40% rise in number of social workers quitting children’s posts annually over past five years

    Those leaving jobs exceeded number joining for first time since records began, with departures concentrated among frontline practitioners and those with less than five years' service with their employer

    Picture with a postit note that reads 'I quit!'
    Picture: photoprodra/fotolia

    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.

    Starters and leavers from council children's services 2021-22

    Source: Department for Education children’s social work workforce census, 2022

    The net loss of staff was concentrated among frontline “case holding” practitioners.

    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.

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    5 Responses to 40% rise in number of social workers quitting children’s posts annually over past five years

    1. Maggie February 25, 2023 at 11:19 am #

      Is this any surprise given the lack of financial investment?

    2. Alice February 27, 2023 at 2:38 pm #

      How is this surprising? Frontline Social workers are completely burned out, most working until bedtime and most wknds to meet the demands of their caseload.
      Permanent staff are underpaid and the staff shortage and financial cuts has placed even more strain on the services.
      Most local authorities now demand their social workers to undertake large pieces of work that would previously be deleted to specialist teams or external assessors.
      It is only going to get worse im afraid.
      In my time i have seen newly qualified sws not even being able to stick around for the one year of their ASYE, giving notice before the end of the program due to stress l, burnout and lack of support.

    3. JBob February 27, 2023 at 9:58 pm #

      Comment on the new data by DFE regarding agency SW. tue credit for the analysis goes to someone called Toni B ( locum SW) . What it clearly evidence is the sensationalist in tue media jumping on the government trumpets to demonise locum SW. Ignoring wider structural issues and the unnecessary agenda of Mr Crocker. If we focusing on pay let’s have it out then for all to see. This is obviously besides their amazing bonuses and gallantry titles with lovely pensions to look forward to

      “ According to the latest TaxPayers’ Alliance’s Town Hall Rich List, 18 HCC employees were paid more than £100,000 in 2017/18.

      Among those there were chief executive John Coughlan with £216,195; deputy chief executive and director of corporate resources Carolyn Williamson with £180,019 and director of children’s services Steve Crocker and director of adults’ health and care Graham Allen who both earned £153,015.

      The director of community, culture and business services and the director of economy, trasport and environment, whose names were not disclosed, were both paid £144,783 followed by the director of transformation and governance with £131,361.

      And finally the analysis of how many SW actually enter into locum work:

      “ So out of the 5400 that left the profession in 2022 only 800 (14.8%) moved over to Locum work.

      Meaning 85% (4600) walked away from social work altogether.

      12.7% of the workforce left in 2022.

      Vacancies up to 7900 (up by 21%)aka almost a quarter of posts are vacant.

      Just sharing as there’s been a lot of talk relating to the ‘capping of Locum rates’ where it is being banded around that permanent workers are leaving to become Locum workers…. This is not reflected in the quantative data from 2022 or previous years. ”

    4. Emma February 28, 2023 at 8:36 am #

      Again, bringing in all the wrong changes, not listening to staff or actual social workers….agency staff will leave to pursue other careers not fill the gaps, instead we will be left with more vacancies and even higher caseloads. I do not know a single Children’s Social Worker who feels valued, not for their expertise or the amount of time working over our salaried hours (unpaid) which would never be seen in the private sector.

    5. Wondering M March 6, 2023 at 12:33 pm #

      Does anyone know where our Chief Social Worker for England (Children & Families) Isabelle Trowler is?

      She was a member of the design group for the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care (2022) led by Josh MacAlister and she used to regularly comment on a number of issues via twitter and yet she has not posted anything since September 2022. I assume that she must still be in her role?

      Weird to see host of issues happen in world of children social work and not see any comment from her.