Increasing numbers of agency social workers are NQSWs, warn children’s directors

Leaders report worsening staff shortages amid rising demand for children's services and urge regulation of employment agencies to tackle cost, concerns over quality and 'profiteering'

Young social worker working remotely
Credit: Anton/Adobe Stock

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.”


11 Responses to Increasing numbers of agency social workers are NQSWs, warn children’s directors

  1. Paul morris November 3, 2022 at 5:35 pm #

    Was a time had to be 3 years qualified before an agency would take you. I managed a team, worker 2 year post qualified, no experience as all.previous jobs were about 3 months. Unless local authorities stop recruiting, agencies happy meet market demand. The job gets tough going, they give weeks notice move on. No good for families we work with, no good for the nqsw, development and job satisfaction wise.

    • Karen November 3, 2022 at 8:34 pm #

      Totally agree, families definitely suffering from this

  2. L Ethers November 3, 2022 at 5:52 pm #

    Perhaps what should be considered is a more reasonable salary for permanent social workers. Agency isn’t a preference for sake of it, it keeps our heads above water financially, try being a single working mum on a 36k wage when you can be offered 45k and above.

    There’s no other benefits of agency, with no sick pay, no holiday pay why else would agency be the better option?

    Plus agency workers are often not given the same standards of supervision and given the harder work and higher case loads because of the view they earn more so deal with it. So practise issues and poor quality should come back to the management they are probably NOT receiving.

    Perhaps talk to some agency social workers before making sweeping judgements and saying the service is at risk, perhaps the service is at risk because it does not value or emotionally and financially support its staff ! ! You’d of think the number of social workers leaving the practice would also indicate a bigger problem too..

    Why get treated badly, overworked for 10k less?

    • Karen November 3, 2022 at 8:36 pm #

      Maybe because we care??

      • Kirsten November 4, 2022 at 11:16 pm #

        I work with some fantastically committed and caring agency SWs who are very skilled. I’ve never been locum myself but and am now a manager, while we have a real crisis in the workforce I can’t totally understand why people choose locum. Particularly when they can stay in the same role for years as we can’t recruit permanently.

  3. Andrew November 3, 2022 at 6:55 pm #

    There’s also not enough spaces for ASYE social workers , it appears all those that qualified better are getting the spaces, whereas there are plenty of decent newly qualified with a lower degree. Perhaps better at hands on!

  4. Unimportant November 3, 2022 at 9:00 pm #

    All it will do is cause potential social workers to refrain from entering the profession as permanent salaries do not cover the current cost of living and as there is no clear way to know when the economy may stabilise (and even if it does) the pressure of the job means going permanent is far less attractive. If restrictions are being put on current agency workers this may cause those workers to leave, my understanding is that by law LA’s must have enough workers to meet demand of their service if two workers leave that could easily be 40-60+ families that need to either be reallocated putting further pressure on those who remain or the families are unallocated which is far from ideal. By todays standards the base salary for a SW should be around 40k an experienced around 45k and so on the alternative would droves of workers leaving the job plunging the profession into a state of crisis if it is not already

  5. Ray Jones November 4, 2022 at 10:48 am #

    There seems to be two elephants in the room. First, the public money (which is already too little) is pouring out of children’s social services as BIG profits into private commercial companies and their owners. This is money which should be available for help for children and families not to enhance the privilege of those who are already wealthy. We know that that over £250m a year in England is gushing as profits into the pockets of the owners of private children’s home and fostering companies. And BIG money is also being taken out of children’s services by the owners of social work private employment companies. This is described within its sector as an expanding and lucrative ‘industry’ (not a ‘service’). It is a little difficult to fathom – well at least by me as I am not an accountant whose career has been based on creating opaque parent and subsidiary company structures. But looking at the most recent filed Company House accounts of just two of the many social work employment agencies shows that Sanctuary had growth of 4% in 2021, had a gross operating profit of 16% (£4.4m), net assets of £9.6m, and the remuneration of its top director (plus presumably any share dividends) was £285,000. Liquid Personnel in the same year had a gross profit of £10.1m. Agency social work is driving big profits and a big drain on money which should be used to benefit children and families. And the other elephant in the room? It is creating a poorer service. Children and families have no continuity of contact and relationships with here today-gone tomorrow social workers who never get to know the children and families to whom they can hardly be committed, churn and change in teams hardly helps in building supportive relationships with colleagues and confident teams, workers in other agencies have no idea with who they are communicating, and organisations are unstable and insecure with employment agencies also having colonised the provision of short-term interim managers. This is not a sensible foundation for children’s social services. It was not always like this. It is largely a creation which has expanded since 2010 and the political thrust to move public services into a commercial privatised marketplace. Sad and sorry to see that the social work profession has been at least in some parts a little complicit in this politically and ideologically motivated journey.

  6. Craig November 7, 2022 at 3:43 pm #

    Not a little complicit but have embraced privatisation. Social Work Awards even have Sanctuary as a sponsor. A partner of a senior manager where I work is on the ‘Board’ of a provider agency we use. There doesn’t have to be a conflict of interest for this to be not ok as in my opinion it frames the discussions we can have. Agency workers are another end product of privatisation. Their use justifies understaffing. No agency worker has a right to comment on or criticism privatisation.

  7. Carley November 23, 2022 at 6:51 am #

    The memorandum in the Humber side area was stuck to for all of two days. The top limit of pay was promptly busted as organisations are in need of staff. At first just one LA and then other have followed. Not the one I am based at currently.

    I am an agency worker – and my social work pay is an additional few weeks money per year compared to my advanced practitioner rate of my last permanent role. I don’t get paid leave or sick pay. I left perm work from a team with a manager who was not the most positive person to work for. I ran out of goodwill to give and their treatment of staff did not foster an environment where I was willing to run on empty to get things done.

    We too put in the 70 hour weeks and even with working until 9 or 10 I haven’t yet had the time to register my cpd. In my team we do have the most complex cases with the exception of the ap. Some of the teams permanent staff are on special measures and others leave it all to duty when on leave.

    It seems Morale is pretty bad across the board and local authorities need to address this and offer proper support to all their staff.


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