Quarter of those who quit register last year had been on it for less than a year, reveals Social Work England

Number of first-year leavers broadly similar to those who had quit after being on register for more than 10 years, adding to concerns over social workers in early career leaving the profession

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A quarter of those who quit the social work register in England last year had been on it for less than a year, Social Work England has revealed.

Its Social Work in England: state of the nation 2023 study, published last week, showed that 24.1% of the 5,335 social workers who left the register in the year to 30 November 2022 had been continuously registered for less than a year.

This is only just short of the 28.7% of leavers who left after being registered for at least 10 years, despite there being more than four times as many in the latter group as the former on the register – 51,184 compared with 12,464 – as of 30 November 2022.

There were also more than twice as many practitioners who left the register after a year than departees who had been registered for two-to-five years on the register. This group made up 10% of leavers, despite there being significantly more social workers with two-to-five years’ registration at the end of the year (19,100) than with less than one.

Some of those who left after less than a year may have been registered previously or may have rejoined the register in 2022 after leaving, but Social Work England said the latter group would be very small.

Concerns over early-career departures from profession

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The findings add to concerns about social workers leaving the profession in the early stages of their career. The number of 20- to 29-year-olds leaving social work posts in local authority children’s services rose by 35%, from 698 to 939, between 2019-20 and 2021-22, revealed Department for Education data published last month. 

While the DfE did not publish any information on their destinations, research for 2020-21 showed that most leavers in that year did not take up another post in local authority children’s services during the 12-month period. 

The Social Work England data comes amid a push from sector leaders to address this and other pressures on the workforce.

Notably, the DfE has proposed replacing the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) for children’s practitioners with a five-year early career framework – an idea proposed by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, which reported in 2022.

In its draft children’s social care strategy, published for consultation last month, the DfE said that feedback from the profession had highlighted that “years 2 to 4 of social workers’ career are often the toughest as they lose the support provided by the ASYE”, which the ECF would seek to address.

The experience of early career social workers is also a focus of a working group of sector leaders convened recently by Social Work England to address the profession’s recruitment and retention issues, while the regulator also called for greater support for newly qualified social workers in setting out its approach to education and training last year.

Growth in registered population despite rising vacancies

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Despite statutory adults’ and children’s services experiencing rising vacancy rates, Social Work England recorded a 1.5% increase in the total number of registered social workers in the year to 30 November 2022, from 99,191 to 100,654.

The regulator said it would seek to understand the reasons behind this, adding: “We know that some social workers leave social work practice but maintain their registration. But this doesn’t account for the thousands of vacancies facing the sector. We will therefore carry out research in 2023 to gain a greater understanding of the key drivers in this picture across all of social work, not just in statutory settings.”

It launched a tender, worth up to £60,000, to carry out this research last month.

Just over half (52.1%) of registrants – 52,454 – worked in children’s services. Data from the DfE and Cafcass shows that:

  • There were 33,689 children’s social workers employed by local authorities or children’s trusts as of 30 September 2022.
  • There were 6,969 agency social workers working for councils and trusts as of the same date.
  • There were 1,709 social workers in post, 55 locum staff and 114 self-employed associates working for Cafcass as of 31 March 2022.

That suggests there are, roughly, another 10,000 children’s practitioners working for independent fostering agencies, voluntary adoption agencies, charities or other children’s services employers, or in an independent capacity, such as doing expert court work.

Social Work England said a third of practitioners (31.2%), 31,379, worked in adults’ services, which compares with the about 23,000 recorded as doing so by Skills for Care, as of last year, 17,300 in local authorities, 3,300 in the NHS and 2,500 in the independent sector.

Seven per cent of social workers (7,018) worked in other areas of practice, with employment or sector information missing for 9.7% of registrants (9,803).

Regional differences


Map of England

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As we’ve reported separately, Social Work England’s report highlighted significant growth in the number of practitioners from overseas applying to register, with most of the increase coming from social workers from Zimbabwe, South Africa and India.

The state of the nation also showed significant differences between England’s regions in relation to the number of social workers per head of population.

While London and the South East had one social worker per 495 people, slightly more than the North West (one per 501), North East (one per 503) and Yorkshire and the Humber (one per 514), these regions had significantly more practitioners proportionately than the Midlands (one per 610), South West (one per 638) and East (one per 671).

Social Work England said these figures had remained relatively constant over the three years it had managed the registration of the workforce.

Diversity of social work

Diversity Equality Inclusion write on a sticky note isolated on Office Desk.

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The report also highlighted the diversity of the profession, with 94.3% of practitioners having heeded Social Work England’s for them to provide data about their protected characteristics.

The regulator said 82.9% were female and with 16.9% male, while the average age of registrants was 46.

A third (32.5%) of social workers described themselves as being of an ethnicity other than white English/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/British, compared with about a quarter of the English and Welsh population as of the 2021 census.

The regulator said 9.5% said they had a disability, which compares with 17.8% in the census, while 83.6% described themselves as heterosexual, 2.3% bisexual, 2.1% a gay woman and 1.3% a gay man, with the latter three groups being slightly more represented in social work than in the general population.

Eighty eight per cent of registrants said their gender identity was the same as their registered sex at birth, with 6.5% saying it was not, much higher than the 0.5% recorded by the 2021 census for England and Wales.

In relation to religion, 42.7% of social workers said theirs was Christianity (46.2% in the census), 3.6% Islam (6.5% in the census), 0.9% Sikhism (the same as the census), 0.8% Hinduism (1.7% in the census), 0.8% Buddhism (0.5% in the census) and 0.5% Judaism (the same as in the census). Just under two in five social workers (39.3%) said they were of no religion, just above the rate for the general population (37.2%).

Understanding inequalities in the profession

No Racism sign being held

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Social Work England said it wanted to use the data to understand inequalities in the profession. It cited the under-representation of black and ethnic minority staff in senior roles, evidence of significant levels of racism, as set out in a survey published last year by the regulator and other bodies, and their experience of “disproportionality”.

This was a likely reference to evidence of the over-representation of black and ethnic minority staff in fitness to practise concerns, among other issues.

It added: “We will share some of these insights in future as we look to identify and monitor any disproportionate impacts of our work on different groups and take steps to understand and deal with potential bias and discrimination. The data will also help us understand where and how people may experience our work differently, including where our processes and systems could cause inequality or disadvantage.”

Falling number of fitness to practise concerns

The report also said that Social Work England received a falling number of fitness to practise concerns about social workers in 2021-22, with a particularly sharp drop in those from members of the public, the biggest source of referrals.

In 2021-22, 1,734 concerns were raised with the regulator, down 26% on the 2,328 received in 2020-21 and also below the 1,982 sent in 2019-20. There was a 38% fall, from 2020-21 to 2021-22, in concerns from the public, from 1,306 to 809, and while these made up 63% of referrals in 2019-20, this was down to 47% in 2021-22.

Of the 1,734 concerns received, 309 were deemed not to be a fitness to practise concern, and of the remainder (1,425), 46.1% were discarded at the triage stage, where Social Work England determines if there are reasonable grounds for investigating a practitioner’s fitness.

The vast majority of cases discarded at triage were public concerns (78.9%).


10 Responses to Quarter of those who quit register last year had been on it for less than a year, reveals Social Work England

  1. VB March 17, 2023 at 12:07 pm #

    I’m a social worker in my 20s and just over 3 years qualified, I have been thinking about leaving the profession as have a few of my colleagues in the same demographics.

    I don’t think an extended support programme will make a difference, my experience of completing the ASYE (at an authority which provided a high level of support) is that although that is valuable, we are glossing over the real problem which is the shortage of staff, increasing complexity of cases, bureaucracy, red tape, lack of meaningful direct work with families, low resources, poor access to services for the most vulnerable children and families.

    The role is not easy, and there comes a point when you have to question whether to choose your own wellbeing, because I’m not sure I am making much of a difference to the families anymore.

    • SR March 17, 2023 at 2:25 pm #

      Agree with the above by VB 100%.

    • David March 17, 2023 at 9:53 pm #

      Dear VB
      Have been a children”s and families SW since 1994. The issues you raise were as valid then as they are now, but our protests were not listened to

  2. GMP March 18, 2023 at 10:01 am #

    VB is correct, the role is not easy. It is not for everyone and the many social workers who are in the profession for many years recognise and value their contribution to the profession. Sw’s who have a passion for what they do will explore different areas of practice and progress their careers. I qualified in 2002 and I work in Child Protection in a very diverse London borough in a permanent role. I love what I do. I have worked in different Local Authorities in and outside of London, agency and perm. I ensure that I care for myself as much as I care for my work. I know I am making a difference.

  3. Neurodivergent social worker March 20, 2023 at 3:46 pm #

    It seriously doesnt suprise me. I’m always baffled when these articles seem to be shocked. I lasted 2 and half years, had 3 LA res during that time and had to leave due to severe autistic burn out. There was way too much pressure, covid contributed massively and the responsibility/stress was massive. I did have some good managers but even in my asye struggled with the workload and lack of support as everyones so busy. I’d never go back, its not worth my mental health and the extreme pressure it brought. The issue is the lack of staff, time and the constantly increasing volume if referrals.

  4. Chris Sterry March 20, 2023 at 4:24 pm #

    Being a social worker is and will never be easy as VB stated and there does not appear to be anything coming to make any of the work any easier only very much worse.

    In all areas of social care the need is so much more than any of the resources available and unfortunately I can’t see this changing anytime now. Even, if Local Authorities are aware of the problems, they themselves, in all areas, are suffering from lack of resources and this current government is far from listening and I fear the next will be very much similar for no government is prepared to fund social care to the degree that is required, even to continue as it is. In real terms the funding is decreasing requiring the little to be spread ever so thinly so the demise of social care will continue.

    In this social care can’t survive and in declining further means the NHS decline will also continue.

    We all need a listening government in so many areas, but social care is a very extreme situation.

    I appreciate what social workers are doing with so dwindling resources, they are doing what they can and all know it is way insufficient causing ever increasing workloads with ever increasing in complexities of need.

    I feel social care needs at least £12 billion now and similar for years to come, this will not only sustain social workers but be a so needed increase to the resources for all care workers.

    Anything less will continue the decline.

  5. Dawn March 20, 2023 at 5:37 pm #

    Well let’s wait till they tell agency workers they won’t be paid as well then see how many of those workers don’t apply for permanent jobs . I love my job I’ve worked permanent previously and I am now an agency worker – the problem is that the case loads are too high both permanent and agency and for many it is just not worth the ill health caused by the stress this brings. I’ve been a social worker for twenty years and there is never enough time to manage the work load – older experienced staff can adapt to this and I have a sense of I will do what I can to the best of my ability but I’m not going to make myself ill over what doesn’t get done. Younger less experienced staff may not be able to do the same and they may rethink their chosen career before it’s too late. I don’t think a five year programme will make a difference – the only thing that will is to give workers a decent salary for what they do – lower case loads and a supportive environment – sadly this has never happened and I don’t think it will – social workers are under valued

  6. Led By Liars March 20, 2023 at 9:27 pm #

    When a) newly qualified social workers say “I want to work with children” in response to questions about why they trained as social workers and b) actual social work is being undertaken by alternatively qualified staff, is this any sort of surprise?

  7. Simon Everington March 22, 2023 at 1:45 pm #

    All the reasons above are warranted, but I quit the register solely because of the way SWE treats social workers who fund its existence. In my case, I was one of those who last year, reapplied on the final date. I was also one of the thousand-plus, who received an email a few days later, telling me that I had not completed the registration process fully, and therefore would be removed from the register. I could pay an additional sum of £135.00 for access to rekindle my registration. They would not return my £90.00 already paid. The registration process at SWE, takes you to a payment page, apparently BEFORE the process is complete. I know of no other system for purchase, or registration, that doesn’t take payment at the END of the process? The appalling attitude of the Chief exec of SWE was rude, patronising, and completely unsupportive of those caught out by SWE’s crazy software. Consider just how many vulnerable people SWE’s incompetence put in danger, when over a thousand social workers suddenly found that they couldn’t practise. I cannot respect a body which takes that attitude, so I have quit social work. And I’m happier for it.

  8. Natalia April 10, 2023 at 5:43 pm #

    Let’s talk about this!

    Hello, I’m Natalia a student social worker from the University of York conducting a study about the factors that impact social work retention. I am actively looking for participants willing to partake in a 30-60 minute interview. If interested please fill out the following google form: https://forms.gle/mW8XLdA7H77tqaos9