Council heads have urged the government to fund another return to social work scheme to bring 200 practitioners back into practice and alleviate pressures on the workforce in England.
The Local Government Association (LGA) made the call in a briefing ahead of a House of Commons debate last week on the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care.
The LGA managed a similar scheme in 2020-21, backed by £650,000 from the Government Equalities Office (GEO), providing training and support geared towards enabling professionals who had been out of practice for two to ten years to restore their registration and return to practice.
Return to social work scheme ‘largely effective’
A GEO evaluation, published in March, found the programme had been “largely effective”, with 184 of the 199 starters completing the training and 133 returning to the register. This group was roughly evenly split between those who had been out of practice for two to five years (65 re-registrants) and those who had been away for five to ten years (68%), which the GEO said could indicate that the length of a career break did not determine your ability to return.
At least 79 had been offered a job, according to the scheme’s training provider, a number the GEO said was likely to have risen because of councils’ recruitment challenges. Also, 81% of participants said they had been very or fairly satisfied with the programme and 89% said the training had met their expectations, in a post-participation survey.
How to return to social work in England
Previously registered social workers can rejoin the register through Social Work England’s restoration process. For those who left the register within the previous two years, this involves providing information on their employment since leaving and any updated information on issues such as health conditions that could affect practice or criminal convictions or cautions.
Those who left between two and five years previously must also provide evidence of having spent 30 days updating their skills and knowledge in the previous 12 months, while for those who have not been registered for more than five years the requirement is 60 days. This can encompass supervised practice, formal study or private learning, but the latter must take up no more than half of the required number of days.
It costs £135 to apply for restoration, and those who are successful must then pay the annual £90 registration fee, or a proportionate amount based on when they rejoin.
Mounting workforce pressures
The LGA’s call – which was made specifically in relation to children’s social workers – comes amid mounting pressures on, and attrition from, the workforce. Latest official figures show:
- Children’s social work vacancies in local authorities and children’s trusts rose by 7%, to 6,522 full-time equivalent posts (FTE), in the year to September 2021, the highest level in five years. This pushed the FTE vacancy rate up from 16.1% to 16.7%.
- An estimated 2,785 FTE posts in children’s services were vacated in the same year without the social workers concerned joining another authority, whether in a permanent or locum role. This was a 20% rise in attrition on the year before.
- The vacancy rate for social workers in local authority adults’ services rose from 7.5% to 9.5% in the year to September 2021.
Workforce shortages in adults’ services have been exemplified by data showing almost 500,000 people were waiting for an assessment, review, direct payment or care package, as of the end of August 2022. Meanwhile, children’s directors have also raised significant concerns about the number of agency social workers they are having to use and the practices of employment agencies, particularly restricting supply to teams rather than individual practitioners.
‘Multiple actions needed on recruitment and retention’
An LGA spokesperson said: “We need a long-term, multi-faceted approach to ensure that we can recruit and retain sufficient children’s social workers.”
He said this included funding services adequately to enable practitioners to support children and families well, and addressing issues around staff support, pay, flexible working and training. It also involved changing the “narrative around children’s social workers”, including by tackling media vilification that “drives good people from the profession and prevents others from joining”.
The spokesperson added: “To help alleviate current challenges in the children’s social care workforce, we are calling on the government to fund an extension of the return to social work programme to help bring 200 social workers back into the profession.”
Social work numbers ‘higher than ever’
In response, the Department for Education (DfE) pointed to the fact that there were more children and families social workers in councils and trusts than ever before – 32,500 FTE posts as of 2021, up from 28,500 in 2017. It also highlighted its investment – worth about £22.5m a year – in training about 450 social workers a year through the Frontline fast-track scheme, and its funding for the Step Up to Social Work programme, which trains 700 practitioners every two years.
A DfE spokesperson said: “There are more child and family social workers than ever before and we are investing over £50m every year to support councils recruit and retrain even more, recognising the vital role they play in protecting and supporting vulnerable children.
“The government published the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in May, which contained a range of recommendations to improve recruitment, retention and development of child and family social workers. We are closely considering those recommendations and will set out an ambitious implementation strategy in the new year.”
Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Steve Crocker recently told Community Care he expected this would contain action to reduce agency staff use.
In its initial response to the care review, then children’s minister Will Quince said the DfE supported in principle the care review’s call for a five-year early career framework to support the development of social workers post-qualification.
However, current minister Claire Coutinho did not reference this in her closing speech to last week’s House of Commons debate on the care review, though she did say it would seek to establish “a skilled and empowered workforce”.