DfE pledges action on ‘excessive’ workload pressures for children’s social workers

'Workload action group' to look at cutting 'unnecessary' burdens on practitioners, while care review response also promises steps to reduce case recording requirements

Stack of documents and woman working with laptop at table in office, closeup
Photo: New Africa/Adobe Stock

The government has pledged action to tackle “excessive” workload pressures on council children’s social workers as part of its response to the care review.

The Department for Education said it would set up a national workload action group to identify solutions to “unnecessary” pressures on practitioners, while also promising steps to reduce the burden of case recording and free social workers from some case work with children in need.

The proposals were set out in Stable Homes, Built on Loveits draft children’s social care strategy, which was published last week for consultation and is, in the main, a response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care.

The DfE said its ambitions were to have “an excellent social worker for every child and family who needs one” and for children and families to “expect to build a trusting relationship with their social worker and feel confident they understand their needs and are working in their best interests”.

Social workers ‘do not always feel valued’

However, it said its ability to achieve these aims was constrained by significant retention challenges among social workers and a workforce that “did not always feel supported, valued and trusted”.

The challenges are manifest in the fact that almost one in five (19%) children’s social worker posts in councils lay vacant as of June 2022, up from 14.6% a year earlier, according to an Association of Directors of Children’s Services survey.

At the same time, DfE research has found social workers reporting increasing stress and workloads, between 2018 and 2021, while Ofsted has warned that increasing staff shortages were making an already challenging job “unsustainable” for some.

DfE proposals for social work in children’s services

  • Agency work: National rules to reduce the use and cost of locum work, including by capping pay to the equivalent level of permanent staff doing the same role.
  • Early career support: A five-year early career framework to improve support and development for newly qualified social workers and enable them to subsequently progress to becoming “expert practitioners”.
  • Reducing workloads: A national workload action group, consisting of representatives from national bodies for social workers and leaders and people with lived experience, will identify ways unnecessary workload pressures can be reduced.
  • Caseloads: Removing the requirement for social workers to lead child in need cases, enabling a broader range of practitioners to do so as part of multidisciplinary family help teams, and giving social workers more time for direct work.
  • Case management systems: Reducing workloads arising from system requirements by working with councils to identify shared objectives for CMS and then communicating those to suppliers.
  • Case recording: Examining how data collection burdens could be reduced by funding two groups of councils to research how these are impacting on practice and propose solutions.
  • Employer support: Creating a virtual hub for employers to share good practice in retaining social workers, including in relation to wellbeing support, working conditions and pay, and enhancing the annual health check survey of social workers on their workplace experiences.
  • Expected outcomes: Making having an equipped and effective workforce one of six key outcomes set out in the proposed children’s social care national framework. This would be measured by, among other things, leaders identifying and removing unnecessary bureaucracy, ensuring practitioners have manageable workloads and enabling managers to provide regular, consistent and reflective supervision.
  • Pay: While rejecting the care review’s call for national pay scales, through which social workers would be rewarded for progression, the DfE said it wanted to see more transparency in remuneration, as well as consistency in what practitioners were paid for doing the same role.
  • Recruitment: Support for councils to recruit up to 500 extra children’s social work apprentices.

The DfE said the workload action group would be set up shortly and include representatives from Ofsted, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), UNISON, the ADCS and the Principal Children and Families Social Worker Network, along with people with lived experience of children’s social care.

Tackling ‘unnecessary’ pressures

“It will be asked to identify and address unnecessary workload pressures that do not lead to improvements in outcomes for children and families, to diagnose the issues driving them and to develop solutions,” the department said.

The department said improvements in case management systems (CMS) were needed to enable more direct work and reduce workload pressures on practitioners.

It said it would work with councils to identify shared aims for CMS, solutions that could be used across the sector and the most efficient way of procuring these from suppliers, including by working across children’s and adults’ services.

This could include councils joining together to commission CMS, with the DfE saying existing issues were, in part, caused by “152 local authorities individually commissioning a small number of providers without setting a clear shared direction on improvements”.

In addition, the DfE will fund two groups of councils to test how case recording requirements on social workers could be reduced.

Employers to share good practice on retention

It said it would also encourage employers to share good practice on retaining practitioners, through the creation of a virtual hub this year or next.

“It will contain resources to improve working conditions, including health, wellbeing and improving organisational culture, as well as data and information on agency use and pay,” it said. “The virtual hub will also include best practice resources on flexible working.”

The DfE also pledged to “enhance” the annual social work health check – the survey of practitioners across England on their working conditions – though it did not provide details on how this would happen.

The department added that social workers would be freed up to spend more time with children and families by the creation of multidisciplinary family help teams, which will be tested in up to 12 pathfinder areas.

Removing child in need caseholding requirement

As proposed by the care review, these teams would take responsibility for what are currently targeted early help and child in need services.

As part of this, the DfE said it wanted to amend Working Together to Safeguard Children to remove the requirements for social workers to lead assessments of children under section 17 and subsequent child in need planning.

In an initial response to the strategy, the BASW England said it did “not reveal a clear and funded plan on how to retain social workers in the children’s care system and ensure their working conditions are fit for their role”.

It added: “The message from social workers is clear: high caseloads and complex cases increasing demand on the system has led to this crisis. The failure to address this sufficiently is concerning and a risk to vulnerable children and families.

‘Nothing to address calls for action on pay and conditions’

“While extra funds for the recruitment of 500 children’s social care apprentices is positive, there seems nothing here to address the wishes of experienced social workers for a national review of their pay, terms, and working conditions to make sure the profession is properly supported.”

UNISON, which represents an estimated 40,000 social workers across the UK, was also critical of the proposals.

“Social services departments are in desperate need of more social workers, and are losing overworked staff all the time,” said head of local government Mike Short.

“Without an urgent intervention from ministers, the current workforce will be unable to make much of a difference to all the families needing support.”

In its response to the DfE’s separate proposals on introducing national rules to reduce the cost and use of locum social workers, the ADCS also called for more action from the department on recruitment and retention.

“Whilst this announcement is a positive step, we also need to see bold efforts from government to tackle the recruitment and retention crisis we all face in public services,” said ADCS president Steve Crocker.

“There are multiple factors at play, from the cost-of-living crisis offset against a backdrop of annual public sector pay freezes and more children and families coming into contact with children’s services. We must promote the value of this transformative profession and the lasting impact this can have on children and families.”

, , , ,

16 Responses to DfE pledges action on ‘excessive’ workload pressures for children’s social workers

  1. Chris Sterry February 10, 2023 at 7:19 pm #

    Some good intentions, but I will believe it more when I see actions and even more so appropriate actions, for Government involvement so far as not been that encouraging, perhaps, even more discouraging.

    For none of this will be possible without much more funding, which we see this government is not prepared to do and is claiming that the current climate is the reason. But that climate in most areas has been caused by government inactions or inappropriate actions and not by Local Authorities (LAs) and certainly not the workers within those authorities.

    The years since 2010 with the introduction of Tory Austerity cuts are to be blamed to a large extent, but also the total inability for all governments to look after social care and even education.

    The austerity cuts were supposed to be funded by making savings, but in effect very little savings were there to be made and have been and are being funded by extensive cuts to many services, if not all LA services, by virtually all LAs, if not all of them and with some, so much more so than others.

    LAs have been bearing the brunt of all these problems, when in many instances the blame should have been at the doors of the Tory Governments and some others before.

    While I so hope all the problems will be solved, I feel not many will be, if any.

    • Alec Fraher February 12, 2023 at 4:15 pm #

      Critically, what were the Departmental Expenditure Limits exchanged between the DofH and DofE and where did the money actually go? ?

      The transfers are an ordinary part of LocGov planning with the NHS, formerly known as the s25 agreements. What has the DofE done with the cash?

      Programmes, like, Supporting People were in 2010 projected schemes.

    • Alec Fraher February 19, 2023 at 11:38 am #

      Q: When the methods of inquiry and investigation actually kill the very thing one seeks to protect, where next? Is helping helpful and if so how so? ?

      A: Social Work fosters a mesoscopic perspective, an understandingofwithstanding-thenatureof-materially-being-in-the-world paradigm: Discus(t)s.

      The present 3D-5D world of transhumanism just got 12D. What were the hippies to telling us?

  2. Happy Valerie February 10, 2023 at 8:25 pm #

    Why is social work overseen by the Department for Education?

    • Alec Fraher February 12, 2023 at 1:07 pm #

      Literacy classes of course; we haven’t yet learnt the AI interlingua of obfuscation ?.

  3. Ryan Simonet February 10, 2023 at 8:52 pm #

    These suggestions of DfE are clearly those of a madman, one who is utterly delusional and not of rational society.

    Cutting agency pay would clearly lead to people leaving the field, which is also compounded by extremely high case loads, oppressive management, incompetent and fallow unions, being slandered and ridiculed by the public and media, and being effectively threatened by politicians. This does not even consider threats of violence/abuse that we do experience on occasion, as well as secondary trauma.

    The DfE suggests addressing these issues without any semblance of action in achieving their goals. They’ve named some actions, but these will fail, no question asked.

    They have declined to consider any reasonable level of pay increases, which is not helped by these unions, which are just ineffective. Work flexibility and reasonable pay, for what we do, is one of many reasons that more individuals are going into agency work.

    It is NOT that we don’t want to be permanent, we just can’t afford to do so. I am tired of not being able to take much time off, but I can’t afford not to work.

    If I didn’t have to worry about my mortgage, I would gladly leave this field, as it’s just soul destroying and we are constantly traumatised by the work that we do. Thanks, but no thanks.

  4. Kelly February 10, 2023 at 9:18 pm #

    Agreed these issues do need looking at and addressing. Dare I hope this could happen in my lifetime or even before I leave the profession? Sadly these issues have been glaring apparent for years now and yet we are still waiting swift and decisive action to be taken – social workers should be spending their time with children and families not glued to their screens!

  5. Lyn February 11, 2023 at 3:50 pm #

    Nearly 28 years mostly as a front line social worker and have been working late evenings and weekends constantly for the past I don’t know how many weeks. Observing and trying to support Nqsw’s and international social workers best I can. Very worried about their emotional wellbeing and burn out. I will believe this when I see it…
    Recruitment and retention always a huge issue, inexperienced managers being promoted in my view too soon and a pressure on managers that equates to more paperwork and less time doing the job. I am passionate about what I do hence still being here trying my best but sadly it takes it toll emotionally and physically.

    • Andy February 16, 2023 at 2:39 pm #

      Social workers have an extremely wide variety of transferable skills which can be refocused towards alternative employment fields. I took the leap a few years ago; wasn’t easy but I think I avoided the potential long term emotional and/or physical damage of remaining in my social work post.

  6. Alec Fraher February 11, 2023 at 4:43 pm #

    This is a mechanically minded and machine response.

    Adjustments in pressure points usually, if you’ve ever been a mechanical fitter means, means hitting the job with a hammer and/or dropping the weight on the load-bearing parts or strapping them up to bear the strain. Again, knowing how to measure the stress and strain in material science is entirely possible, but these are personal social services. The two are world’s apart.

    This response is about ripping out unnecessary bits and putting oil where the squeaks are.

    Sure, there’s skill in knowing where to hit and with what type of hammer but it remains an inadequately framed response.

    The overall architectural design ie the purpose of the project, is what?

    Enterprise Architecture (EA), a term systems engineers use in the scoping of the Information Management Systems and Information Management Requirements they co-create with their users, on this instance social wirkers, has never been able to deal with the real world demands faced.

    The first of this type of kit was developed in the mid 80s with Westminster Social Services and, as is inherent in EA is still an ongoing iterative project. The former NHS lead on interoperability, which is key feature of these initiatives, spent £30m between 2004-7 just getting it wrong. He had a breakdown.

    Enterprise Architecture (EA) is also about, although it’s largely guess work, the user’s behaviour. Adult developmental learning is huge business. It’s why Consulting is so lucrative and why the NHS and LA’S pay so much for it. Terms like variety attenuation, requiste variety, standard and special case variation and agility are the language of EA. The purpose if EA is to, Tame Wicked Messy Problems.

    Here’s the rub and choke point:

    you can’t tame wicked messy problems and any EA bod or bot would tell you this.

    They don’t because there’s usually a huge contract tobe had. Furthermore, the removal or diminished role of Council’s, who have competency in EA and IT procurement, making it easier for IT providers to convince institutionally naive customers, like RCC’S, by buy kit with a promise of having everything at your finger tips.

    It is a lazy yet lucrative way of going on. And, as happened under the direction of the National Treatment Agency throughout the noughties, the data sets, data attributes and data descriptors did not meet with CP requirements. The liklihood of Children dieing, as actually happened, in these circumstances increased.

    It is a Liar Paradox. Langranian simplifications can’t answer these issues. (for cpd see The Liar and Revenge Paradox by Beale et al 2015 and Convolving Fractals by Cotton et al

    If all we had were hammers then what will we learn? There’s a world of difference between being in Plato’s Cave and Aristolian Entelechy. Where’s the reflexivity There’s so much missing from Social Work Management yet so much needed.

    A machine world response is a move back towards the Cave for socialwork and social workers. This isn’t compatible with EA which is wholly dependent on Entelechy.(for cpd look up TOGAF, Carnegie Mellon Model and Zachmans Logical Levels, for a bridging and supervisory framework look up Heron’s Model of Six Category Intervention all are available free here 12manage.com)

    Most crucially the causualisation of the Information Management Requirements, which ratchet up costs if done by the Council, must not be diluted anymore than they have.
    And, even in light of the Utting criticisms of corporate parenting from a while ago simply setting up new delivery ‘buses’ will not address issues of burdens faced on social work. Again, it’s a language and concepts borrowed from and imposed from the machine world of manufacturing and waste management.

    And, we’ve known this like forever.

    • Andi February 12, 2023 at 4:51 pm #

      Agree with Alec.
      In addition, if agency workers pay is to be capped to same as permanent employees, then LAs will need to pay for Bank Holidays/Sick-leave/ holidays/ pay the entire NI deductions now paid for by agency workers/ give a contribution to the agency workers pension fund/ pay up to 3 days drop of a hat demand for emergency care of close relative or a bereavement , or snd give TOIL days, I know I’ve not taken 1 in 18 Agree with Alec.
      In addition, if agency workers pay is to be capped to same as permanent employees, then LAs will need to pay for Bank Holidays/Sick-leave/ holidays/ pay the entire NI deductions now paid for by agency workers/ give a contribution to the agency workers pension fund/ pay up to 3 days drop of a hat demand for emergency care of close relative or a brrravement, and give TOIL days, I know I’ve not taken 1 in 18 months ………just saying..
      And as for the recruitment process, they need to stop promoting inexperienced people who are exacerbating the downward trajectory of the profession. ………just saying..
      And as for the recruitment process, they need to stop promoting inexperienced people who are exacerbating the downward trajectory of the profession.

      • Alec Fraher February 12, 2023 at 7:41 pm #

        Blimey.That’s the first time, almost ever, anyone has agreed with me, openly that is.

      • Alec Fraher February 12, 2023 at 9:12 pm #

        Andi, if the sunkcosts are picked up, and you are entire right that they must be, that makes you an employee.

        I wrote somewhere else on here about the very same.

        Agency social work was about disruption. A needed disruption from decades of inertia following the strangle hold of the Thatcher years in the 80s, when the likes of the Manpower Services Commission shape-shifted from a consultative role into direct provision. Nobody anticipated, though, that the VolOrgs would react as they did. Challenging Councils for the competitive right to provide their essential services. The spend needed to correct 17years of Thatchers dereliction, and even though investment was high spend, simply wouldn’t touch the sides. Agency social work remains, in the long term cheaper, and that’s partly because of the matters you raised but also because the overall pattern of delivery promotes the decommissioning of State Owned Enterprise to the so called Third Sector.

        This, in turn, was a consequence of the primacy of EC Law over domestic law. The UK once led the world, which as an Imperial State it must, in social welfare. But, the demise of Empire has a price. Alll the health and social services legislation since the 1970s followed an EU path dependency, (see Gerald Wilstow for an examination of the policy issues) which includes letting the US experiment, as part of the wider EU/US trade agreements called, then, TIPP.

        Brexit and the separation from the EU means that the statecraft needed, on picking up this competence again, simply doesn’t exist. The current Gov knows about getting trade deals done with their rich friends. Most of whom will have some notion of how to increase their ROI, through UKREIT’s by adding social services to their portfolio.

        I can’t remember, although it’s recently, when Camilla Cavendish wrote in the FT about children’s services, and while it was a thoughtful article it was also the closest thing I seen to an Initial Public Offering (IPO) which, given the scale and scope of economic activity, must have been State approved.

        OpenDemocracy, the online rag, need to increase their already good journalism in these areas.

        Christian Kerr, writing on Medium, has covered the issues well. Remember BASW is a member led organisation and branch activity can and does work providing we act together.

  7. Anon February 12, 2023 at 7:52 pm #

    Agree with Andi and all the above comments. It’s shocking what Dfe are proposing, I even get to question if these individuals have done the job. I always wonder why should social work issues and decisions fall under department of education. Agency workers carry the most complex cases; overworked, bullied and discriminated against in every form. permanent workers are often off sick for long periods and agency workers not only working under extreme pressure of their own work but are having to cover more work. In my experience agency workers workers are a stable workforce that gets the work done and protect children. Agency work is prevalent in every profession and why is the social work profession targeted. It’s a person right to choose the job we want and DFE are seeking an oppressive legislation. I’m shocked at the extent to which this oppressive culture in social work is going

    • Alec Fraher February 12, 2023 at 10:08 pm #

      Well Said.

    • Alec Fraher February 13, 2023 at 1:43 am #

      The issues you raise are serious in their own right.

      That they are systemically enduring is more problematic than may first appear.

      The MacAlister Review is, if one is honest, long overdue. The issues raised have been talked about, purposefully, since 2007.

      In 2007 two things happened, firstly the, then, existing Regional Commissioning Groups looked at the contracting and procurement of children’s services.

      I had the job of doing this for one of the Regions. And, secondly the, then, Regional Centre’s of Excellence who looked at the global spend of regional groups of Council’s also captured data on social services spending.

      The two did not, and radically so, add up.

      This means that the arrangements made were unconstitutional.

      The misuse impacted the satisfaction of a social policy, as happened in Probation Services. In this scenario ALL contracts are null and void.

      The HofC Inquiry into Commissioning in 2010 said we’d failed. It begs the question, ‘Are we simply getting better at getting away with failure’.

      The Society for Local Government Chief Executives (SOLACE) met in May 2007 with Senior Procurement Managers. Social Services presented as a high risk area.

      Next to nothing was done.

      It took the Competition and Mergers Authority morethan a decade to stop sitting on their hands.

      That the MacAlister Review follows from this should come as no surprise and should be welcomed. All major stakeholders knew there were seemingly irreparable problems in 2007. This Review brings them into focus.

      That the Review coincides with the CEO of the Boston Consulting Group becoming the chair of the CMA, that Camilla Cavendish, previously, acted for Frontline which MacAlister set up is problematic. Not necessarily because of the potential for nefarious and vested influences but because its simply perpetuatates of the same fallibility of processes that were identified in 2007, and continues in different clothes.

      The rub and choke point needs spelling out.

      The commercial sector has and still does provide, and at great cost, the bespoke specialist services LA’S can’t and sometimes won’t do themselves.

      The Independent Foster Care Agencies offer carers benefits which Council run services failed to recognise were needed and were too slow to act when they did.

      IROs hold, or did when I did it, the responsibility for Foster Care Review. Believe me it’s thorny ground. Not least because foster carers and adopters motivations turn out to be flawed.

      That this happened when some Heads of Service were taking early retirement and/or redundancy, as has happened repeatedly overtime, has created what we now call a market. It’s a perfect storm.

      These details are important and apply directly to the reluctance to recognise what being care experienced brings.

      The constitutional trust afforded LA Social Services Senior Management through the waivers of Standing Orders ie going to panel, carries the risk of solicitation, of favouring some over others. This has been abused. Abused children can smell it a mile off.

      This is a serious red flag for any Council or ought to be because we know that some local cllrs, MP’s and others aren’t exempt from having wrongful intentions towards children. Heads of Service carry the responsibility for knowing these risks and by and large they manage the balancing act. Becoming the new leaders within the commercial sector guarantees their silence.

      My point is that relationship between MacAlister and others isn’t clean carrying the same risks of solicitation.

      For me, as a care experienced social worker and formerly an IRO, I simply experientially knew to much. Intuitive knowledge counts massively with young people caught in the hooks of Uncles; that these people then show in Court and have a way into Board and Director level positions made for a tough terrain. (for cpd see the work of Michael Polyani on Incommensurability to provide a philosophical framework for action)

      Collective knowledge protects but only to a point. The, point, is called loyalty to the employer. This is why, in my view, agency staff get a rough ride. The Review while big on Advocacy has nothing to say about Whistle Blowing unless I missed it. Incidentally, I found that having a direct line of communication to the Childrens Commissioner very helpful. It should be ordinary and not the exception. Unless a Children Act Commission is set up. The same applies to other police led initiatives like iicsa set up throughout Operation Hydrant. Issues of employer loyalty are then contextual and an ordinary part of the day job.

      The IRO function was meant to disrupt the liklihood of the need for this happening. But like agency social workers, sometimes that means being properly constituted as Independently employed. I took the decision never to live and work in the same place as the risks of intimidation were too high.

      I was formerly a high security psychiatric estate manager and learnt some tough lessons about the power of group think and the extent to which people will go to have a go. Importantly, the lessons from major inquiries from the Secure Estate aren’t being taught.

      Social Work employers have a lot of catching up to do irrespective of who they are. The DofE now have this opportunity to break new ground.

      If they’re serious that is.