DfE working on plan to restrict use of agency social workers, says ADCS president

Response to care review likely to include action on agency work as directors’ concerns over increased use and costs mount

ADCS president Steve Crocker
ADCS president Steve Crocker (credit: ADCS)

The Department for Education (DfE) is drawing up a plan to address the use of agency social workers in England, according to a leading director.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) president, Steve Crocker, told Community Care that he had done “constructive work” with the DfE on proposals for restricting agency staff use.

Crocker, who in July called for social work agencies to be regulated or banned outright, said that he “can’t announce what that is, but there’ll be something that comes out”.

“We’re really pushing them to take positive action, not for any other reason than we need to stabilise our workforce and [to do that] is to give the best possible service to children,” he added. “That’s what we’re really focused on.”

Any plan would likely form part of the DfE’s forthcoming response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, which proposed reforms to reduce agency social work numbers and costs in its final report, published in May.

Care review proposals

The review recommended establishing rules to regulate agency work, such as requiring social workers to have completed the first two years of the review’s proposed early career framework and having high-quality references from previous employers in order to take up a locum post. 

It also suggested local authorities be expected to establish and adhere to regional agreements on agency recruitment and pay, similar to the memoranda of understanding that currently exist. Another option put forward by the review was for agency staff to only be engaged through approved frameworks, as happens for locum staff in the NHS, a model Crocker said had merit. 

To provide an alternative to employment agencies, the review also proposed the DfE fund local authorities to set up not-for-profit staff banks to be the first port of call for temporary workers.

It is not clear which, if any, of these ideas the DfE will take up in its response, due before the end of the year.

A spokesperson for the department said: “We are currently considering the recommendations of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. These include proposals to help reduce the cost and use of agency social workers.

 “We are rapidly working up an ambitious and detailed implementation strategy in response to the review and working closely with the sector, including the ADCS, on proposals.”

‘Large number’ of social workers switching to agencies

The potential plan comes amid mounting concerns from directors about the cost and impact of high numbers of agency staff.

As of September 2021, 15.5% of full-time equivalent social worker posts in local authorities or children’s trusts were filled by agency workers. However, directors surveyed for ADCS’s latest safeguarding pressures report, published this month, said that, since then, “a large number of social workers” had left local authorities for agency work.

They further expressed concerns about increasing numbers of agency staff being newly qualified and the costs authorities were incurring from engaging locum workers.

“Agency staff continue to be a significantly more costly option compared to directly employed social workers, and there can be concerns about quality,” said the report. “There is a strong feeling that “profiteering” by private providers needs to cease.

“Respondents continue to raise the need for national reform on how employment agencies and agency social workers are regulated, without destabilising an already fragile and insufficient workforce.”

Working for councils needs to be ‘more appealing’

In July, Crocker called for agencies to be regulated or banned altogether to tackle “profiteering”, highlighting the pressure caused by them supplying staff only in the form of teams rather than as individual workers.

In his latest interview with Community Care, Crocker emphasised the need to make working in a local government organisation “more appealing”, to deter social workers from switching to agencies.

“The benefits of working as a social worker over a long period in one place is underplayed – the relationships you build with families, the work you do with them, the change you see,” he said. “This is a reward that goes beyond the financial. You’ll never see that if you’re hopping from agency to agency.”

“We need to show that consistency of work [is vital], and there’s stuff in the care review that really helps with that.”

Regional agreements to regulate use

Agreements to regulate agency work already exist in all parts of England as memoranda of co-operation or understanding between regional groupings of councils. These agreements were revised this year in London, the South East, the West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber.

These latest memoranda all include pay caps for agency workers and a pledge for local authorities to not actively seek social work staff from fellow councils. Authorities in London and the South East have also promised not to employ staff in an agency role for six months after they have left a permanent position in another signatory authority, while the West Midlands agreement has set a 12-month limit for this.

London authorities have also agreed not to employ social workers with less than two years’ permanent experience as agency staff, while West Midlands authorities have pledged to refrain from engaging staff in their first year post-qualification as locums.

Vacancy pressures leading to broken agreements

However, Croker called the memoranda “tricky” as “there’s always a reason not to comply with them”.

This was borne out by a Department for Education survey of directors in 2020, which found that, while 96% of authorities were a signatory to a memorandum, just 26% thought they had been useful in reducing the number of agency staff and 44% in reducing the cost. The main reason given for them not working was non-compliance by individual authorities, particularly those with low Ofsted ratings, who tend to have higher vacancy, turnover and agency staff rates.

These pressures have built since the 2020 DfE survey, with the proportion of vacancies in the workforce reaching 16.7% in 2021, the highest rate since 2017, with ‘inadequate’ authorities’ average rate reaching 26.3%.  

Crocker said: “What do you do in those circumstances if you can’t find staff? You either are not able to allocate the case work to social workers or are giving them caseloads of 40 or 50, which is no good.

“Or, you have to bring in [agency] teams to ameliorate the pressure. Directors of children’s services are in a no-win situation.”

He insisted that the only concrete solution would be a national plan, adding: “The reasons will be different [for breaking the agreement], and that is because you’ve got differences between regions and between authorities. We can only make it work if there is a national framework [to regulate agency work] where you can’t go off it.”

Agency sector rejects criticisms

Following Crocker’s comments in July, representatives of the locum sector defended its role in social work.

“Agencies do a huge amount of work to support the care system, and are certainly not the cause of its problems,” said Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment & Employment Confederation. “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.”

The debate in England comes amid plans to end the use of agency social workers at Norther Ireland’s health and social care trusts – which deliver statutory social services – next June. Current agency staff in the country will be offered permanent contracts over the coming months.

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20 Responses to DfE working on plan to restrict use of agency social workers, says ADCS president

  1. Ruth Cartwright November 21, 2022 at 5:14 pm #

    The only way to dissuade social workers from going with agencies and thus reducing numbers in the permanent workforce is to offer good salaries, good conditions, reasonable workloads, well-equipped and comfortable office accommodation, flexible working, support and supervision, training and development, promotion opportunities, respect. Call me cynical, but I don’t think this is going to happen anytime soon.

    • Julie Shackson November 21, 2022 at 10:06 pm #

      Spot on! Social service staff have not had a pay rise for over a decade and conditions have deteriorated significantly in that time.

    • Mark Keeley November 25, 2022 at 11:53 pm #

      Absolutely – the employers have done nothing to advocate for better pay and conditions and Chief Social Workers are embedded in the Government and not advocating for social workers or indeed services to clients

  2. Tcm November 21, 2022 at 5:20 pm #

    Alas, another example of stupity on the behalf of the so called experts. And lack of derstanding of the issues facing Social Workers in LA?

  3. Mark Monaghan November 21, 2022 at 5:24 pm #

    Does no one realise that us agency workers keep children safe? We do the work as agency workers because in general local authorities do not look after us!!

    We dont get training, cod, holiday pay, or any other benefit that a permanent worker gets. That’s our choice. Why not cap the figures agency’s charge? Or alternatively book us as independent.

    You will create a further exodus of social workers should you decide to cull agency staff.

    Reduce the layers of management (that do nothing to safeguarding children) and you will balance the books.

    I’m glad to be at the end of my social work career…..

    Forcing people into local authorities won’t create longer term benefits to those we work with.

    • Jon November 22, 2022 at 10:59 am #

      It seems to me if you are complaining about not getting training, paid holidays and the rest it’s slightly odd to claim you are doing agency because LAs don’t look after you.

    • Tracy wickett November 23, 2022 at 8:09 am #

      Poor management is a major issue in many of the authorities I have worked in. They are too far removed from the practice of social work. They have become obsessed with targets , figures and covering themselves if things go wrong. They have unrealistic expectations of social workers and the bullying culture in social care is a serious problem. As agency workers if you don’t want to put up with it you can leave and we do. Rather than address the issues it seems they want to chain us to the desks

  4. Paul Morris November 21, 2022 at 5:34 pm #

    Being free to choose who you work for is integral to a democratic society. Leave social workers alone. I suggest Mr Crocker and rest of directors spend time on “shop floor” to see what challenges social workers face and why they find agency work attractive, its not just about pay!

    • Social worker November 22, 2022 at 5:55 pm #

      Here here!

  5. Social worker November 21, 2022 at 7:11 pm #

    Agency staff are already squeezed, they help fill gaps between established posts and needs of the service. Also some staff are permanent and require performance/sickness management which costs a lot more than recruiting an agency and getting the best team.

  6. Prussik November 21, 2022 at 8:09 pm #

    Perhaps there ought to be some reward / bonus / recognition etc etc for being a long term employed social worker. Any benefits there are (which are few) for being a social worker seem to come from selling your soul to the highest bidder – or better still leaving for just about any other profession where you are appreciated.
    Cafcass 2.5% pay offer!! – who can blame people becoming an agency worker where you can earn 20% more and work your hours!

  7. Debbie Wasteney November 21, 2022 at 8:19 pm #

    I am an agency worker as I somettimes need a break. I get fabulous feedback from families about how I’m the first hard working SW they have had. I used to be a paediatric
    nurse which helps my families I work with enormously.

    also I was severely abused as a chikd who ran away from home aged 16. I then gave birth to 2 children awaiting open heart surgery when i was 19 and 21 yrs old new mum. I had to learn supper quick about caring for my terminaĺy I’ll children.. I do not do agency Sw for profit….. I need regular breaks as I over commit to families and I now have fybromyalgia….. read the research

  8. Steve bevan November 22, 2022 at 12:06 am #

    I could quite easily quit my current team and be back within a fortnight up £10k, after pensions etc etc etc. I don’t do this because I have a distant and increasingly feeble attachment to some kind of public service ideal. If the bosses just paid permanent workers more, and binned the agency carpet-baggers, the temptation would go, and they’d make a net saving from not paying agency overheads. It’s so blindingly obvious I must be missing something. The only argument I can see for agency staff is that we can get shot of them if there’s a sudden drop in demand – but when has that ever, ever happened?

  9. Roryboy November 22, 2022 at 7:10 am #

    The discussion is about agency social workers… I have worked with many interim senior managers interestingly they or their daily rates not part of the discussion.

    • Social worker of 23 long years November 22, 2022 at 3:15 pm #

      Love that very well said… all the agency trouble shooters coming in to sort out local authorities on 60k + temp contracts lol and as for consistency for children I think they must be passed through 3 or 4 teams lol and changes of workers from referral to court to cin to cp to Lac lol. Clearly these reforms are being written by desk huggers who haven’t done a hard days work in their life on the front line

  10. Steve Stuart November 22, 2022 at 2:42 pm #

    Memorandum of Understanding were never set up to reduce agency staff numbers. That’s a whole different matter. So to use that as a measure of success is ridiculous.

    Similarly many councils would use more agency staff if they could source them!!

    In terms of compliance, only one region has addressed this successfully – West Midlands. Even this region though fell through the floor with the removal of key personnel.

    There is a complete misunderstanding on how the market works. This is not fuelled by agencies, but by the councils and trusts. The West Midlands MoU recognised this, and even when confronted by a council being rated inadequate and requiring an extra 70 agency staff managed to maintain the cap.

    If the link works you can see a demonstration on how prices are actually fixed, not how councils think they are.

  11. Social worker November 22, 2022 at 5:54 pm #

    Where will the work go to? if we are given low budgets for established staffing, and then projects arise, waiting lists occur, we need agency staff to fill temporary gaps, unless we develop a bank of staff and have a whole system approach like the NHS, for a consistent rate/terms, then we will always compete but this will affect permanent staff and drive down pay like nurses.

    Agency help to drive up pay for permanent, to encourage good social workers into permanent employment. If we didn’t have them, we would end up overloaded, spread thinly with only the union to help pay rises and they only seem to advocate well for rail workers!

    • A real social worker November 26, 2022 at 9:57 pm #

      It’s just about money and cutting costs. That is my worry. There’s a bullying culture and a back covering culture this government hasn’t treated social workers well. To remove agency staff won’t bring in more social workers I think personally the opposite may be the result if this is implemented.

  12. Kat November 22, 2022 at 7:03 pm #

    I dont think they are fully getting this. The reasons why a lot of people dont want to work permanently anymore are not just about pay.

    Yes I was paid more when locum but I also remember the anxiety when I thought I may need to take sick leave, all the money the Umbrella company took, anxiety over horror stories about Umbrellas investigated by HMRC etc

    However , the feeling that I was delivering a service for families on my terms and was no technically trapped into the local authority, was positive for my self worth.

    Many local authorities do not value permanent case holding staff at all. In some places you are seen as little more than a bum on a seat, to be overloaded, overworked, audited and over allocated to. Development opportunities are often few and far between or go to those whose face fits and or are after a pathway out of having to do any direct work .

  13. Berni November 25, 2022 at 2:15 pm #

    Hmmm, I have done both permanent roles and locum jobs in the last decade and I can relate to some of the posted replies.

    However, LAs do not always want permanent staff, like really do not want permanent staff and come up with all manner of excuse’s like not good enough, not qualified enough.

    Here is the barb, agency workers have to pay two lots of national insurance because of IR35.

    That means paying the employer and employee at a cost of nearly two hundred quid a week. Extra costs like travelling to cover a service gap- nope you cannot do that either nor anything else.

    Myself, well I wanted the experience and liked seeing how different teams worked and I have learnt a lot from generous colleagues over the years.

    I think locums have a place in the workforce and I am not being negative about age, but a lot of the work force will be retiring in the next three years but not as many people are training to be SW because of the negative image of the job and also the cost of getting through university.

    I expect the changes will keep happening but why not just get the basics right and stick with what works as to me as things are getting harder in every living sense so too are these problems.

    I would also like to point out the complete lack of ideas for change in social work and also despite all the hot air no improvement in the SW image.

    Myself, I keep on going and know dedicated SWs who give it their all every day of the week and beyond its just a shame that it goes without recognition most of the time, but I think Joe public knows.