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
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.”