The number of children’s social workers quitting their posts annually has risen by 40% in five years, Department for Education figures have shown.
While councils lost 3,880 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff in the year to September 2017, this jumped to 5,422 in 2021-22, according to the DfE’s annual workforce census, published yesterday.
Though the size of the workforce increased over that time, this was only by 11%, from 28,496 to 31,634 FTE social workers.
And for the first time since the census began, councils lost more staff than they gained, with the number of FTE starters, 4,826, falling to its lowest level since the DfE started collecting the data in 2017, as the number of annual leavers reached its highest number yet.
As in previous years, most leavers had been with their employing local authority or children’s trust for less than five years. However, the proportion in this group has grown from 62.9% to 70.4% of leavers from 2016-17 to 2021-22. Almost all of this growth was in those who left their councils after between two and five years of service.
Also, as previously, the two biggest groups of leavers by age in 2021-22 were those aged 30-39 and 40-49, while, for the first time, leavers also outnumbered starters in these cohorts.
The only age group in which starters outnumbered leavers was those aged 20-29. However, the number of leavers is growing fastest among this youngest group of social workers, rising by 35%, from 698 to 939, between 2019-20 and 2021-22.
Step Up to Social Work impact
The DfE said that, besides the recruitment and retention challenges councils were facing, the lack of an intake of graduates from the Step Up to Social Work scheme in 2022 was a factor in the drop in the number of social workers from 2021-22.
The 14-month Step Up course – designed to train children’s social workers – runs every two years, with 658 students graduating in 2021, 539 in 2019 and 2017 in 435.
This contributed to the number of social workers starting with local authority children’s services in these years exceeding those commencing their careers in 2022, 2020 and 2018.
However, the number of starters in 2022 (4,826) was significantly lower than in each of the two preceding off years for Step Up – 5,202 in 2020 and 5,243 in 2018.
And, though data is as yet unavailable, Skills for Care has estimated that the number of students graduating from courses in 2021-22 was higher than those doing so the previous year. This means councils should have had more newly qualified social workers available to start with them during the latest year.
Where are leavers going?
The DfE did not publish any data on the destinations of those leaving their jobs in 2021-22.
An analysis of the data for the year from 1 October 2020 to 30 September 2021 found that 56% of leavers did not take up a role in another local authority children’s social work during the 12-month period.
Although the analysis did not capture people who moved into a new permanent role after 30 September 2021, the DfE said this group was likely to constitute a small proportion of leavers. This is because most people who move roles start their new job within seven days of leaving their previous one.
A further 17% of leavers took up an agency children’s services role in 2020-21.
Growth in agency posts
It may be that a higher number (and proportion) of 2021-22 leavers went into agency work, compared with those who left in 2020-21, because of a significant rise in the proportion of staff who were locums between the two years, from 15.5% to 17.6%.
While the number of FTE permanent posts fell by 868 in 2021-22, number of FTE agency workers grew by 783, from 5,977 to 6,760.
The rise reflects mounting concerns among directors about the growth in the use of locum staff and its impact on workforce stability, practitioners’ ability to build relationships with children and families and council budgets.
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) has also criticised the growth in the number of newly qualified social workers taking up agency posts and the practice of agencies restricting the supply of staff to teams, rather than individual practitioners.
An ADCS survey last year found there had been a fivefold increase in the number of locum staff hired through such project teams in January to June 2022 compared with the same period in 2021.
Controversial proposed rules to reduce locum use
To tackle these issues, the DfE is consulting on rules to restrict the use of agency staff in children’s services, including through banning project teams and preventing people without five years’ experience in permanent roles from taking up an agency post. The rules would also cap agency pay to the equivalent of that received by permanent staff in the same role, on average.
Directors have welcomed the proposals but have warned that the department’s target implementation date – spring 2024 – is too late to tackle the sector’s pressing workforce problems.
At the same time, agency leaders have labelled the plans as an “attack” on agency staff that would likely worsen staff shortages, a view supported by the majority of respondents to a Community Care poll on the issue.