Fivefold rise in number of social workers hired through agency teams in past year, report directors

Many councils unable to recruit a single children's locum worker to cover a vacancy as agencies routinely restrict supply to teams, says ADCS, but agency leaders warn lack of funding is root of issue

Team having a meeting
Photo: Flamingo Images/Adobe Stock

There has been a fivefold increase in the number of children’s social workers hired by councils as part of project teams supplied by employment agencies, directors have reported.

The situation reflects a growing tendency on the part of agencies to restrict the supply of staff to teams, preventing local authorities from recruiting locums to fill individual vacancies, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) has warned.

Its latest safeguarding pressures report said that 530 practitioners were hired through teams from January to June 2022, up from 110 over the same period in 2021, based on data from 108 of the 152 authorities.

The figures provide evidence for a phenomenon directors have raised increasing warnings about over the past several months, to the point of ADCS president Steve Crocker calling for agencies to be regulated or banned outright within social work to tackle the issue.

Mounting workforce pressures

This is against a backdrop of mounting workforce pressures characterised by rising vacancy rates, increasing difficulties for councils in recruiting staff at all levels and practitioners reporting higher workloads and levels of stress.

However, agency leaders have criticised Crocker and other directors for not discussing the issue with them and said the root of the sector’s problems was a lack of funding for social work.

The debate comes with the Department for Education (DfE) reportedly preparing plans to restrict the use of agency staff in children’s social work, in response to calls to do so from the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care.

The ADCS report – its latest snapshot of pressures on children’s social care – said many directors “reported being unable to get a single social worker to cover a vacancy, instead agencies are routinely only offering the use of project teams”.

It described this as a new phenomenon that had grown over the past two years, adding that some leaders found that it was “unpalatable, but the only alternative available” to fill posts, in the context of a 19% vacancy rate.

The report also cited data from a freedom of information request to councils by Children and Young People Now, which found that annual spending on project teams had almost trebled, from £7.9m to £22.2m, from 2020-21 to 2021-22.

‘I haven’t got enough staff and can’t get any from an agency’

One West Midlands director quoted in the ADCS report said: “Before the pandemic I didn’t have enough social workers but could get some from an agency. Post pandemic, I haven’t got enough social workers and now I can’t get any from an agency. And in trying to maintain a level of service that is safe, I’m having to do a deal with the devil and bring in project teams at extreme cost.

“A good example of this is a project team that I’ve recently had to agree to is seven social workers and a manager. But we are paying for 13 people because they are bringing their own administration, business services and arguably all things that I don’t really need that I already have the infrastructure for. But that’s the model and there’s no deviation from their model.”

Directors also reported an increase, from 15.6% to 16.7%, in the proportion of their workforce who were agency staff in the year to June 2022, which was above the official DfE figure reported for September 2021 (15.5%).

Leaders said that, while some agency staff were “highly valued” and offered additional capacity when needed, they were, generally, “a more costly solution”, caused increased workforce churn and were sometimes lacking in skills.

‘Limited training offer from agencies’

“The limited training, development and reflective supervision offer from employment agencies means that some agency staff do not always have the right knowledge or skills, this is particularly true for newly qualified staff, who are increasingly being drawn to agency work,” said the ADCS report.

“LAs do resource training for agency staff at a cost, however, this does not represent value for money if a worker then chooses to leave in a short period of time.”

However, agency leaders rejected the ADCS’s analysis, saying the key issue was a lack of funding, not agency practices.

“This data points to the heart of the problem – the lack of adequate funding for social work,” said Neil Carberry, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, in the context of the ADCS finding councils facing a shortfall of £778m (7.5%) in their 2022-23 children’s social care budgets.

Agencies ‘an important part of the system’

He added: “Agencies do form an important part of the system, but a sustainable long-term approach would allow for workforce planning that supports the supply and training of both substantive and temporary staff.

“Despite ADCS having failed to even respond to an offer of a discussion after Steve Crocker’s speech in the summer, we remain keen to engage on a plan that puts the needs of children and adults in the care system first.”

In his speech in July, Crocker said that councils needed to be open to looking at what they offered staff to attract them to take up permanent social work roles.

He told Community Care at the time that he backed the care review’s call for a five-year early career framework, coupled with national pay scales which practitioners would move up as they progressed, saying this would incentivise people to stay with employers.

Pay remains the biggest factor driving practitioners to move into agency work, found the fourth wave of the DfE’s longitudinal survey tracking the attitudes of children’s social workers who were working in local authorities as of 2018.

Pay biggest factor in moving to agency work

Of 89 agency or self-employed staff quizzed on the issue towards the end of 2021, 44% cited pay as a factor for moving out of a permanent role, followed by the desire for more flexibility (31%) and for a better work-life balance (30%).

However, the salience of pay has fallen since the third wave – for which respondents were surveyed at the end of 2020 – when 60% of agency or self-employed staff polled cited it as a factor.

In the latest wave, 55% of agency staff said improved pay would encourage them to move back into a permanent role, with 34% saying a better work-life balance would do so.

Of a sample of 10 agency workers interviewed for the research, most saw it as a temporary measure, triggered, for example, by the need to relocate or to gain a range of experience in order to progress.

However, like the ADCS report, the longitudinal survey also uncovered concerns among social workers and managers about the impact of the turnover – and in some cases, the skills – of agency staff on children and families.

The survey report said: [Respondents] reported dissatisfaction with the levels of experience and quality of some agency social workers, and concern about the impact on children and families of the typically short-term involvement of agency staff.

“Most respondents would prefer employers to do more to retain permanent staff by providing attractive pay, conditions, support and development opportunities. Some LAs were seen to do this better than others.”

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2 Responses to Fivefold rise in number of social workers hired through agency teams in past year, report directors

  1. The voice December 28, 2022 at 3:52 pm #

    Social Work could be a beautiful career if…but…however…there is so much to say, so many flaws that disconnect true social work and true help. From the top, the government want agents of the state to implement austerity and stifle the unhappiness of the oppressed. From the training there is intelligence, thought, passion and drive (to go into a rewarding career in terms of job satisfaction if not money) and when you reach the council your met with often stale, obedient, brown-nosing social care teams and a lot of shrugs ‘that’s just the way it is’ from the hierarchy. Social Work has become pathetic and does not fight for our public. The poor and abused need more help.

    The free market and agency social work is all part of the Tory plan.

    The reporters (with nurses and teachers too) bang on that we are not happy with pay…that is a factor but most social workers want more resources, earlier intervention and more trust (panels are the dragons den of social work and massively unethical) .

    The design needs a redesign with the life experience of care Leavers and ex or current service users correcting the harsh, elitist, oppressive mistakes of the last 12 years.

  2. Agency Recruiter January 4, 2023 at 11:00 am #

    Was the West Midlands Director who “cant get any (staff) from an agency” asked how he engaged the agencies and whether he or she had considered increasing the hourly rate on offer to workers or margin to the agencies prior to bringing in an outsourced project team?

    I wonder if he engaged agencies directly, gave them a thorough job brief, ensured that CV’s were reviewed same day and interviews booked within 24 hours to keep things moving or do what so many do and put an “order” on a faceless portal with little or no job info that is pushed out to agencies who have had margins squeezed so much by the portal operator that they can barely spend 10 minutes “working the role” as the chance of getting feedback or making a placement is less than 10%

    In terms of the project provider brining in additional admin support as “thats the model”, thats the model of the project provider that he selected, they will have detailed this in their tender or presentation before he signed up and so it shouldnt be a surprise! They are one of many project providers who have different models and so an option without admin support would have been freely available if he had spoken with more than one provider!