Most English councils are struggling to recruit and retain social workers, with finding and keeping children’s practitioners the biggest challenge across the workforce.
Those were among the findings of a Local Government Association survey, which the LGA said showed that a “workforce crisis” was threatening council services.
Eighty three per cent of authorities said they were experiencing difficulties recruiting children’s social workers, with 72% saying retention was a problem, found the research, conducted in spring 2022 and responded to by 65 of the 152 authorities with social services responsibility.
Worsening workforce picture
The findings add to a growing picture of a children’s workforce in crisis, with:
- Almost one in five (19%) children’s social worker posts in England lying vacant as of June 2022, up from 14.6% a year previously, according to an Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) survey of 108 of the 152 authorities. As of September 2021, the figure for all councils was 16.7% (see graph below).
- One in six roles (16.7%) filled by agency social workers as of last June, up from 15.6% in June 2021, according to the same study, the ADCS’s latest safeguarding pressures report.
- 70% of directors saying they were not confident they would have enough permament child and family social workers in post over the subsequent year, in response to a Department for Education poll conducted in January to March 2022.
- ADCS president Steve Crocker reporting that the workforce situation had deteriorated in the second half of 2022, due to the impact of the cost of living crisis, higher workloads, particularly for permanent staff, and increasing public negativity towards the profession in the light of the Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson cases.
Echoing concerns long raised by the ADCS, the LGA said the workforce pressures were leading to increasing use of agency staff, “which is more costly and leave less for children’s services overall”. This was not strongly reflected in the survey results, with just 7% of authorities saying they were responding to pressures across the workforce through increased use of locums, with flexible working the most popular mitigating action (11%).
In relation to children’s social work specifically, 48% of authorities said they had used market supplements – generally time-limited payments in addition to basic salary – to attract staff.
Adult social work pressures
Adult social work was the second most pressured workforce area, with 71% of authorities experiencing recruitment challenges and 57% retention difficulties, and 25% offering market supplements.
The latest official data shows that, as of September 2021, 9.5% of full-time equivalent adults’ roles were vacant in English councils, up from 7.5% 12 months previously, while annual turnover was 15%, up from 13.6% in 2019-20.
Councils had been due to face even more severe workforce pressures with the planned implementation this year of the cap on care costs and associated reforms, which would have resulted in authorities having to deliver several thousand more assessments, reviews and care plans a year.
However, the government has now delayed their implementation until October 2025 – with some commentators doubting whether they will come into force at all – mitigating the medium-term workforce stresses authorities face in adults’ services.
In relation to mental health social work, 60% of councils reported recruitment difficulties, 45% retention challenges and 26% using market supplements.
Government investment in workforce key
Commenting on the survey results, LGA chairman James Jamieson said: “Our workforce changes lives for the better every day and help keep communities running. They care for your family, protect children from harm, ensure your favourite takeaway is safe and keep our streets clean.
“Local workforce shortages are adding to the challenges facing our local services. In the coming years, some services are likely to continue to see a significant increase in demand which they will not be able to meet without an increase in the supply of skilled staff. Government investment in local government and its workforce is key to ensure services are protected and also to delivering its own policy agenda.”