Twenty per cent rise in children’s social workers quitting sector last year, suggest government figures

DfE analysis finds one in 12 children’s social workers appear to have quit local authority practice in year to September 2021, as report for care review highlights poor working conditions

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

By Charlotte Goddard and Mithran Samuel

What would most improve child protection in England?

  • Lower caseloads for child protection social workers (63%, 701 Votes)
  • Setting up expert multi-agency units to handle all child protection cases (16%, 184 Votes)
  • Improved multi-agency working without setting up expert units (6%, 69 Votes)
  • Improved practice in the police, health and/or other agencies (5%, 61 Votes)
  • Improved training and supervision for child protection social workers (5%, 53 Votes)
  • Ring-fencing child protection casework for "expert" social workers (5%, 52 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,120

Loading ... Loading ...

The number of council child and family social workers in England quitting children’s services altogether rose by 22% last year, suggest government figures.

An estimated 2,785 full-time equivalent (FTE) posts were vacated in the year to September 2021 without the social workers concerned joining another council or taking up a locum role in an authority, found the Department for Education. This was up from 2,283 in the year to September 2020.

The statistics, a deeper analysis of the DfE’s annual workforce statistics, came as a report for the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care’s highlighted widespread issues with social workers’ workloads, recruitment and retention.

In its final report, issued on Monday, the review recommended a new early career framework for social workers, with progression linked to pay, to enhance retention and improve skills.

Rising numbers leaving sector

The DfE found that 8.6% of employed children’s social workers appear to have quit the sector in 2020-21, up from 7.2% in 2019-20.

This meant they made up the majority of children’s social workers leaving their authorities in both years. Of the 15.4% of employed practitioners who quit their councils in 2020-21, 2.6% went into an agency role (up from 2.2% in 2019-20) and 4.2% moved to a new council, a similar rate to 2019-20.

The department said that its figures on sector leavers were likely to be “small” overestimates because they counted people who did not take up another council post during the relevant reporting year, 1 October to 30 September, but did not account for those who joined a new authority after that point.

However, it said the latter group was likely to be small; most practitioners who took up new roles did so within seven days of leaving their previous authority. It also pointed out that those recorded as leaving children’s social care may have taken up posts in statutory adults’ practice or social work roles outside of councils, or taken a career break.

The largest group of those recorded as leaving the sector was those aged 60+, with 21.5% of social workers of this age leaving in 2020-21 – up from 17.6% in 2019-20 – which the DfE linked to retirement.

However, there were increases in the number of sector leavers – and their proportion of the workforce – in all younger age groups.

Most leavers in post for less than 5 years

Also, the data showed two-thirds of those leaving the children’s sector had been in their previous local authorities for five years or less.

The report also found that one-third of case-holding social workers held 20 or more cases, compared to an average of 16.3, according to the DfE’s measure, which is seen by some social workers as being an underestimate.

The data was issued as the social care review published the results of a “deep dive” into practice in 10 local authorities, one of the pieces of evidence that informed its final report.

This found that, while local authorities saw newly qualified social workers as easier to recruit than experienced staff, they highlighted a “high attrition rate” among NQSWs.

As well as challenges recruiting experienced workers, councils reported retention problems linked to staff moving to agency work for higher pay, or to other authorities offering recruitment incentives. Poor retention of experienced staff was seen to have a knock-on effect on the service by leaving newly qualified staff, who needed more support, covering a greater proportion of posts.

Social workers consistently working over hours

In relation to the drivers of poor retention, researchers were “told consistently that social care practitioners were working well outside of their contracted hours to complete their work, driven by high levels of bureaucracy and caseloads”.

Social workers said their high workloads reduced their ability to do direct work, offer meaningful support to families, think about cases creatively or use their professional judgment, as they ended up following processes instead.

High workloads were linked to the significant levels of administration that practitioners had to carry out – which was taking up 60%-90% of practitioners’ time and leading to several working outside of their working hours.

Participants reported this being driven by a compliance approach to auditing and inspection, risk aversion and anxiety that things can go wrong and NQSWs, in particular, not having the skills or experience to record case notesconcisely.

‘Deteriorating working conditions’

In its final report, the care review called for action to reduce the administrative burden on social workers so frontline staff spent at least 50% of their time in direct work, up from an estimated 33% currently. Specific measures included revamping case management systems to make them more user-friendly and to reduce the necessity to duplicate information.

In response to the DfE’s figures, a British Association of Social Workers spokesperson said that it had long warned government that “that deteriorating working conditions [was] behind this concerning trend of rising attrition rates”.

“Time and time again the reasons our members have given have remained consistent: unmanageable caseloads, a lack of supervision and time with families, and a lack of resources to really help families,” the spokesperson said.

Urging the government to give social work “the resource and funding it desperately needs” urgently, the spokesperson added: “Without a fully staffed and resourced workforce, we risk social workers not being able to meet their obligations as individuals, and teams will be overstretched.”

, ,

12 Responses to Twenty per cent rise in children’s social workers quitting sector last year, suggest government figures

  1. TiredSocialWorker May 27, 2022 at 7:42 pm #

    They quit and go back to similar job but with an agency and earn twice the pay they got from the LA.

  2. Helena Peach May 27, 2022 at 9:25 pm #

    Unfortunately it will only get worse. Many of us desire to leave social work but feel stuck due to a lack of alternative careers.

    What else came we do?

  3. Tim Hayworth May 28, 2022 at 6:50 pm #

    No mention of Social Work England’s oppression of social workers being a factor. I know lots of social workers who have been hounded out of the profession by the regulator for minor misdemeanours.

    • David Riley May 29, 2022 at 5:13 pm #

      Agree. I feel like have had enough

  4. Patricia May 30, 2022 at 8:49 am #

    If by midnight tonight every scrap of meaningless paperwork was scrapped tomorrow morning we’d have nothing to do. Our work is paperwork. People work is way down docial work priorities. It’s not the bureaucracy that gets in the way. It’s the systematic destruction of social work values which over decades has turned us into mind numbed call centre workers. We are on the phone all day, staring at a computer screen most days. Tell me why we are no such thing if you are affronted. If we want to do social work again start by getting rid of the degree. Start by holding PSWs to account. It’s time they stepped out of meetings and stood up. Talk to us, we are really not that scary. Social work and social workers should matter more than chasing an MBE. Look us in the eye and tell us you trust us. Supervise us and when you do ask about the people we are working with, don’t witter on about reports. Give us time to learn. Allow us to find our enthusiasm again. I am proud to embrace social work as my vocation. I don’t need to be validated as a “professional”. I’ve no desire to write a book, push a podcast, find “allies” on twitter. My want is to make lives better than they are. My want is to be a better citizen. I want to be a part of the communities in which I struggle to bring change. I have no interest in the “we are oh so exhausted” narcissism that has become the devoid of meaning hook that let’s us off from addressing why we are so ineffective and mostly irrelevant to others. It should be the people we work with who “regulate” us, it should be the people we work with who hold us to account, it should be the people we work with who set our “standards”. Get rid of the obsession to be validated by real professions. Being BMA light has achieved what for SWE exactly? How has that MA improved our skills? It’s not the paperwork, it’s the floundering, uncommitted mindset of our leaders that stops us being social workers. Anybody still remembers the CQSW?

  5. Cathy Kingham May 30, 2022 at 10:50 am #

    My experiences as a social worker for five years resonate with this.

    I am a social worker and in 2021 I experienced occupational burnout, which left me feeling worthless, devalued and isolated. My book entitled ‘Hector (He works for the public sector)’ was created as a cathartic release from the stigma of burnout, because I didn’t want other hard-working social workers who experience burnout to struggle alone. Burnout can happen to anyone, at any level, in a multitude of jobs in both the public and private sectors. The World Health Organisation classifies workplace burnout as an occupational phenomenon.

    I hope Hector’s internal battle resonates with workers. His professional integrity is at stake, as he is expected to compromise his values and conform to a workplace that he believes is flawed and psychologically unsafe. Hector works ‘above and beyond’ his role. However, he resists his employers’ desire for him to take ownership of the failings of Vermin City Council – failings that are perpetuated by a managerialist culture of targets and tick boxes.

    Whilst it is tempting to give my story a happy ending (in which Hector sets up an organic cheese shop and discovers his inner self), this would be insulting to those experiencing burnout. In the ‘real world’, workers have financial responsibilities that tie them to jobs. There is no easy remedy or way out of this cyclical process. Individuals go on sick leave, and it can often be the case that little is done to address the root causes of burnout within their respective organisations. Sometimes the employer may deliver perfunctory ‘wellbeing’ sessions (a short-term band-aid), enough to tick the respective health & safety boxes. The worker then resumes their work role in the same challenging conditions.

    Hector can’t offer any quick-fix solutions, but he offers a message of hope: that workers are not alone in their struggles, and collectively we must seek change.

  6. Colin May 30, 2022 at 3:58 pm #

    I find some if this stuff attacking professionalism and degree level education unfathomable. Whether we like it or not, status matters. Nuns and priests have vocations. Our role is more valuable. The degree isn’t a training course. The degree doesn’t skill you for the minutiae of social work. Nor should it. Universities are there to equip us with intellectual and analytical tools so that we can navigate complex systems and legal edicts. You learn to be a social worker once you have developed your intellectual capacity by studying at degree level. There should be no diluting that. Academics are there to lecture, they shouldn’t be forced to also do social work. I am afraid the CQSW never equipped a social worker to stand tall next to a lawyer or a doctor. The MA does.

  7. Patricia May 31, 2022 at 12:33 pm #

    If you seek your validation from other “professionals” rather than the people you are meant to work with than ofcourse “status matters”. You actually make my point without perhaps realising it. Actually I stand tall because I believe in the power social work has to improve all of our lives not because of the mysterious and magical gifts conferred by an MA. When was the last time you asked a doctor what their qualifications were by the way? As for Nuns and Priests being less “valuable”, apostate that I am, I disagree. Perhaps you should have a bash at reading Liberation Theology and the history of persecution visited on nuns and priests in Latin America and elsewhere. I agree that social work degrees ill prepare graduates for practice. I disagree that the degree equips them with the “intelectual and analytical tools” to begin their “jorurney”. Heard the one about the registered social worker who hasn’t looked at a book since qualifying?
    I have. Perhaps they are bewildered by the realities of work the vacouity that passes for university seminars didn’t prepared them for. That’s not my definition of an intelectual utilising analytical tools.

  8. Alison May 31, 2022 at 12:52 pm #

    I don’t have an MA so naturally lack the intellect to understand complex arguments but isn’t on the job learning another way of describing vocational training?

  9. Louise Bath May 31, 2022 at 1:15 pm #

    It would have interesting to see the data upon which this report is based interrogated further, and if it had considered the registration year with SWE. There are Social Workers, and I was one, who have worked fourty years within the profession, before ending their registration. Therefore the age of individuals leaving the profession should rightfully be considered against overall length of service, and time qualified to be of real value.

    Despite ceasing to practice as a registered Social Worker, I continue to support children and their families in a part time unqualified role within an LA EDT service.

    SWE needs to explore rationales for leaving the profession by offering an exit questionnaire – then and only then will there be a clear understanding of why individuals leave the profession.

  10. Jen P June 1, 2022 at 3:07 pm #

    Is it just a coincidence that SWE are not listed by the DfE as a reason for social workers haemorrhaging from the profession?

  11. Maria June 2, 2022 at 8:55 pm #

    Other significant reasons why LA SW’s leave is due to chronic work related stress; lack of management support; hostile, toxic & oppressive working environment; management bullying, harassment, intimidation, victimisation & discrimination & that’s despite the profession supposedly being anti-discriminatory & anti-oppressive!