Care review response will start to address mounting social work pressures, says ADCS president

    Cost of living crisis, public negativity in wake of Arthur and Star cases and agency practices exacerbating workforce shortages, but room for optimism in forthcoming DfE reform plan, says Steve Crocker

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

    The government’s forthcoming response to the care review will begin to address mounting pressures on the social work workforce, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) has said.

    In an interview with Community Care, Steve Crocker said he was optimistic that the Department for Education’s response and accompanying reform plan – due shortly – would introduce measures that would address substantial social worker shortages and retention problems in children’s services.

    ADCS data from June 2022 showed that almost one in five social worker posts (19%) in council children’s services were vacant, up from 14.6% a year previously in the 108 surveyed councils. Over the same period, the proportion of agency staff in the workforce had risen from 15.6% to 16.7% in these authorities, who make up almost three-quarters of the total in England.

    Crocker said that, for most directors, the situation had deteriorated even more over the past six months for multiple reasons, including the cost of living crisis, fuelled by double-digit rates of inflation. Three-quarters of social workers said they had been severely or significantly affected by the crisis in response to a Community Care survey last year.

    Some social workers ‘struggling to make ends meet’

    “Just as in other public sector services, some of our social workers are struggling to make ends meets and we have to find ways nationally to make sure they are better remunerated,” Crocker said.

    Crocker said that the fallout from the high-profile murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson – in each case following safeguarding failings – had bred increased public negativity to social workers, which was making the job harder and driving people into agency work.

    “At the moment, the levels of press and public disapproval are driving people away from the profession,” he added. “It’s driving professionals into agency working – it feels more flexible. They can move quickly and get more money. But it’s the wrong thing for children because their social workers can leave at any moment.”

    He added: “The more people leave to go to agencies, the more those who are left behind have spiralling caseloads, putting more pressure on them and then they are tempted to leave as well.”

    Criticism of agency practices

    Crocker also reiterated stinging criticisms of employment agencies – first articulated last July – particularly the increasing practice of supplying managed social work teams rather than individual practitioners.

    ADCS’s survey of directors last year found there was a fivefold rise in the number of social workers hired through teams in January to June 2022 compared with a year previously.

    “If I’m looking to find an agency social worker to cover maternity leave I can’t find one,” he said. “I can find eight for a team.

    He said this approach was driven by “securing more profit for agencies rather than the interests of children” – a view roundly rejected by agency leaders – and often involved teams being run outside of the council chain of command.

    “They are not accountable to the local authority that’s employing them or the senior leaders who are responsible the service, he said. “That’s a flaw with that whole-team model.”

    Care review blueprint for social work

    In its final report last May, the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, led by former Frontline chief executive Josh MacAlister, made a number of proposals to address pressures on social workers and their employers, including:

    • A five-year early career framework, with social workers assessed on their knowledge and skills after year 2 (replacing the assessed and supported year in employment) and year five, tied to a “vastly improved” professional development offer.
    • National pay scales tied to progression through the framework and designed to reward skills, provide an alternative career path to management and boost retention. These should be applied to agency social worker rates.
    • Expert practitioner status for those who pass the framework, added to their Social Work England registration, and, in future, made a requirement for carrying out certain tasks, including section 47 child protection enquiries.
    • A target of 75% of registered local authority practitioners being case-holding, up from two-thirds now, and for 50% of social work time to be spent with families, up from an estimated one-third currently.
    • Case management systems to be “reimagined” to “drastically reduce” the amount of time social workers spend case recording.
    • Rules to reduce overuse of agency staff including restrictions on who can be hired and stricter adherence to regional agreements, plus funding to help councils set up not-for-profit staff banks that would be their first port of call for hiring temporary staff.

    It is not know which of these proposals will be taken up by the DfE, and Crocker – who is part of the implementation board advising ministers on putting the reforms into practice – said he could not provide details.

    DfE ‘has listened’ on workforce pressures

    But he added: “We’ve been in positive and purposeful and productive discussions with the DfE for some time. As president, I’ve raised this issue with successive secretaries of state [for education].

    “I’m really pleased that they have listened and there has been a taskforce working on them. There will be a consultation document, linked to the care review, published shortly that will begin to address these issues.”

    ‘Social workers doing a brilliant job and going extra mile’

    In reference to the increasing negativity he said social workers were facing, Crocker said there was a need to change the public narrative on the profession.

    “We’ve got thousands of social workers every day doing a really brilliant job, putting themselves on the line and going the extra mile to protect, support and care for children,” he said.

    “We really need to be emphasising that at every possible opportunity. It’s a really fantastic career and there’s huge public value to it and we have to help the public to understand that.”

    He added: “We’ve got to get better at celebrating our successes. There are so many children’s lives are made better and indeed saved by the brilliant work of social workers.”

    Funding concerns

    Despite his optimism about the DfE’s response to the care review, Crocker raised concerns about the funding situation surrounding children’s services.

    Councils with social services responsibility are due to see their ‘spending power’ – the total amount they can conceivably spend – rise by 9.2% in cash terms (5.8% in real terms) in 2023-24, according to think-tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

    However, some of the additional resource is dependent on authorities raising council tax by 3% in the midst of a cost of living crisis, while another segment is ring-fenced for adult social care.

    The government is increasing councils’ existing social care grant – available to spend on either adults’ or children’s services – by £1.3bn in 2023-24, by recycling funding that was due to be spent on the ‘Dilnot’ charging reforms in adults’ services.

    But the government is promoting the use of this resource to deliver more adult social care packages, to help tackle pressures on the sector and on the NHS.

    Crocker said the government appeared to have “done just enough to keep the show on the road for the next year or two”, but what children’s services needed was a long-term funding review “so we get the right support to the right children at the right time”.

    He said this needed to encompass how local government is funded.

    “If a major problem in adult social care has a knock-on impact on the whole council and children’s social care budgets, we need to think about how we fund local government properly,” he added.

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    2 Responses to Care review response will start to address mounting social work pressures, says ADCS president

    1. Molly January 14, 2023 at 1:14 pm #

      The insult of not mentioning Adult Social Work is partly why so many feel as undervalued as they do. Hence, they have zero loyalty to LAs. Where do all these children go when they become adults? Try working in a hospital team when there’s no placements and you are the one voice in a multitude of healthcare voices, pressuring you to move patients out of bed when there’s nowhere to put them.Try working in LD Where your skills need to extend to risk management plans for paedophiles, and offenders with mental health problems and LD as well as all the other adult skills needed, including knowledge of muliple different health and learning needs and how these affect individuals. Again, once you finished chairing the multi agency safeguarding meeting with Probation, you then need to find a placement and ensure that it is working, and prepared to manage the complexity of your service user’s needs. Try working in a hospital mental health team, or a community mental health team, where again you are the only Social Care voice, and there are no placements. The amount of comments I have read on here about children’s social workers being real social workers, is I’m sure partly the reason adult social work is struggling so badly. We all did the same training, and this idea that children’s social workers are somehow superior in their knowledge is absolute rubbish. I’ve worked in many teams with children’s social workers who have come to work in adults believing it will be easier. I have never seen such stressed out workers. Have a look at the Facebook pages for social work England. See the low morale for adult workers and the fact that our own colleagues in children services don’t value us gives the insult more gravitas. Social Work is on its knees from cradle to the grave.

    2. Joe January 17, 2023 at 2:09 pm #

      It’s disappointing that social workers don’t have the unity to strike for current pay and working conditions. Working conditions seem more and more challenging. Social work unions accepted a 4% pay-rise, meanwhile teachers are arguing for 10%, nurses for 19%. This is in the context of 1 in 5 social work posts being vacant, which suggests those in post must be trying to juggle 20% extra work. No wonder retention is so challenging and the numbers of children requiring children’s service involvement is increasing.

      My blue print for children’s social work would be:
      Maximum caseloads of 15 children – if it goes over pay should increase with each percentage over the maximum of 15. I know complexity can range, but 15 is safer and would mean the proper relationship based social work that we all strive for could flourish. This should happen before any introduction of further assessment of knowledge and skills – otherwise that’s just another added pressure in an unsustainable working environment.
      National pay scales – these would have to reflect rises in other professions.
      I agree with more time with families and better case management systems to reduce case recording time.
      Until there is a fair pay package and safe caseloads I can see why agency work is attractive and wouldn’t be fair to introduce rules to reduce this.