT. I’ve lost count of number of emails I’ve sent; most times I don’t get a reply, and those managers that do always give same response; sorry it’s FT only.

    So currently I’m still without an income trying very hard to find a role that fits for me.
    At the moment I’m still managing to keep up my SWE/CPD by being involved in relevant SW unpaid roles. However I’m not sure how long I can maintain this, and I’ve seriously considered leaving the profession a few times this past year.

    I find it difficult to understand why SW managers/directors are not offering opportunities to harness the skills and experience of motivated SW’s available to work PT, especially given the current recruitment crisis/staff shortages.

    My experience is not unique, as I know there will be many SW’s who for whatever reasons; near retirement/family/health, or have just reflected on their work/life balance in current context and want or need to reduce their hours.

    Employing PT SW’s should be facilitated and needs to change; it requires foresight, policy change, and maybe courage to speak out, but we all need to get behind campaigns to change the FT culture.

    It can and should be done.

    ..and If you’re a SW reading this, you never know when I might be you.

    • Sinking ship March 5, 2022 at 1:22 am #

      And if your heavy caseload, lousy pay and lousy management don’t drive you out Social Work England will.

  13. Ali March 4, 2022 at 8:01 pm #

    I think senior managers should have a caseload. Keep them connected to reality.

  14. Tony March 8, 2022 at 10:04 am #

    4 social workers left, 3 joined in our services. It was ever thus. Vacancy rates are always going to fluctuate, there is no crisis, there is no mass resignations. Training applications are picking up too. It’s opportunistic of LA’s to create a false narrative to try and force extra funding from the government.

  15. Paul March 9, 2022 at 9:13 am #

    But BASW members just told us that most of them are happy and proud to be working as social workers. I am confused. Are they leaving because ot ” unmanageable workloads” or are content to carry on despite the pressures? For once can we get a consistent narrative please BASW.