‘Inadequate’ councils bore brunt of sharp rise in social workers quitting posts last year, analysis shows

Social work turnover, along with agency use, vacancies, sickness absence and caseloads, now higher the worse a council’s Ofsted grade, prompting calls for inspection regime to be overhauled

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

‘Inadequate’ authorities bore the brunt of a sharp rise in children’s social workers leaving their jobs last year, a Community Care analysis has found.

Turnover at English councils currently rated inadequate by Ofsted increased by 4.6 percentage points on average, from 2019-20 to 2020-21, more than double the 1.9-point rise nationally that took turnover to 15.4%, the highest in five years. Three of the 19 current ‘inadequate’ authorities acquired their ratings after September 2021, the end of the period covered by the turnover data.

The average turnover rate was relatively static at councils now rated requires improvement, while it rose by 2.1 points at ‘good’ authorities and by 1.7 points at those now graded outstanding, found our analysis of current Ofsted ratings and Department for Education workforce data.

Turnover now clearly linked to rating

Unlike last year, when we carried out a similar analysis, there is now a clear relationship between Ofsted grade and turnover rate: the higher the service’s inspection rating, the lower its social worker churn in 2020-21.

As was the case last year, the higher an authority’s Ofsted grade, the lower its agency worker, vacancy and sickness absence rates, and caseloads, as measured by the DfE.

Relationship between Ofsted ratings and workforce indicators

Relationship between Ofsted ratings and workforce indicators

Separate DfE research has found social workers at ‘inadequate’ authorities were more likely to work longer hours and less likely to find their jobs fulfilling.

Calls for Ofsted overhaul

The findings prompted calls for Ofsted’s inspection regime to be reformed to ensure that it did not deepen the sector’s retention problems, ahead of the forthcoming report of the children’s social care review.

The review has implied it may recommend changes by highlighting the impact of negative Ofsted ratings on retention and by questioning the current inspection regime’s value in assessing what matters to children and families.

Ofsted has pledged to reassess its inspection regime in the light of the care review’s recommendations and, in response to our analysis, said that it recognised that workforce pressures were greater at ‘inadequate’ councils.

Sharp rise in social workers leaving ‘inadequate’ councils

The average full-time equivalent (FTE) staff turnover rate at currently ‘inadequate’ councils rose from 13.6% in 2019-20 – in line with the average for all authorities – to 18.2% in 2020-21, well above the national average (15.4%).

Turnover rates at ‘outstanding’, ‘good’ and ‘requires improvement’ councils were 13.8%, 16% and 16.3%, respectively, in 2020-21.

While the DfE data showed the national vacancy rate rising from 16.1% to 16.7% from September 2020 to September 2021, the gap between the best and worst-rated authorities grew.

Those now rated outstanding bucked the national trend by reducing their average vacancy rate by 1.5 point to 7.7%, while the average rate for currently ‘inadequate’ councils grew by 1.9 points to 26.3%.

However, a sharp rise in vacancies among authorities now classed as ‘good’, amid a fall among ‘requires improvement’ councils, saw the middle two groups coalesce around the national average: 16.6% for ‘good’ councils and 17% for those rated requires improvement.

Agency staff usage the biggest divide

Use of agency staff remained the biggest divide between ‘inadequate’ and ‘outstanding’ authorities, with the former (26.7%) having average rates that were almost four times the latter’s (6.9%).

Again, there was compression in the middle, with those currently rated requires improvement seeing their agency rate fall by 0.9 points to 16.4% on average, with currently ‘good’ councils using more locums on average (16.1%, up from 14.5%).

Sickness absence also increased by the most at currently ‘inadequate’ authorities, with 3.6% of working days lost on average per full-time equivalent social worker in 2020-21, up from 3.1% for the same authorities in 2019-20. Rates flatlined at ‘outstanding’ councils at 2.4%.

‘Outstanding’ local authorities had an average caseload of 15.5, for ‘good’ councils it was 16.2, for ‘requires improvement’ authorities 16.8, and ‘inadequate’ ones 17.4 as of September 2021, according to the DfE. However, practitioners have criticised its measure as an underestimate and the department has said the figure should be treated with caution.

Longer hours and less job satisfaction

The findings chime with other data on the experiences of practitioners at differently-rated authorities. Notably, the latest wave of the DfE’s longitudinal survey of children’s social workers, published last year, found that staff in ‘inadequate’ authorities were more likely to work more than 45 hours a week (36%) than those in ‘outstanding’ (24%), ‘good’ (22%) or ‘requires improvement’ (26%) councils.

It also found that those at ‘inadequate’ and ‘requires improvement’ councils (70%) were less likely to find their jobs satisfying than those at ‘good’ (72%) or ‘outstanding’ (79%) authorities.

Particular challenges for ‘inadequate’ authorities

In response to our findings, an Ofsted spokesperson said: “All local authorities face challenges in staff turnover, vacancies and the use of agency staff, and we recognise that these are particularly difficult for those judged to be inadequate.

“We also recognise that, when a local authority is rated inadequate, and subject to the Department for Education intervention, it can lead to a regional, or sub-regional, challenge as it seeks to draw in staff from stronger surrounding councils to enhance its improvement journey.

“The availability of a stable, skilled workforce is one the toughest challenges facing the sector, particularly as we come out of the pandemic when many staff have reassessed their work and career priorities.

“Government – both central and local – need to work together to meet the needs of the sector.”

Care review set to report

The figures come with the care review – led by Josh MacAlister – considering the future of Ofsted’s inspection regime for local authorities, ahead of its upcoming final report.

In the review’s ‘case for change’ last year, it said the sector was “over-reliant on Ofsted ratings as a metric of success” and questioned whether they “measure the things that matter to children and families”.

It also noted that turnover and levels of inexperienced staff were higher at local authorities rated ‘inadequate’, which it said created “a spiral of increasing workload pressures for the remaining staff”.

Since the case for change’s publication, social workers have made representations to the review on the need to reform the inspection regime, to tackle levels of paperwork, make practice less risk-averse and improve retention.

In its recently published five-year strategy, Ofsted pledged to review its social care inspection system in light of the recommendations of the care review, while our analysis prompted further calls for reform.

‘Social workers repelled by poor rating’

David Wilkins, senior lecturer in social work at Cardiff University, who has researched the factors driving Ofsted performance, said social workers did consider inspection ratings when choosing which council to work for, so ‘inadequate’ judgements could repel potential applicants.

“If you look at it from the perspective of an individual social worker, particularly if they are working in an area with lots of different local authorities, why wouldn’t you want to work for an authority that has been rated outstanding and has been officially recognised as providing good supervision?” he said.

Wilkins argued that this “knock-on effect” from Ofsted inspections meant the inspectorate’s current process should be reassessed.

“Ofsted’ ultimate purpose is to improve services, not just to inspect them,” he said. “So, I think you have to then ask, ‘is the current mechanism of inspection a good way of improving services?’ If it is leading to things like retention problems in councils that are already struggling, then maybe not.”

Directors: ‘Ofsted judgments tell partial story’

In its response, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) warned that “Ofsted’s use of a single word judgement for a complex set of services and differing local contexts tells at best a partial story and even risks weakening the very services the inspectorate seeks to improve”.

“We know that higher performing local authorities typically enjoy greater workforce stability, with on average lower sickness absence rates and caseloads, as this analysis shows,” said Rachael Wardell, chair of the ADCS’s workforce development policy committee.

“That said, some local authorities do succeed in maintaining or restoring stability, despite a negative inspection outcome and many staff will stay and play their part in bringing about positive change,” she added. “We should be learning from these successes to see what measures can be applied more widely.

“Local authority children’s services face significant recruitment and retention challenges and we need more support from government to improve workforce stability.”

Negative ratings can ‘demoralise’ workforce’

A spokesperson for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) said performance ratings can “demoralise a workforce” and said more focus should be on “giving social workers quality time to do their job”.

“We know that environments where wellbeing and duty of care are paramount allow for good social work practice to thrive,” they said.

“For those that are struggling, we need to ensure they have extra support, funding and resources, mixed with strong leadership, to enable social workers to have manageable caseloads, good quality supervision and consistency within teams.”

Rick Hood, senior lecturer in social work at Kingston University, who has studied the impact of Ofsted inspections, said there tends to be a spike in child protection interventions at all councils following inspections, but this increase is prolonged at authorities rated ‘inadequate’.

He said authorities rated inadequate tended to have increased vacancies and use of agency social workers the year after their inspection, while those rated good and outstanding would see a fall.

Hood’s research has found that inadequate-rated authorities tended to have higher levels of deprivation and potentially more children in need per social worker. This resulted in practitioners having higher caseloads, in turn causing greater workforce instability, vacancies, and sickness.

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9 Responses to ‘Inadequate’ councils bore brunt of sharp rise in social workers quitting posts last year, analysis shows

  1. Anonymous Anonymous May 6, 2022 at 5:57 pm #

    I must say that it can be very difficult working at an inadequate or requires improvement council if there is a toxic workplace culture with a lot of micro management taking place. This does vary from place to place and does depend on the structure of the Council and the whole culture and atmosphere. As well as how honest the senior management team are with the difficulties and reasons as to why they are rated this way and how they are trying to improve the services.

    I have worked at two authorities subject to ongoing development plans and whilst it’s ambitious that this is recognised it is very difficult. In part, those authorities rely on agency staff and this can be due to the culture and lack of permanent staff. But they have micro managed everything and it can become very frustrating indeed to work with this and it can often deteriorate quickly if staff leave and leave at short notice so without a lot of warning caseloads increase and there is no room in the infrastructure to cover in those times . The agency staff leave at very shortly notice and they even felt at my last employer it wasn’t worth the extra money for what you had to put up with. ASYE social workers were carrying a lot of cases, a lot of risk and responsibility without much support so burn out was quick for many. This often doesn’t get acknowledged by senior management and they would state in briefings they couldn’t understand why no one would want to work there . I used to shudder at the lack of honest insight by the Head of Service and others yet they never wanted to hear the truth so it never changed. You were always made to feel guilty and responsible for the improvement journey not developing but those organisations that don’t listen and learn, never improve .

    Personally I found it very difficult moving from an outstanding authority to one that was requires improvement. I did leave after two years as I couldn’t stand it but thankfully I had a lot of experience under my belt. My current employer is rated as good and it’s much better than the former work place . Staffing is a lot more stable, you feel like your views are considered and you are valued more and senior managers are available if they are needed. Trainings and development are good and there are a lot of opportunities available which is refreshing. Despite the lure of more money or promotion to work in some of the inadequate/requires improvement authorities I would urge anyone to think very carefully if moving to such a place but this may be specific to that authority, but seriously weigh this up. The rating may be judgemental but it is likely it has that rating for a reason but they are subjective ratings as some of the ‘good authorities’ are not always great either.

    The rating may be an issue but often the issues are more than the Ofsted judgement and I feel the real depth of the problematic places is never fully acknowledged by those places on an improvement journey. They are difficult places to work and often due to austerity and funding – or lack of funding- it becomes a tougher place to stay.

  2. Paul May 6, 2022 at 7:27 pm #

    The reason why workers leave is quite often the management style. Too many senior managers up to director are out of touch of what social work tasks involve, resulting in piling on pressure to “number crunch” whilst upping case loads. The lack of understanding, support and “tools for the job” (IT systems not designed by social workers and purchased by those who will never use it) disaffect the social work day.

  3. Char May 7, 2022 at 11:57 am #

    It is correct that Ofsted inspections tell a partial story, however their role must not be minimised. Ofsted serve to inspect if we provide adequate services and their findings contribute to improving leadership and services. The leadership and culture within local authorities is often the influence for staff leaving. Social Workers require a consistent and national salary application. Leadership requires robust analysis and oversight by Leaders of the Council and CEOs, DCS of poor performing local authorities move on to improved authorities, want to make their mark and create changes that reduces the status of the Local Authority. I’m more concerned about the quality, recruitment selection and performance management of DCS.

  4. ANON May 7, 2022 at 4:45 pm #

    There is an unspoken truth behind the reality of social work today, I’m sure many will agree with me who are in the profession.

    Social work is not the problem, there are systems, policies and procedures in place that are effective.

    Many social workers remain passionate, but can no longer operate within a system that condones and perpetuates abusive senior management (Not all LA’s)

    From my own experience, I was dismissed for protecting a child from significant harm.
    I can’t say anything more at this time but the LA needed me gone…. For obvious reasons.

    BASW… You comment, but I’m not really sure what you do.

    SWE…. The regulatory body, the Executive report demonstrates your KPI’s are in the red, so you receive extra government funding to punish social workers whose mental and emotional well-being is floored because of the abusive culture within social work.

    All social workers should have indemnity insurance, because there is no security in permanent or agency work.
    Irrespective of how good you maybe…. A referral from a parent or professional to SWE will cause you a headache, and cost a fortune.

    I temporarily rest my case, for now…….

  5. Tahin May 10, 2022 at 8:58 am #

    I’ll let BASW into a little secret. It’s not “inadequate ratings” that demoralise staff, it’s incompetent managers, inadequate supervision, culture of back covering, misogyny, racism, vacancies, ‘regulation’ and the fad obsessed look at me floundering inadequates with pretentions to leadership. Not a exhaustive list obviously. BASW has no credibility in this debate. If it wants to earn it, it can start by daring to call out it’s mates at SWE. Social workers and the people we serve should be more important than the crumbs passed under the big table. Once BASW acknowledges that the echo chamber love-in with SWE has no meaning to the infantry, it can earn the right to talk on our behalf.

    • ANON May 10, 2022 at 1:33 pm #


      Very well said my friend.

      There is a common theme running through the responses.

      I would like to invite Community Care’s views on this??

      Maybe BASW could show up here and make a comment or statement??

      Or SWE, about oppressive and abusive management styles, that is adversely impacting on social workers mental health and emotional well-being.

      Maybe, just maybe some governing institution could show up and give a view……?

      We might be surprised, but I suspect we will be left waiting quite a while.

      • Tomy May 11, 2022 at 10:51 am #

        I tried to hold my breath but felt dizzy so exhaled.

    • Janine May 17, 2022 at 8:25 pm #

      Spot on. I’m no fan of an Ofsted inspection but you can’t blame them for an inadequate rating…they’ve got to have evidence. Where I work, the toxic senior management culture, unrealistic work loads and massaging of the stats are all contributory factors to people leaving. In some ways it was a relief when we did so badly; it meant all the lying the upper management did was undone by the inspectors seeing what was really going on. Whistleblowers have been forced out and so our only hope for change is ofsted highlighting the failings.

  6. Carly May 11, 2022 at 7:56 am #

    I am not sure BASW is as irrelevant as some claim. ‘Independent Social Workers’ need a voice too don’t they?