Will the Social Work England-convened working group improve the recruitment and retention of social workers?
- No, it looks like it will just be a talking shop (71%, 133 Votes)
- Not without the DfE involved (23%, 43 Votes)
- Yes, it has the right people around the table to make a difference (6%, 11 Votes)
Total Voters: 187
Social work leaders have come together to forge solutions to mounting workforce challenges in England.
Social Work England has convened a group including representatives from government, employers and professional bodies, to tackle the severe recruitment and retention pressures being faced across the country. Though the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), which is responsible for adults’ social work, is represented, the Department for Education (DfE), which handles children’s social work, does not appear to be, currently.
The group will meet every six weeks and has agreed to establish three workstreams focused on recruitment, retention of experienced staff and agency and other working practices, respectively. Sub-groups for each workstream will be set up shortly and they will then report their findings to the wider strategic group.
However, Social Work England said that, while the organisations involved recognised the urgency of the situation, change could not happen overnight, as the pressures facing social work were deep rooted.
Mounting workforce pressures
The initiative comes with the latest workforce figures for English local authorities revealing a deteriorating picture across children’s and adults’ services, including that:
- One in five (20%) full-time equivalent children’s services posts were vacant as of September 2022, up from 16.7% in September 2021.
- At the same time, 17.6% of FTE children’s services posts were held by agency workers, up from 15.5% as of September 2021.
- The number of frontline “case holding” social workers working in children’s services fell by 8%, from September 2020 to September 2022.
- There was a 40% rise in the number of social workers quitting their posts in children’s services, from 2016-17 to 2021-22.
- 11.6% of social work posts in council adults’ services were vacant as of September 2022, up from 9.5% a year earlier.
- Turnover has also increased in adults’ services, from 15% in the year to September 2021, to 17.1% in the year to 2022.
High workloads, stress, real-terms pay cuts, the impact of Covid on workforce wellbeing and public negativity about social work – particularly in the light of the Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson cases – have all been blamed for driving people away from the profession.
Dispute over impact of agency work
At the same time, directors of children’s services have raised increasing concerns about certain agency practices, including supplying project teams, rather than individual workers, and enabling locums to have limited caseloads and more remote working arrangements than permanent staff.
In its draft children’s social care strategy, issued last month, the DfE issued a number of proposals to tackle workforce pressures in children’s services, notably rules to restrict the use of agency staff, including a ban on project teams.
However, both social work agencies and Community Care readers have warned these would worsen the situation by driving locum staff out of the profession, and no similar initiatives have been launched in relation to adults’ services or beyond local government.
Need for whole-profession response
In an interview with Community Care, Social Work England’s executive director of professional practice and external engagement, Sarah Blackmore, said the point of the new group was to look at the issues facing the workforce strategically, and across the whole profession, in order to develop sustainable solutions.
“One of the reasons that, as the regulator, we’ve been involved in this is a general concern about the fragmentation of the social work sector generally, and in relation to workforce issues, and also the suggestion of very helpful, but tactical, responses to what is a whole-systems issue.
“Though there are issues that may be felt at times more in some parts of the sector, as far as we’re concerned workforce is a whole-systems issue and it needs a whole-systems response if we’re going to bring about long-term, sustainable and meaningful change.”
Agency staff ‘will always be needed’
Among the “tactical” solutions put forward by some were ending agency work and making greater use of social care staff to carry out work currently performed by social workers, she said.
“There will never be a situation where we won’t require some level of agency input,” Blackmore said. “We need to be honest and recognise that. What we need to be clear with agencies is with mutual expectations. Where there are agency practices that are not for the good of the profession, like saying they won’t have to do face to face visits, which is in breach of professional standards, we can’t have that.”
While there are is no agency representation currently on the group Social Work England has set up, she said it was looking to bring this in.
On making greater use of social care staff, Blackmore added: “There’s a danger of the integrity of the [social work] profession being eroded. We need social care workers being where they are and they can’t just take on this work because of workforce issues in social work.”
She said Social Work England would provide the administration for the group and also make use of the data it holds on the profession to inform its work. This has been enriched recently by the vast majority of registered practitioners providing details on their protected characteristics on their online accounts with Social Work England.
Equality, diversity and inclusion ‘will be fundamental’
“The social work profession has been very generous in sharing their EDI [equality, diversity and inclusion] data with us,” she said. “That gives us an unprecedented level of information to inform this work. It’s really an example of how, as the specialist regulator, we want to work in partnership with our key stakeholders to effect that long-lasting and meaningful change, not just for the profession but for the public.”
She said EDI was “a fundamental that will have to flow through the work we do”, given the “real issues of disproportionality” faced by students and social workers from minoritised groups, for example, in relation to fitness to practise and career progression.
Reflecting on the group’s work as a whole, she added: “These issues are longstanding and won’t be resolved overnight, but we are determined to work together so that they will be resolved.”
Among the group’s members are the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), the Adult Principal Social Worker (APSW) Network and the Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW) Network.
Voice of practitioners and people using services ‘will be central’
For BASW, chief executive Ruth Allen said: “We welcome and fully support this initiative to bring a dedicated focus to the issues with the social work workforce. As well as urgent actions to stabilise recruitment, retention and morale, we need effective whole-profession strategies to tackle systemic problems for the longer term.
“The group includes leaders from all the main parts of statutory social work and BASW will ensure that the voice and experience of practitioners and people using services are central to collective thinking and action.”
The chairs of the two PSW networks said: “We recognise the issues across the whole professional workforce particularly around attracting and retaining people into social work. We feel strongly we can’t address these issues, without taking action to identify and address these systemic issues we know are faced by practitioners including racism and varied responses to equality, diversity and inclusion.
“We feel optimistic that this roundtable will be a change agent bringing together the work already being undertaken in DHSC [the Department of Health and Social Care] and DfE as well as initiating new cross-profession workstreams. Through our leadership we will ensure that both PSW networks are central to this vital work.”
Working group membership and terms of reference
The group will meet every six weeks and will be chaired by Social Work England, with a co-chair to be agreed. It currently includes:
- from government, the chief social worker for adults, Lyn Romeo, and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC);
- from senior management, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) and other director representatives;
- from practice leadership, the Adult Principal Social Workers network, the Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW) Network, practice leader representatives and the AMHP Leads Network;
- from professional bodies and unions, the British Association of Social Workers and UNISON;
- people with lived experience of social work;
- from local government, the Local Government Association and senior management body SOLACE;
- from inspection and regulation, the Care Quality Commission and Ofsted;
- from social work education, the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee;
- from workforce development, Skills for Care and Health Education England;
- from research and practice development, Research in Practice and the Social Care Institute for Excellence.
Its purpose is to:
- Share advice, expertise and strategic leadership to help set a national direction for the social work workforce.
- Strengthen partnership working and deepen relationships between system leaders, establishing a shared understanding of roles, responsibilities and levers they hold in relation to the workforce.
- Steer the work of the three workstreams on: recruitment and attracting new social workers; agency work, international recruitment and the role of social care staff; retaining experienced staff.
Social Work England has said it wants practitioners to get involved in this work and will be providing more details on how to do so in due course.