Increasing numbers of children’s agency social workers are newly qualified, amid worsening staff shortages and rising demand, directors have warned.
Children’s services leaders raised concerns about the cost, quality and profit extracted from agency work in responses to the Association of Directors of Children’s Services latest safeguarding pressures report, issued today.
The study, based on Department for Education data and a survey of 125 directors, found that children’s services faced an estimated funding shortfall of £778m in 2022-23, against a budget of £11.2bn.
Directors said the four main cost pressures they faced were children in care placement costs, particularly in the private sector, increasing demand and complexity of need, high-cost special educational needs and disability provision and agency social workers.
Size of workforce ‘not keeping up with demand’
The increase in demand was evidenced in this week’s annual Department for Education children in need figures, which showed an 8.8% increase in referrals to children’s social care – in part, the result of the removal of lockdown restrictions – and a 9.6% rise in the number of child protection enquiries in 2021-22.
However, the report, quoting the DfE’s separate workforce statistics, stated that, in the year to September 2021, there was a 3% drop in the number of social workers who were “case holding”, encompassing those in front line roles, excluding senior practitioners.
“In the context of increased demand, complexity and impacting factors already evidenced in this report, this quite simply means that the size of the workforce is not keeping up with social care demand,” said the safeguarding pressures study.
And respondents indicated that workforce shortages were “likely to have deteriorated” since September 2021, when 15.5% of all full-time equivalent social worker posts in local authorities or children’s trusts were filled by agency staff.
Increasing number of newly qualified agency staff
The safeguarding pressures report said that, since then, “a large number of social workers” had left local authorities to join agencies, to take advantage of “increased flexibility and competitive incentives”.
However, the report added: “Respondents reported that an increasing number of agency social workers are newly qualified, which is concerning.”
In recent months, directors have expressed serious concerns about the practices of employment agencies. In July, ADCS president Steve Crocker called for them to be regulated or banned outright, to tackle “profiteering”, particularly highlighting agencies’ practice of restricting supply to the provision of managed teams, rather than individual locums.
These concerns were echoed in the safeguarding pressures report, which said: “Agency staff continue to be a significantly more costly option compared to directly employed social workers, and there can be concerns about quality. There is a strong feeling that “profiteering” by private providers needs to cease.
“Respondents continue to raise the need for there to be national reform on how employment agencies and agency social workers are regulated, without destabilising an already fragile and insufficient workforce.”
Regional action to tackle agency use
The report comes as regional groupings of councils draw up new agreements to regulate agency work in their areas, with revised memoranda of co-operation established in London, the South East, the West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber this year. Memoranda drawn up in previous years are also in place in the East Midlands, Eastern, North East and South West regions.
Of the agreements drawn up this year, each sets pay caps for agency workers and involves a pledge not to actively headhunt social workers from fellow signatory authorities. The London and South East agreements involve pledges not to employ staff in an agency role for six months after them leaving a permanent role in another signatory authority, while the West Midlands memorandum puts this limit at 12 months.
Both the London and the West Midlands agreements also include pledges not to recruit newly qualified social workers as locums. Authorities in the capital have agreed not to employ social workers with less than two years’ permanent experience as agency staff, while those in the West Midlands have pledged not to recruit those in their first year as locums.
Potential for national action
Community Care understands discussions are underway to develop a national approach to tackling agency work.
Speaking alongside Crocker at the ADCS conference in July, the DfE’s director for children’s social care, Suzanne Lunn, said the department recognised the need to act on the issue.
She said: “I can’t say what. We will need to test the evidence on it and the views of ministers – I don’t know what these are yet. We really want to hear your views about regulation options in this space. It’s not just about the money – we’ve heard concerns about quality and what you are buying. Over the next few months, we should have some serious discussions on what we should do.”
However, the representative body for agencies reacted angrily to Crocker’s calls for them to be regulated or banned.
“The president of the ADCS’s comments are completely absurd,” said Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, at the time.
“Agencies do a huge amount of work to support the care system, and are certainly not the cause of its problems. Rather than blaming agencies unfairly, ADCS would do better to work with us to build a care system that delivers a great service at good value to the taxpayer – as well as paying social care workers what they deserve and treating them well, whether they are substantive or temporary staff.”