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.”
More on social work staffing pressures
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.”