The Department for Education’s (DfE) proposals to reduce the use and cost of agency social work in children’s services have split sector opinion.
For directors of children’s services (DCSs), the proposed rules – including national pay caps for locums, barring early-career practitioners from agency work and banning project teams – are right, but their likely implementation – spring 2024 – comes too late to tackle mounting workforce pressures.
For agency leaders, they are a “misguided” attack on locum social workers that will worsen existing staff shortages.
But what do social workers think the most likely outcome will be?
According to a Community Care poll, which drew 759 responses, most back the agencies’ viewpoint: 81% said that more locums would be pushed to leave social work in children’s services as a result.
Just 13% thought that more agency staff would take up permanent posts in statutory children’s services, as the DfE intends. The remainder (6%) said the proposals would have little or no impact.
The results are reflected in the more than 90 comments on Community Care’s recent article on the news, most of which were opposed to the DfE’s plans.
‘Social workers will simply stop practising’
Several readers said the proposals would result in an exodus of agency staff, particularly due to the proposal to cap agency pay to the equivalent of permanent staff in the same role.
“This isn’t going to have the desired effect on retention rates,” said Michelle. “Social workers will simply stop practising and move into other non-social work roles with far less stress to bear.”
“It will only backfire,” wrote Jenny. “As usual, they fail to address the reason for the poor retention of permanent staff. They would also need to address the issue of benefits agency staff do not receive, such as sick pay and holiday pay, which are compensated for by a higher rate of pay.”
Many said the roots of the workforce instability the DfE was intending to address were poor terms and conditions for permanent staff.
Agency staff ‘not to blame for poor conditions’
Caroline said: “Agency staff are not to blame, it’s the systems that expect staff to have high caseloads, work long hours without pay, [the] lack of care or respect for workers and treating them like machines.”
From a similar perspective, Christopher wrote: “It’s not the use of agency workers that has led to workforce instability, churn and high costs. It’s the underfunding and undervaluing of the social work profession and the discrimination against the people it works with that has caused all this. That in turn causes workers to leave, many to use agency work as a way of doing what they love but at the same time surviving a hostile, broken system.”
Linda was one of few to take a different view. She said: “I am so pleased that at last proper measures are being taken to address the issues of using too many agency staff at an eye-watering cost to all the councils. Maybe the money saved can help to employ more permanent staff and this will help reduce caseloads. Ultimately this means better outcomes for the families and children we serve.”
Impact on staff from minority groups
One reader, Anita, also contemplated how social workers from ethnic minorities would be affected by the proposals, writing: “As an agency worker this will only push me to leave the profession. As agency workers, we are often given the heaviest caseload. Very little care goes towards our mental health and wellbeing. A high proportion of agency social workers are from ethnic minorities – ‘why?’ is the question that should be asked.
“Ethnic minority social workers are often marginalised and discouraged from applying for senior posts and often have to jump over hurdles like leadership programs white social workers don’t have to go through before obtaining a senior management position. The highest an ethnic minority social worker can rise comfortably within a local authority is team manager. The numbers drop significantly as one goes up the levels.”
Have your say
You can have your say on the proposed rules on agency work by responding to the DfE’s consultation, which closes on 11 May 2023.