Social Work England is commissioning research into the profession’s mounting recruitment and retention challenges, particularly in councils.
It has issued a tender of up to £60,000 for researchers to examine the key drivers of high vacancies and help it identify whether there are sufficient social workers to meet demand across all services. This in turn would inform its approach to regulating the profession, it said, given the potential for current workforce pressures to lead to increased levels of risk to the public.
In a blog post published yesterday, chief executive Colum Conway said that “recruitment and retention pressures [were] increasing” and could “undermine the stability of relationships at the heart of good social work practice”.
“We will need to consider how the findings of the research can inform our work in this space, and within the parameters of our role as the regulator,” he added.
Increasing workforce challenge
Latest figures show mounting workforce pressures across both children’s and adults’ services:
- 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.
- 11.6% of social work posts in council adults’ services were vacant as of September 2022, up from 9.5% a year earlier, said a Skills for Care report published this month. Turnover has also increased, from 15% in the year to September 2021, to 17.1% in the year to 2022.
- 83% of councils said they were experiencing problems recruiting children’s social workers, and 72% retaining them, found a Local Government Association survey conducted last spring.
- The same survey found that 71% of councils were struggling to recruit adults’ social workers, and 57% having difficulties retaining them.
Workloads and cost of living among key drivers
Other research has identified several key drivers of these trends, including:
- Workloads: three-quarters of social work staff said their workloads were sometimes excessive, in response to a UNISON survey in January 2022.
- Pay and the cost of living crisis: three-quarters of practitioners said they had been ‘severely’ or ‘significantly’ affected by rising costs in response to a Community Care survey last summer.
- Mental health and wellbeing: 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.
- Public perceptions of social work: 78% of respondents to the UNISON survey said they were very or a bit concerned about being publicly identified or blamed in the media or social media in connection with cases.
In response, the Department for Education has proposed a number of measures to tackle at least some of these pressures, as part of its children’s social care strategy, published for consultation this week.
The regulator said a key question it wanted to explore was how increasing vacancies have come against the backdrop of stable numbers of social work registrants – about 100,000 – and numbers training to join the profession each year.
Questions for research to answer
Specific issues it wants researchers to examine are:
- where social workers are moving to when they leave local authority roles, and the reasons for this movement;
- the factors impacting on employers’ ability to fill permanent social worker vacancies;
- the impact of social workers’ desires for more flexible working conditions on recruitment and retention;
- the length of time social workers remain in their first role and their motivations for leaving these;
- movement between statutory children’s and adults’ services;
- the impact of vacancies on retaining the existing workforce;
- to what extent equality, diversity and inclusion have an impact on employers’ abilities to recruit and retain staff.
The deadline to respond to the tender is 5pm on 13 March 2023.