Does the DfE’s care review response address the pressures behind social workers leaving their jobs?

Following the government's proposals for creating a ‘supported and valued’ workforce, we look at how these measure up against the causes of children’s social work’s growing retention problems

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In its long-awaited response to the care review, the Department for Education (DfE) highlighted the urgency of addressing social work’s increasing workforce challenges.

“[Evidence] points to a need to act now to attract higher numbers of people to join, rejoin and stay in the profession,” it wrote in Stable Homes, Built on Love, its proposed children’s social care strategy, issued for consultation earlier this month.

This is borne out by the data.

Almost one in five (19%) of council children’s social worker posts in England lay vacant as of June 2022, up from 14.6% a year earlier, according to Association of Directors of Children’s Services research published last year.

And 83% of authorities reported difficulties recruiting children’s social workers, and 72% problems retaining them, in response to a Local Government Association survey last spring.

The DfE said the situation reflected the fact that social workers “[did] not always feel supported, valued and trusted”. This in turn was a key barrier to its ambitions for all children and families who needed a social worker to have an excellent one with whom they could build a trusting relationship.

In response, it proposed a number of measures, designed to encourage social workers to stay in their roles and organisations, rather than turn to agency work or away from the sector altogether.

Based on four recent surveys of social workers, we have identified four key pressures that are likely to be behind practitioners leaving their permanent posts and examined how the DfE’s proposals have responded to each.

High workloads and poor work-life balance

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A UNISON survey of 3,000 social work members, conducted in January 2022, found that 49% felt they had become less likely to stay in their jobs during the pandemic.

While the union did not ask for reasons for this, a key theme running through survey responses was workload. Three-quarters of respondents said their workload was often excessive, a similar proportion said it had grown during the pandemic, and large majorities reported feeling very or a bit concerned about staff shortages (93%), workload (90%), working beyond contractual hours (80%) or a lack of work-life balance (79%).

The latest report of the DfE’s longitudinal survey, tracking the experiences of permanent and agency council children’s social workers, also showed workloads were an increasing problem.

Of the 1,605 respondents surveyed for the fourth wave of the research, in autumn 2021, 59% said their workload was too high, up from 51% at wave one (surveyed November 2018 to March 2019).

And of 101 respondents who had left children and families social work at the time of the fourth wave survey, 51% cited caseloads as a contributory factor, with 47% citing working hours and 40% an extensive amount of paperwork.

Pledge to tackle ‘excessive’ workload pressures

In its care review response, the DfE pledged action to tackle “excessive” workload pressures.

It will set up, shortly, a national action group to identify  “unnecessary workload pressures that do not lead to improvements in outcomes for children and families” and develop solutions.

The group will include representatives from Ofsted, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), UNISON, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and the Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW) network, as well as people with lived experiences.

The DfE also said that improving case management systems would enable social workers to do more direct work and reduce workload pressures. It promised to work with local authorities to identify shared objectives and solutions that could be used across the sector and the most efficient ways councils could procure systems.

It would also seek to cut the time social workers spend on case recording by funding two groups of councils to research how data recording is impacting on practice and develop solutions that reduce burdens.

The measures that will emerge from all of this work are unclear and there is no timescale for implementation. They are due to be underpinned by the proposed national framework for children’s social care, which is designed to set key objectives for the sector and is subject to a separate consultation.

One of the proposed objectives is having an “equipped and effective” workforce, measured by, among other things, leaders removing unnecessary bureaucracy and ensuring practitioners have manageable workloads.

Proposed action on agency social work

The framework is due to inform how Ofsted inspects local authorities. But how this translates into effective action on workloads is hard to predict.

That is also true of a pledge to enable councils to recruit up to 500 more social work apprentices, for which no details have been provided, including on timescales.

There is a planned start date – spring 2024 – for proposed national rules on councils’ use of agency workers, which the DfE is also consulting on separately. While these are primarily designed to reduce the use and cost of locums, and resulting instability for children and families, it also has implications for workload, particularly the proposal to end the use of so-called managed project teams.

Such teams, whose use has increased significantly over the past year, often have capped caseloads, loading more work onto permanent staff, said the DfE.

Whether this does lead to more manageable workloads is contingent on whether the agency rules more generally serve to attract more locums to go permanent – or drive them away from statutory children’s social work altogether, worsening staff shortages. 

Cost of living struggles

Person holding empty wallet to symbolise cost of living crisis

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In the past year, the cost of living crisis also appears to have intensified some social workers’ thoughts of leaving their permanent posts, with many struggling to get by on their annual salary.

A Community Care survey in summer 2022 found that three-quarters (77%) of the 253 respondents had been ‘severely’ or ‘significantly’ affected by rising costs. While 95% of respondents were permanently employed, over half (52%) said they were considering switching to agency work over the subsequent 12 months.

At the end of last year, council social workers in England and Wales received a £1,925 pay rise for 2022-23, worth 4.04% to 6.6% depending on salary. However, despite it being the largest rise for council staff in over a decade, it represented a real-terms cut, with inflation measuring 10.1% in the year to January 2023, according to the government’s preferred measure.

While the DfE rejected the care review’s proposal for national pay scales for social workers, it said it would work on making salaries more transparent and equitable between areas. This will be driven in part by its plan to cap agency pay at the level of equivalent permanent staff, requiring a consistent benchmark among permanent social workers to measure locum payments against.

However, there are no plans to increase salaries overall. And while unions are seeking a 12.7% rise for staff in 2023-24, councils are not funded to offer anything like this much. And while inflation is due to fall in 2023, the Bank of England has said it will stay above 4% all year.

Mental health concerns

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In the wake of the pandemic, social workers’ deteriorating mental health and morale have also contributed to career dissatisfaction and high levels of stress at work.

The latest of a series of surveys into Covid’s impact on health and social care staff, carried out last summer, found that social workers’ wellbeing at work was lower than other professions’, and had fallen further during the pandemic.

Similarly, UNISON’s January 2022 survey found that more than three-quarters of respondents (77%) were very or a bit concerned about their mental health.

To address this, the DfE proposed creating a virtual hub containing resources for employers to improve working conditions, including health, wellbeing and organisational culture.

It said the hub would enable councils to respond to the findings of the health check, the annual survey of practitioners’ experiences at work. It also pledged to work with the sector to enhance the check. But it provided no details on what this would mean, on the likely contents of the hub or on how its impact would be monitored – without which it is difficult to gauge how far social workers’ wellbeing will be improved.

Public perceptions of social work

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A concern among a majority of social work staff (78%), according to the UNISON survey, was being publicly identified or blamed in the media or social media in connection with cases.

Following the widely-publicised trial of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes’s killers in 2021, social workers at the council concerned, Solihull, faced abuse that forced some to leave their homes, said the authority’s chief executive, Nick Page, in May last year.

ADCS president Steve Crocker recently said “press and public disapproval”  was driving some away from the profession and others into agency work.

The DfE’s one apparent response to this was to pledge to work with Social Work England “to inform and educate people on the role social workers play within society, while promoting social work as a rewarding profession to support recruitment and retention”.

But, as with other measures set out above, there was no detail on what this would mean.

However, with the proposals subject to consultation, social workers and their managers have the opportunity to shape the details of implementation.

Follow the links below to respond to:

The deadline to have your say is 11 May 2023.

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6 Responses to Does the DfE’s care review response address the pressures behind social workers leaving their jobs?

  1. Anonymous February 17, 2023 at 10:23 pm #

    During the pandemic we had an excessive workload increase, a need to work long hours and pressure from management. Each time I would raise the concerns with my manager he blamed me for not managing. When I started making mistakes at work due to these pressures he blamed me and I got fired. It was such a shock to me because I did not expect it. I appealed and raised a grievance, but the grievance went straight in the bin. I raised a tribunal claim so the local authority backed down and gave me my job back. I felt bullied and harassed so lost all faith and trust in that employer. The thing had gone to social work england now who have put conditions of practice in place based on what my employer has reported about me. For this reason nobody wants to hire me not even with supervision. I felt shocked by the idea that this local authority and this manager have literally ruined my 10 years career in social work. I have given up, even if SWE see through the bullying. I am sorry to leave social work behind, but I also very excited to start a new healthier life.

    Believe me I was not a bad social worker at all. I am quite awake, but for some reason my manager never created the atmosphere for me to feel good enough.

    I am glad my physical health and mental health have restored now. I keep reminding myself how lucky I am because I am in good health and can start a new career in any field with the skills I got from social work.

  2. Anonymous February 17, 2023 at 10:26 pm #

    I do not anything will change in social work. It was bad 10 years ago when I started and it is much worse now. I sustain that social work has poor leadership led by fear where blaming culture pervails. All these managers spend way too much time.pleasing the ones above them than bringing change. I do not thing they want change.

  3. David February 18, 2023 at 11:16 am #

    The four pressures noted above have been around for ever and a day. If anyone was interested in making changes they would have done it already. Who needs another review? Also, ‘Stable Homes, Built On Love’. Bloody hell, they talk some rubbish

  4. David February 18, 2023 at 5:11 pm #

    There are insufficient bodies (SWs, TMs, Support staff) to do the job, hence unfortunately mistakes will be made. Children’s Services are exactly in the same position as nurses, GPs, police, probation, and all other public services – starved of resources

  5. Cyrus February 19, 2023 at 7:03 pm #

    Unfortunately this is less rare than our tweeting, blogging mindfulness enthused, be kind jumping jacks care to acknowledge. A similar scenario happened in my authority where a social worker I used to manage and supervise was subject to a “pre disciplinary hearing” about issues that seemed more rooted in an inexperienced manager strugglin himsef. I managed and supervisrd this social worker for 6 years and something seemed off so put myself as a witness to the hearing. At which point I was summoned to see the Service Head to be told that as a manager I should not need reminding that public disagreements between managers was not a good projection of a strong management culture and also not good for staff confidence and morale. No mention of the individual social worker and no enquiry about their competence. Controlling narratives and image management above all else was the message. I am a manager of some standing in my authority and more protected than most but the inference that if I came forward I would be regarded as not being a “team player” was intimidating. So there is indeed a warped management culture in most social work services where image management overrides all platitudes about open doors and staff wellbeing. The deeply misguided belief in managers being fair and supported isn’t shared by most social workers whose experience is one of poor to no supervision with management priorities paramount. I’ve fallen short in this regard at times too and know why it happens but I at least try to be vigilant about it. We need to acknowledge this. Social work has lost direction and no amount of ‘new’ research by the likes of BASW will help change it until we return to a culture where human values override procedures when staff are honest enough to tell us they are not coping.

    • Abdul February 20, 2023 at 3:37 pm #

      I’m surprised that with that level of empathy you were allowed to become a manager. We know what support means when our backs are against the wall and I commend you for maintaining as you say human values. In my part of Yorkshire many an hour is spent telling practitioners how our managers value us while they wear us down with unsubtle threats about “how” social work should be done and the consequences if we deviate. We deprive people of their liberty with pretentions to human rights but seldom practice with person specific purpose, we get told social work is not an adjunct of health services but get bullied if we “delay” a discharge into unsuitable environments. Our managers are on first name terms with SWE so brook no query let alone criticism when we might want to express different experiences to theirs. I could go on. So Cyrus you would be most welcome by the diligent social workers in my team but doubt your candour would be welcome into the buddies forever culture of our management group. I realise this sounds a bit bitter but it is the backdrop experience of why I am serving notice after 27 years of service. I profoundly believe that many good social workers beaver away unheralded to do good work. It would be nice though if their efforts, love and compassion wasn’t hampered by petty bureaucrats pretending to be anything but and not at the cost of their own happiness, relationships and wellbeing. No need for yet more research that pretends to identify and understand our realities. Study managers, their attitudes, their priorities, their career paths, their behaviour, their conscious duplicity. We’ve been prodded, observed, questioned often and with nothing remotely of benefit as the outcomes. Study our bosses, see beyond their platitudes and you’ll find that inspite of poor conditions, dissatisfaction with pay, most if not all of us despair because of management cultures and an incompetent and ever uncomprehending regulator. It really isn’t rocket science.