As he prepared to take over as Association of Directors of Children’s Services president, Steve Crocker said he was “awed” by the proficiency of social workers entering the profession.
“The quality of those social workers coming into the profession now is frankly higher than it’s ever been,” Crocker, who is director of children’s services at both Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, told Community Care last week.
“I know when I go and talk to newly qualified social workers in Hampshire, I am awed by their professionalism and experience and skills and ability.
“And I think that’s fantastic for the future of the profession. But we need to ensure that they’ve got enough support around them and that they’ve got manageable caseloads and they’ve got the right support and career progression to stay in the profession and not get burnt out quickly.”
‘Post-pandemic factors’ pressuring services
Crocker, a social worker by background, said one of main causes of potential burnout was an increase in demand for children’s social care in the wake of the pandemic. He said there were now “more assessments, more referrals, more early help and some increasing complexity of some of those cases”.
According to figures from the government’s children in need census last year, referrals to children’s social care and child protection plans fell sharply and the number of children in need also fell, from 2020-21, during the first year of coronavirus restrictions in the country.
But social workers responding to Community Care’s survey last month reported higher, more complex and less manageable caseloads.
Crocker said some of the increased demand was due to “post-pandemic factors” but also more families “struggling financially” and a rise in referrals from other professionals following the high-profile murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson.
“We’ve also seen a very significant increase in anxieties around children’s mental health, which the NHS does not seem to have the capacity to respond to sufficiently, which then leads ultimately to those children becoming in need of those children’s social care services,” Crocker added.
In his inaugural address as president on Wednesday, Crocker called on the government to launch a review into children’s mental health.
“Children and young people’s mental health services need radical reform, they’re too rooted in clinical diagnostics, adrift from the child-centred, whole family and relationships-based working that is increasingly the norm in wider services for children and too adrift from other community-based services such as ours,” he said.
More regulation of social work agencies needed
Councils continue to face social work shortages and Crocker said ADCS would continue to urge the government to begin a national recruitment drive. Social work vacancy and turnover levels both rose sharply in the 12 months to September 2021, show government figures. Agency social work numbers also rose though the full-time equivalent rate of locum staff within the workforce was flat year on year.
Crocker said the difficulty local authorities had in recruiting sufficient practitioners was “interlinked with the growth of the agency market”.
He said: “It is increasingly difficult to get an individual agency worker for a team. You now have to buy a whole team of agency workers. And that is another unwelcome development in my view.
“This is a market that has been too little regulated. It is too easy for agencies to snap up social workers at inflated pay rates and offer them around. It is unhealthy for the social workers and it is really unhealthy for the local authorities involved as well.”
In an echo of comments made last year by his predecessor as ADCS president, Charlotte Ramsden, Crocker suggested the introduction of national pay rates to tackle the problem.
“We hope that there will be some developments in the care review that will put social work career pathways on a much stronger footing for the first five years for example,” he added. “That would be a helpful thing. We also think that national pay rates that everybody has to adhere to would be a useful thing.”
Funding needed for switch to early help
The forthcoming report of the children’s social care review – led by Josh MacAlister – is one of the key items in Crocker’s in-tray as president.
Under Ramsden’s leadership, ADCS had expressed concerns about the review’s focus on a “tension” between family support and child protection services, and suggestion of a split in responsibility between the two. The association instead argued the two were part of the same “continuum”.
Crocker agrees with the care review’s call for better early help services to relieve the pressures on children’s social care, but he said local authorities would need more money to do this. This is in the context of a significant shift in the proportion of council spending from early intervention to statutory social care services since 2010.
“I think everybody recognises that part of the solution is better preventative and early help and family support services at the earliest point that those problems arise,” he said.
“The real trick that we hope the care review will pull off is how do you swing the pendulum more towards those early help services in a context in which finances for local authorities are desperately short.”
He said this would require “some financial injection from the government”.
Government should tackle profiteering from children’s homes
MacAlister said the recent Competition and Market Authority (CMA) report of its review of the children’s social care market would influence his proposals.
Crocker said he was surprised that the CMA did not recommend limiting “the profiteering that is happening” from children’s homes providers.
Despite saying profits among both large children’s home and independent fostering providers were higher than would be expected in a well-functioning market, the CMA rejected limits on prices or profits on the grounds this would risk shrinking supply in the context of a scarcity of care placements.
However, in his inaugural speech, Crocker said: “Let me be clear, profiteering through public money on the basis of meeting children’s care needs is unacceptable. I am hopeful that the independent review of children’s social care will make strong recommendations on this front.”
He said money contributing to private children’s home providers’ profits and social worker agencies could be better spent on children’s services.
The CMA also recommended a system for monitoring the finances of providers that were hard to replace, to raise warnings if any were at risk of failure. It saw this as a particular risk for those backed by private equity, who tend to carry high levels of debt.
Speaking to Community Care, Crocker said this was a critical issue to tackle but, unlike the CMA, linked it to addressing profit levels.
“I know there are some concerns about market failure because looking at what happened in adult services where you have a collapse of a major provider. To me, this is where central government needs to step in,” he said. “There aren’t local authorities that could afford to step into that space if there was a major failure and I think there is a role for central government to disrupt the market to bring down these excess profits.”
More foster carers needed
Crocker also welcomed the CMA’s recommendation for the government to fund pilot schemes for local authorities to attract more in-house foster carers, but he said the main requirement was for a national carer recruitment campaign.
“If we think back to the work that local and national government did around adoption, we need to put the same rocket boost underneath fostering.”
He said the response to the Homes for Ukraine scheme showed “people’s ability to be selfless in putting themselves forward for these things” and suggested this could be channeled to increase the number of people willing to foster.
“I think the national campaign can show the benefits and dispel some of the myths and then we need to pick up on that locally so we have a good local supply of foster carers,” he said.
Ukraine sponsorships breaking down
Crocker had expected his priorities for the year ahead to be responding to three major pieces of policy change – the care review and the recently published SEND green paper and schools white paper.
But in recent weeks, the UK children’s services’ response to the conflict in Ukraine has been “exercising” ADCS “a lot” and become another priority for the year ahead.
Around 200,000 British people have signed up to offer those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine a place to stay, which Crocker said showed the “real power of communities to come forward”.
But he said ADCS was talking to the Home Office about some “emerging issues” with regards to “some of the initial sponsorship placements breaking down”.
“We then need to have a system that rematches families and government is aware of that and looking into it. Also, we are very conscious and aware of the risks of trafficking children and young people through Europe and into the UK and all of our teams are alert to that, although not picking up large numbers just yet. But that will be something in the next few months to really be keeping our eyes out for,” he said.
In recent months, the Home Office has made it compulsory for all councils in the UK to accept unaccompanied asylum-seeking children through its national transfer scheme, despite opposition from some authorities.
Crocker said ADCS backed making the scheme mandatory because “we need everybody to be pulling in the same direction”.
“Many councils have got specialist teams that can share knowledge and skills around trafficking, which is a real risk and a real issue. But many of the unaccompanied children need the same things that other children need, which is unconditional love, support, care, good healthcare, support from community mental health services to heal trauma they may have experienced and a school place; almost invariably they are really keen on education and want to get on in life,” he said.