Newly qualified children’s social workers are struggling to manage their workloads leaving some questioning their future in the profession, Community Care’s annual caseloads survey has found.
Almost a quarter of the 62 respondents doing their assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) said their caseloads were “completely unmanageable” and a further almost half said theirs were “hard to manage”.
The survey found full-time ASYE practitioners had average caseloads of 20.6 on average, higher than last year’s figure (19.6) and well above the caps set in many authorities, which some respondents said had been breached in their case.
Employers are supposed to protect 10% of NQSWs’ time for learning and development. However, ASYE social workers described being overwhelmed by their caseloads, with some having to work outside their regular hours to keep up, and missing out on learning from colleagues, who were too stretched themselves to offer support.
‘I feel out of my depth’
An ASYE practitioner in the West Midlands said they had 28 cases and worked around 55 hours a week.
“I feel out of my depth and constantly under pressure by targets eg unrealistic deadlines. I do not feel supported and supervision does not live up to the role…I am not emotionally available for my own children at times. I know I won’t be doing this job forever,” they said.
An ASYE practitioner in the North West holding 20 cases said they were actively looking for another role because of their experience on the programme.
“I was assured I would not have court proceedings involvement in my first year and now I have three families who are [in proceedings] and there [are] not experienced staffing levels to supervise me closely enough or transfer these families,” they said.
“I’ve been off work with stress and looking at authorities which work differently to the one I currently belong to. It has impacted my confidence as I thought we were a profession where we learn from experienced colleagues but everyone it appears is too overworked to properly teach you things you don’t have experience of yet. It’s dangerous for practice and I have had to make difficult decisions about my career just a few months in.”
‘Everyone is stretched’
They were one of several to report a lack of support from overworked colleagues, reflecting the wider findings of Community Care’s survey, which found caseloads were growing in size, complexity and unmanageability across the board.
An ASYE social worker from Yorkshire said they knew the children and young people they worked with well, their caseload usually felt manageable and that they had a “very supportive” manager.
“However, if there is crisis or my caseload rises, things quickly become unmanageable and that’s largely down to the fact there is little team support available as everyone in my team is stretched – experienced social workers are holding 29 cases so there is no room for them to help and support lesser experienced workers like myself,” they said.
Lack of supervision
Under the standards for employers of social workers in England, NQSWs are supposed to have supervision at least weekly for their first six weeks, then fortnightly up to six months and then monthly for the rest of their first year.
However, a social worker in the North East, with a caseload of 28 six months into their ASYE, said: “I have only had supervision twice while I have been working there. And only once was all of my cases – that was 5.5 weeks in to my ASYE where I was already on 20+ cases. Managers try to be really helpful where they can but they are stretched and understaffed themselves.”
The social worker, who said they were working a minimum of 10 extra hours a week, said their situation was affecting their practice.
“I am so behind with all families and I feel that I am dropping balls constantly and letting families down constantly,” they said. “Other professionals speak to me poorly and treat me as though I don’t care or I am not trying – which is completely demoralising.”
They were among those contemplating quitting.
“I enjoy elements of the job but I don’t see myself staying after my ASYE finished. I have promised myself I will try another area of social work before looking for a new career altogether.”
Practitioners also reported handling work that they did not feel equipped to manage.
One ASYE social worker in Yorkshire and Humberside with 36 cases said their working situation was “just madness”, adding: “People leave and we have to absorb their cases. I’m assigned cases which I have never experienced before and expected to know what I am doing, and in addition I have to complete the components of the ASYE. When I refuse additional cases, I have been told there’s nowhere else for them to go. It’s making me miserable. It’s causing conflict in my life outside work because I am so pressured by my workload.”
Longstanding issues exacerbated by pandemic
In 2019-20, the workforce development body, contracted by the Department for Education to support employers in delivering the ASYE, said that workload management was a “clear challenge”.
And though supervision was seen by NQSWs as the most crucial element of the programme, the report said that it was “often the first casualty in times of high pressure within teams”. This meant that “the very thing that is most needed may not be available”.
The 2020-21 report found pre-existing pressures had been exacerbated by the pandemic.
It said that “several” organisations were failing to meet NQSWs’ needs, especially where their employment started during a lockdown.
NQSWs reported that, in some cases, a failure to prioritise the ASYE had led to them facing increased and more complex caseloads – beyond recommended levels – less supervision, fewer learning opportunities and less priority being given to ASYE reviews.
It found some graduates faced isolation, while others lost confidence in their abilities to perform the role and worried about being a burden on their colleagues, as they lost out on opportunities to assimilate knowledge informally in the office environment.
‘Next generation must be supported’
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said our survey results were “extremely concerning”.
“The next generation of social workers must be supported to undertake ASYE with a protected caseload, good support systems in place, reflective supervision and have opportunities for additional CPD opportunities,” said Maris Stratulis, BASW England national director.
Stratulis said increasing caseloads for newly qualified and more experienced social workers came “against a backdrop of long-term underfunding of social services”.
She said BASW would continue to campaign for social workers to have adequate resources and the right professional working conditions to do their jobs.
“We must create time and support for the next generation of social workers,” she said.
‘Social workers must raise concerns’
Dame Lorna Boreland-Kelly, chief executive of training organisation Bokell Associates, said it was “incredibly worrying” that some newly qualified social workers were not receiving adequate support.
She said local authorities should be able to offer adequate support to ASYE social workers even if other practitioners’ caseloads were high.
And she said it was important for practitioners to investigate the quality of a local authority’s ASYE scheme before starting their first year in employment, particularly the support they offered to NQSWs.
“When you apply for jobs, it is important for you to go to an authority where you are going to be supported, where you will have good, reflective supervision, where you will have a protected caseload and where you will have a group of newly qualified social workers, so you are not just stuck in a team on your own.”
Dame Lorna said social workers needed to “show leadership” and “be brave” by talking to managers or ASYE co-ordinators if they had concerns about cases they has been assigned and then escalating their concerns further if they dis not receive a satisfactory response.
She said it was important that social workers were trained, before qualifying, to advocate for themselves “so that when they come into the world of work they have the skills that they will require”.
Ongoing support role
Skills for Care has confirmed that it will continue to deliver the Department for Education (DfE)’s contract to support the ASYE scheme for children’s social workers, after the DfE retendered last year, with the aim of ensuring a “more consistent” delivery of the programme.
It has been delivering the programme since 2018 and its latest contract is due to run from this month until 2024.