Social worker shortages making job ‘unsustainable’ for some, warns Ofsted

Many councils increasingly reliant on agency staff whose working arrangements can reduce capacity and affect quality of relationships with children, inspectorate warns in annual report

Pad of paper with 'staff shortages' written on it
Photo: Елена Дигилевич/Adobe Stock

Social worker shortages are making an already challenging job ‘unsustainable’ for some practitioners, Ofsted has warned in its annual report for 2021-22, published today.

The inspectorate said problems recruiting and retaining staff were arguably the biggest challenges facing children’s social care and one that had got worse since the pandemic.

It pointed to Department for Education figures showing 8.6% of full-time equivalent local authority and children’s trust social workers left the statutory sector altogether in the year to September 2021, up from 7.2% the previous year.

While the same figures showed that a further 2.6% had moved into agency work during the same period, up slightly on 2.2% the previous year, the inspectorate echoed findings from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services in saying this was a significant issue for authorities.

“Many social workers are moving into agency work, as this gives them greater flexibility and higher pay than local authorities can offer,” it said. “As a result, local authorities find they cannot recruit directly and are forced to turn to agencies at a higher cost.”

Agreed workloads for agency staff ‘reducing capacity’

The report also said agency workers often had agreed terms and conditions, including in relation to workloads, which, when combined with their additional expense to authorities, had the potential to lower departments’ headcount and capacity.

The inspectorate warned: “Staff shortages are creating significant challenges for the workers who do remain in the sector. Workloads are high and the demands of an already challenging job can become unsustainable.

Ofsted also joined directors in raising the issue of councils employing teams of agency staff, which it said was “distorting the workforce”. In July, ADCS president Steve Crocker called for social work agencies to be regulated or banned outright, citing in particular, the practice of agencies restricting the supply of staff to teams, rather than individual workers. Crocker said this was driving up prices and constituted “profiteering”.

Agency leaders have strongly pushed back against this charge, saying they made a strong contribution to the sector and that the ADCS should be working with them to deliver better value for the taxpayers while also improving pay and conditions for social workers and other care staff.

However, Crocker told Community Care recently that the Department for Education was preparing reforms to regulate agency social work in its response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, which recommended such action. The response is due early in the new year.

Concerns over impact of remote social work

In its annual report, Ofsted also repeated previous concerns, including in relation to agency staff, about working arrangements that allowed practitioners to work far from home and spend relatively little time in their employer’s local area.

“Social workers can now choose to work for a higher salary, with a better work–life balance, for a local authority further away,” it said. “They therefore do not have the same local knowledge as staff based in the area.

“This can affect the quality of relationships with children and the sense of ownership about what is going on in the local area. Although staff may like working from home, local authorities should not underestimate the importance of face-to-face contact and access to support and advice from peers and managers.”

Workforce issues were also afflicting children’s homes, found the regulator, with high vacancy rates – particularly among managers – and turnover affecting quality of care.

Ofsted said vacancy rates for registered managers had risen from 9% to 14% in the three years to August 2022, while, at the same time, a third of home managers were new in post.

Meanwhile, in the year to March 2022, 35% of permanent children’s home staff left their posts, while 44% of permanent staff were newly hired.

Turnover ‘creating instability for children’

“This very high turnover creates instability for children in care, as it reduces the chances of building relationships, which are important for well-being, stability and belonging,” said the report.

Staff shortages, management turnover and a lack of skills among care workers were significant reasons for 9% (43) of the 480 children’s homes inspected for the first time during 2021-22 receiving an inadequate rating. While this percentage was in line with previous years, the number of homes receiving a first inspection was more than double annual totals in the past.

As of 31 August 2022, 81% of children’s homes were rated outstanding or good, up from 79% a year earlier.

As it has done in many previous reports, Ofsted raised significant concerns about the sufficiency of placements for children in care, particularly those with complex needs.

It said that in March this year, 50 children who posed a risk to themselves or others were waiting for a bed in a secure children’s home every day, double the number from the previous year.

Use of unregistered placements

Such children were often placed, illegally, in unregistered children’s homes, often under deprivation of liberty orders granted by the High Court, whose number have risen sharply in recent years. These orders are also used for children who do not meet the criteria for a secure accommodation order under section 25 of the Children Act 1989 or for detention under the Mental Health Act 1983.

Ofsted said it investigated 595 cases of possible unregistered accommodation in 2021-22 and found that 92% should have been registered. Most of these have since received warning letters.

While councils sometimes used unregistered provision because they needed accommodation immediately, Ofsted said placing children in unregistered provision could put them at risk of harm, because there was no regulatory oversight of the suitability and experience of the adults, the building or the arrangements.

Another factor in such placements, it said, was that providers were sometimes reluctant to take children who, for example, had been involved with crime or had been criminally exploited, for fear of being downgraded by Ofsted. This fear was cited by providers in response to the Children’s Homes Association’s regular “state of the sector” survey.

However, Ofsted said there was no link between ratings and the type of needs homes catered for, and that homes should be clear, in their statements of purpose, about which children they can care for.

It added: “The best homes do this well and can provide care to children with the most complex needs.”

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26 Responses to Social worker shortages making job ‘unsustainable’ for some, warns Ofsted

  1. Agency worker December 13, 2022 at 5:49 pm #

    Agency Social Workers have no rights! Performance Compliance machines is what is demanded by LA.

  2. Bea December 13, 2022 at 10:17 pm #

    I have been an agency worker for 9 years, this was not by choice, at the time of qualifying there were limited permanent jobs. I have worked now across all breadths of children’s social care and feel I bring a huge knowledge base. What I recognise is that working conditions across social care has declined. There is focus on agency wages driving people to go towards agency however I consider its more the flexibility that permanent staff aren’t granted. Working conditions need to improve and this will support workforce. There is limited support, no investment in staff and no encouragement to remain loyal to a local authority. I want agency staff to be limited amd for families to have consistency but if you are unhappy you have choices leaving a toxic environment quickly as opposed to working through a 2 month notice period.

    Ultimately working conditions should improve and if it doesn’t this new world of social work will continue to impact on families and services

    • Maria December 14, 2022 at 12:21 am #

      I agree with Bea. I have been an agency Social Worker for 20 years now. If I could find the ‘right role’ I would take it…I can’t, nor would I be able to survive on the paltry wages of permanent workers who deserve so much more.

      Despite my situation; ‘If I don’t work I don’t get’. I cannot take copious amounts of time off sick (genuine or not).

      If it weren’t for agency workers I think its fair to say there wouldn’t be a service.

      The landscape of social work certainly is changing. It’s one of those professions which should improve with experience.

      In my opinion, whilst some NQSW’s (of varying
      ages) are drawn to agency work it doesn’t mean to say they will have the commitment nor in some cases life experience to effectively do the job.

      I too want consistency for children, young people and families..I understand this only too well. I was a LAC for the first 18 years of my life. During this time I had 3 wonderful social workers. Sadly those days are long gone!

    • Anon. December 14, 2022 at 10:30 am #

      Well said. I left a perm job for the poor treatment and lack of flexibility. I had no support in respect of my disability and have been an agency worker for 12 years. Each time I have considered a perm job management will show their true colours.

    • Nick December 14, 2022 at 1:19 pm #

      I agree with much of what you say, If agencies were not needed they wouldn’t exist. I really think the finger pointing authorities need to get their house in order before offending the very sector that is keeping them afloat. I have worked in CP as agency worker for over 10 years, whilst i understand that agency workers who move around frequently can cause a level of disruption for children, but when has this ever not been a problem?. I worked for local authority for over 15 years and even without agency workers there was always problems with continuity, with sickness, maternity, workloads, poor management, poor decision making etc. There are plenty of roles in CP that do not need continuity, MASH for instance, who cares if agency worker only stays for 3 months?, they don’t case hold. LAC would be different, but i work in MASH or duty types roles where i can walk in a pick up a full days work from the moment i step into the building without any hand holding or direction. My last 3 placements have lasted for well over 2 years, the longest being 3 years, i never taken a day off sick and generally take 7 days holiday for an entire year. I think if you looked at the numbers you would see that the majority of agency staff actually remain in roles for extended periods well over 3 months. I have worked in agency roles where i have become the veteran member of staff within a year, this includes the management and these are not agency staff leaving, these are permanent staff.

      I have had very mixed experiences, for instance an L.A not mentioning any names who fell into special measures 2 years ago and now bankrupt with a failing children’s trust at the wheel, treated me like i was on the bottom on their shoe. The deliberate and blatant disrespect and ignorance of upper management was mind boggling. Other placements i have worked have literally continued to fund my role despite having a full complement of staff, on basis they did not want to lose the experience and stability i brought to the team. Most authorities are genuinely happy to have agency staff and value them highly, sometimes more than the permanent staff, and this is the route of the problem. Local Authorities need to stop promoting poor social workers to be managers, who clearly have no people skills or idea on how to manage and create a happy work environment, only at this point will they retain staff numbers. How many times have you been told that a certain manager was known to be really bad social worker? and yet these are the people driving the bus and making the big decisions. If agencies are banned then it is foolish to think this would solve the retention issue as personally i would give up social work permanently and go and do something else with my life. I promise i would not be alone in that decision.

    • Sean December 15, 2022 at 1:47 pm #

      I agree with this comment. Moreover, Local Authorities are over concerned with processes as opposed to staying focused on successful outcomes for children & families. Collecting data for spreadsheets to be submitted on time sometimes seems to be the centre of attention. Locum agency staff appear peripheral to the pressures permanent staff endure, whilst Senior managers never seem to address retention and instead create toxic environments leading to staff giving in their notice periods.

  3. Permy looking for a pay rise December 14, 2022 at 10:36 am #

    The demand for social workers hugely exceeds supply hence the high amount of agency workers. If they doubled social work pay, agency use would reduce substantially and thereby saving money in the long run

    • Nick December 20, 2022 at 2:25 pm #

      Not as simply as that. The actual salary paid is not the only cost to the LA. You need to take into account, holidays, sickness, training, pensions etc etc. There have been many studies undertaken that show agency still remains cost effective and in some cases cost less than permanent staff.

  4. Anon December 14, 2022 at 8:56 pm #

    How can you train to be a social worker if you already have a degree? The postgraduate loan doesn’t even cover the fees, the bursary is even less. Frontline and Thinkahead are extremely competitive. Is there any other way of funding a Masters in social work?

    • Clare Owen December 15, 2022 at 10:18 am #

      I funded my Masters by working a part time job at the weekends, meaning that I was working a 7 day week for the whole of the course

  5. Ewusiwa December 15, 2022 at 7:54 am #

    OFSTED seem to be reporting what they have been told. They speak to workers all the time yet dont adk tbe obvios. Have they asked any agency worker about their plight. Agency staff in real terms are losing out financially. The novelty is the weekly wages howeverly cumulatively in real times our monthly wages can be at par with permanent staff or less. For tax purposes local authorities are doing us a disservice. We work long hours as there is no cap on workloads, expectations are higher comparatively to perm staff. We dont get paid when off be it annual leave or sickness. I have also come across extremely incompetent managers who are in their positions not by merit. If Ofsted want to talk about retentión of staff then they will need to speeak to the grass roots and not the senior managers.

  6. Kat December 15, 2022 at 11:13 am #

    Social work has become an unmanageable profession.

    As someone about to turn 40 I am looking to retrain as I foresee I would not be able to sustain the pace until retirement age, without my heath being harmed.

    It is also illogical that you get so many senior managers and “improvement consultants” who technically are social workers- who sit in roles where they have no case responsibility. Yet meanwhile, all risk and increasing demand is pushed downward. It strikes me that this model is flawed.

    • Beth December 16, 2022 at 6:40 pm #

      Well said Kat
      I agree. 19 years qualified and 18 years prior I’ve worked in health and social care longer than lots of senior managers. I have seen a lot.
      The last LA I worked in allowed toxic environment to dominate and actually wasted public money on a team designed to save who were so incompetent it was shocking.
      Lots of consultants working and people climbing the career ladder with no practice experience. I actually think it’s frightening.
      Don’t focus on us the experienced social workers who are locum for varying reasons but who work hard and do a dam good job. LA’s will never be fully staffed as it is as no one is looking out for the profession.
      Sad but true!

  7. keithbc6472 December 15, 2022 at 1:28 pm #

    I have been a social worker since 1998 and due to retire late next year.
    Sorry to say, this cannot come soon enough.

    Lack of resources, increased demands, more paperwork mean that we are never competing tasks as quickly as they should. Added to that, the pressure on clients through social difficulties are immense – a lot of people we see cannot cope and so their mental health worsens or they become depressed with no previous history.

    We try to refer to other agencies but their criteria are very high so our clients keep coming to us with housing, family, financial problems which, years ago, would not have happened.

    Added to all the above is the need to cover ourselves – it is a stressful job day in and day out with colleagues off sick, this just increases the pressure.

  8. Claire December 15, 2022 at 3:10 pm #

    Pay cuts in real terms, increased workloads, poor management, defacto stat gatherers for Ofsted is what the profession has been reduced to. Why are we not striking like our Nursing colleagues?

    • Dave December 15, 2022 at 5:18 pm #

      Agree Claire

  9. Maureen December 16, 2022 at 8:23 am #

    It’s a totally different scenario in my country Kenya. We don’t even have the opportunities and we are trained. I wish we can get such opportunities to grow in our careers.

  10. Johnny Walker December 16, 2022 at 5:14 pm #

    Hear hear Nick. As someone that worked agency for a decade I am sick to my teeth of the systemic issues that persuade or sometimes force sws into agency work being ignored. Agency is by no means an easy option and after a decade of doing it and 15 years qualified I took the plunge to abandon staturory social work all together due to the absolute mess it is in and it gets worse day by day. I’ve never been happier.

  11. Sandra Gilfillan December 16, 2022 at 6:49 pm #

    Just incredible that social work is still having the same issues as 20 years ago. It makes me doubt that there is any real will to change the situation. The same old bureaucratic system trundles on. Ofsted are correct about relationships and stability for children of course. But the profession chose to go in a direction that made managerialism and box ticking which could be audited the most important thing. So much hypocrisy and lip service from the higher echelons yet the core issues are not addressed. So ironic that a profession whose stated aim is to improve outcomes for children (and other service users) really struggles to get its own house in order. I would advise any young person….. don’t go into social work- at least not statutory work. My best years were working in a school for children with special needs, There was a totally different culture, respect for staff, compassion, vision and genuine engagement with some very challenging children.

  12. Sasha December 18, 2022 at 6:12 am #

    Give us those chances… Kenya we have no jobs yet we have trained

  13. Me December 18, 2022 at 2:37 pm #

    Another factor in the drain on resources is the amount of Private and Voluntray foster organisations. This is not only more expensive but drains investment in the Local Authorities own provision. Have to acknowledge that some of the foster carers are as good quality as the LA. But would also like to see some research on turn over of placements for the children with more emotional needs and how that compares to all sectors.

  14. Tagha December 18, 2022 at 8:03 pm #

    Children social work is sustained by agency workers. One Agency worker manages a caseload meant for 2 social workers. Yet they are treateddifferently from permanent staff.
    No state pension, no national bank Holidays no maternity leave etc.

  15. MRM December 25, 2022 at 11:32 pm #

    Why attack the very core of Social work-Locums. Without agency workers the profession of Social Work would collapse.

    I’ve worked both as a Locum and permanent Social Worker over the past 18 years. I understand why Social workers choose locum positions over permanent ones and this often links to the toxic unsustainable environments that tends to be filled with inexperienced managers and poor practices. As a locum you can generally manage these working conditions better…you simply give a one week notice and get the hell out.

    I think if Ofsted and the Department of Education focused their energies on improving the skills and knowledge of management and leadership within the managerial domain it might improve working conditions for Social Workers.

    Unfortunately these issues ate cultural and longstanding. We talk about it but that’s all that happens..chatter. Nothing changes. Thus all trust and confidence is lost.

  16. Yahsue December 28, 2022 at 10:34 pm #

    Stupid reporting. Social workers leave because they are expected to work like robots for little pay. We cannot meet impractical deadlines and burn out because we have to work weekends in order to meet expectations, silly data and please everyone, all the while trying to save children. We are people too. Ridiculous red tape, ridiculously long report writing. Change the system, make it more worker friendly, simpler report writing without having to repeat everything. If we work late, pay us overtime, we are also trying to feed our families. Lastly fix the bullying in the industry, managers get away bullying staff. Maybe then local authorities can retain staff

  17. Yahsue December 29, 2022 at 12:58 pm #

    This notion of ‘consistency for children, young people and families’ is a farce. The model is a farce. Time and time again we have all seen that there is no consistency and there can’t be. Why? …because social workers are human too. We burn out. Our mental health suffers due to the problems we try to fix. We can’t fix everyone. Please don’t tell me about ‘resilience’ because that too is nonsense. Humans can only take so much. We do not have psychological help to offload. Therefore we leave to get that break. It’s a relief when families are moved on to a different social worker/ team. It’s a relief when we can see an end to our efforts. So rather than sing about ‘consistency for children’, change that notion and let children and families know that, like a medical practice, dentist, hospital etc, they may be helped by another social worker. The industry needs to be realistic! Make that a reality!

  18. Mark January 1, 2023 at 12:40 pm #

    Totally agree with your comment Nick (20/12) – this is one of the constant issues overlooked in discussions about permanent v agency. With most permanent packages you can add in about £12k of unseen costs into the headline social work salary: 5-6 weeks holiday (£5k), sick pay (if used for 3 weeks a year, £2.5k), pension (£3k) and then employers NI (£2k).

    There is no disputing that agency workers are paid more but so are any services commissioned on a spot purchase basis. To set up the argument that the issue is about SW agencies allows LAs to shift responsibility to external agents as opposed to exploring how/why they are struggling to recruit and retain SWs in post. Is money / wages really the sole driver? Create a supportive working environment with good systems that work for staff and families, having a multi-agency approach that fosters ‘who is best placed to support a child’ and one which sees their workforce as an investment (which includes a blended mix of permanent and agency) will, I suspect, change the landscape.

    The supply of SW has been diminishing for some time now and has likely been intensified, to some degree as within other professions, by the COVID pandemic which has changed people’s relationship with their employment. Greater flexibility of working practices has been created through the use of technology but the risk with this is that it can lead to SW becoming more process driven as opposed to being relational. SW intervention ought to make children’s lives better by creating an environment where parent(s)/carer(s) develop working relationships with professionals and at the culmination of this, are willing to access services again in the future, if required. This will keep children safer in the long-term.

    Posting this is the easy part, making it a reality, that’s the challenge that has confronted SW for some time now and I include LAs in this as their primary employers. I have worked alongside many in my 20+ years as a SW who share my values and goals and still do. SW agencies provide a necessary service to LAs and like any business they are there to capitalise on gaps. LAs themselves for years have looked to position themselves as businesses but have perhaps neglected to recognise that to maintain a healthy and happy workforce whose make-up is evolving, they need to adapt / change their offer to keep pace with employment practices / employee preferences.