DfE should set expectation of face-to-face practice for children’s social workers, say directors

ADCS makes call in wake of concerns about post-Covid rise of remote practice by agency staff working for local authorities

Young social worker working remotely
Credit: Anton/Adobe Stock

Should social workers be able to work fully remotely?

  • Never. Social work is about relationships – with your team and those you support. (36%, 240 Votes)
  • Not for frontline case holding positions, but it is workable for other roles. (34%, 229 Votes)
  • Yes, including for case holding roles. (28%, 188 Votes)
  • I'm not sure (3%, 19 Votes)

Total Voters: 676

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The government should set an expectation that frontline children’s social workers carry out face-to-face practice, in the light of concerns about the rise of remote working.

That was the message from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services in its response to a Department for Education (DfE) consultation on setting rules for the use of agency staff in local authority child and family social work.

Its call follows concerns from Ofsted about staff – particularly agency workers – taking fully remote roles because of the shift to virtual working triggered by the pandemic.

The inspectorate cited examples of staff living in rural areas taking posts in London boroughs, at higher salaries, without the need to travel, in a report on the sector’s recovery from Covid, published last July.

Remote working concerns

“This is now possible because of remote working, which enables some desk-based social work to be done from anywhere,” Ofsted said at the time.

“However, this way of working is concerning, as it could erode the quality of social work if social workers lack local knowledge and understanding of the communities that they serve, which are important elements of social work.”

The ADCS raised the issue in relation to a DfE proposal to require a three-month ‘cool-off’ period before a social worker can take up an agency post after leaving a permanent role within the same region.

The association said it wanted this extended to six months, and to local authorities that border the region in question.

“Consideration must also be given to the increased use of remote working in recent years,” it added. “If a social worker is able to work remotely then the mandatory ‘cool off’ period will have little impact.

“To mitigate this potential issue, DfE should be clear that case holding agency child and family social workers are always expected to deliver face to face work with children and families.”

The DfE’s proposed agency staff rules

  • All procurement of agency staff should follow national rules.
  • National price caps on what local authorities may pay per hour for locums.
  • A requirement for social workers who graduated in or after April 2024 to have a minimum of five years’ post-qualified experience working within children’s social care and completion of the ASYE to be appointed to an agency post.
  • A ban on agency project teams.
  • A requirement for employers to request and provide references for all agency social worker candidates.
  • That councils do not engage agency workers for a period of three months after they have left a substantive role within the same region (excluding certain exceptions).
  • A requirement for a minimum six-week notice period for agency social workers.
  • The collection and sharing of core agency and pay data, to support better workforce planning and the ability to monitor, enforce and assess the impact of the proposals.

The ADCS strongly pushed for the DfE to introduce curbs on agency work, and influenced its proposals, which the department published in February, alongside its plans for wider reform of children’s social care.

Directors have become increasingly concerned by the rising costs of agency work, amid mounting vacancies, the impact of workforce instability on children and the increasing practice of agencies supplying staff through project teams, sometimes with protected caseloads.

Adverse impact of increased agency work

In its consultation response, the association warned: “Local authorities are experiencing an increase in the number of their permanently employed social workers who leave their role to join an agency, leading to far higher rates of staff turnover at an inflated cost.

“This does not benefit the children and families who rely on a consistency of worker who knows their story and has built a strong, lasting relationship.”

However, while backing the proposed changes, the ADCS repeated its call for the DfE to bring forward the implementation date from its current target of spring 2024.

“The cost pressure on local authorities and the instability for children is growing quickly and significantly and ADCS urges the DfE to consider more timely action,” it added.

Consultation on the proposals is open until 11 May 2023, and you can respond by completing this online survey.


26 Responses to DfE should set expectation of face-to-face practice for children’s social workers, say directors

  1. Paul April 20, 2023 at 3:16 pm #

    Simple answer. Local authorities desist in employing workers who only want work remote. Is more than a name on a childs file to show “allocated”. LAs much to blame for this. And government, when Hammond chanceellor, to blame as prevented agency staff, who used to work miles from home, claiming basic expenses like a cheap B&B…unlike MPs who claim £1000s from top class hotels to a toothbrush.

    • Katie April 21, 2023 at 10:09 am #

      Totally agree with Paul, once again agency staff are being vilified and seen as second class social workers, Yet LA’s would appoint them permanently in a heart beat…the elephant in the room is WHY so many social workers choose to go down the agency route? The ADCS need to reach out to these social workers and ask them this question, but be aware you may not like the answer…likely to be because they don’t like the working conditions as a permanent worker, not as some assume it’s because of the money they earn as agency staff…this is the biggest myth and can be evidence by getting hold of a typical pay packet that shows agency staff not only pay their tax and Ni but also pay the employers apprenticeship levy etc, out of that take home pay, the agency worker has to fund their own pension, holiday pay and sick pay as this is not paid when they are off sick or go on holiday…if you don’t work you don’t get paid, they have to pay for their own training to maintain their CPD, they often do not get a chance to have the same training opportunities as employed staff YET they still choose this way of life to be employed…let’s start talking about the real issue LA’s as employers and how poor many of them are

      • Joanna April 21, 2023 at 11:39 am #

        Agency works are crucial, they hit the ground running, often have high case loads, are so adaptable and fill posts that burnt out permanent social works who are on sick leave or maternity…therefore providing a much needed role to ensure statutory requirements are met. Agency social worker are not paid any different when you take into account sick leave, holidays, pensions etc. All social workers use their own vehicle on a pittance of 45p per mile. They are all heroes, over worked and underpaid.

        • Olabisi Durojaiye April 24, 2023 at 3:48 pm #

          Well said

      • Alec Fraher April 22, 2023 at 11:23 am #

        Once again the legal illiteracy is astounding ~ the gaming though is dangerous and seriously so.

        If an independently engaged contractor considers that remote working is the best way to do what they’ve been contracted to do then that is their decision. End Of.

        There’s a world of difference between descriptions for, and specifications for, a service ~ working out what is inside and outside IR35 particularly important and especially in regards to information rights owed to the child and/or family.

        Crucially, most, if not all, procurement in the sector is outside the scope of the highly prescribed procurement procedures being used for Part B or Category 25 services. End Of.

        Social Workers are voting with their feet. Punishing them for doing so is deplorable. Gaming with children lives is, and from within the profession charged with their protection, despicable.

        Are members of ADCS, like so often with the Police these days, going to refer themselves to their independent regulatory authorities for review?

        The absurdities must be understood systemically and are rooted, in part, on the DfE, Ofsted, DHSC being the place wherever compliance with EC Directives are playing out.

        Children will suffer. End Of.

        End Of, LASSA ?

  2. Debbie Wasteney April 21, 2023 at 4:46 pm #

    I am getting a bit bored of agency social workers incorrectly being criticised.
    I have been a social worker for many years and have been agency for the last 2.
    All of my visits are face to face and always have been, even when the pandemic hit us, social workers were the only professionals still visiting, i had aprons, gloves, visors masks and ham=nd gel in my car and still do.

    I have always given 100% effort to families, i get many many comments how I have doen more for families that social workers have previously done.

    One authority I joined, my cases had plans 3 years out of date…
    No chronologies, no genograms ect and i left that caseload fully up to date.

    I can walk into roles as my reputation is first class, i have even been head hunted by charities to join thier team due to multiple excellent parent feedback.

    If we didnt join a team when they had staff on sick or on maternity leave, that team would really struggle and then the effect upon families is the disastrous mess i usually have to clean up.


    • Shaz April 24, 2023 at 2:34 pm #

      Well said

  3. Curtis April 21, 2023 at 4:47 pm #

    Agency is the only way I as a single man paying child maintenance, rent, food and petrol to do my job. I’m currently doing my ASYE struggling financially yet I trained to be in a profession that I could probably have a better standard of living and well-being working at Aldi (not in a disrespectful way)
    Pay LA social workers properly and cut out the rotten bullies that are employed in this field. I love social work, love working with people but unfortunately the love isn’t enough to pay my bills.

  4. Anthony April 21, 2023 at 5:03 pm #

    As an agency social worker, I feel very offended by this post and have actually started looking into relocating to another country where my work is appreciated. For starters, we the agency social workers are ones that uphold consistency with children and their families as we are less prone to full off senseless sickies.
    I can see why here all this is going to lead post the Tory leadership, massive mess in children’s services. Has the Dfe considered conducting their independent survey to understand how agency social workers feel about such treatment as stated in this post? I bet most of them feel disgruntled, unappreciated and unnecessarily vilified.
    Watch 2-3 years down the road, LAs might find themselves in a rather sticky situation whereby hiring agency workers is going to cost them double the current rates. This is simply because of most of us decide to leave the sector, permanent workers alone ain’t enough to fill the vacuum left behind.

    • Sara April 24, 2023 at 3:05 pm #

      Do it! At the end of the day, you owe it to yourself to be in a job where you’re paid fairly and treated with respect.

  5. Zee April 21, 2023 at 5:37 pm #

    This article really infuriates me as it contributes to the disdain sometimes permanent workers have to agency workers. I have been a social worker for 10years with a mixture of permanent and agency roles.y biggest reason for going to agency was because of the flexibility in roles and determining my working conditions. I’m worried that the government are so focussed on the pay of agency workers and not addressing the reasons why so many social workers are leaving, not only to locum work but leaving social work in general. Blaming locum social workers for the state of social work is just lazy work. They need to refocus and get to the bottom of the real issues instead of blaming the cheap blame game.

  6. David April 21, 2023 at 5:57 pm #

    I was a locum social worker for many years in front line child protection and worked with many other experienced locum social workers. It was nice to change LA after a year to join a new team and share what works well. The government was worried about high wage bills in LA’s, NHS et al, so they came up with a plan called IR35. Expenses could no longer be paid if you were accountable to a manager, meaning you were not technically self employed. Some agencies pushed workers to work for umbrella companies, and some workers were caught out and have had to pay the taxman back thousands. After IR35 came into force I could barely make a profit. I refused to re register and am much happier in a local non social work role, where I choose the hours I work. I no longer work unpaid in the evenings and weekends trying to get reports done on time. There are a lot of experienced social workers who have left without regret. If LA’s want to make it difficult for locums, they will find they will have less staff and even more difficult to recruit. I always made sure children were seen at home and at school and included their views in assessments. I refused a role at CAFCAS Oxford many years ago who wanted reports without seeing the child in their home environment. Working from home was helpful one or two days a week to catch up on paperwork. Coronavirus changed the way everyone had to work, and I was not happy about it. It is what it is, however there should be no excuses now to what’s app a child instead of seeing in person. You can’t see the family dynamics from a Skype call, you can’t smell something you might be concerned about if you weren’t actually there.
    I remain…

  7. Robert haggerty April 21, 2023 at 10:09 pm #

    Why don’t the DCS ask workers? Why do the DFE need to apply it as policy. The DCS’s are supposed to be leaders last time I looked?

    • Alec Fraher April 24, 2023 at 12:22 pm #

      The ADCS must mitigate a long running dispute with HMRC ~ IR35 testing isn’t simply about who pays the NI and Tax.

      It’s about whether you can actually do the job ‘outside and independently from the Council’. And, this includes NOT using their staff facilities including staff entrance to the building, toilets, parking and any snacks machines, as well as desks, pc’s and attending a team and staff meetings.

      Agency’s are about helping Councils search for prospective employees to meet a capacity/capabilities problems. The abuses of this are now seemingly intractable.

      That it’s a seriously lucrative business has created all manor of weird and wonderful ‘administrative’ get out of jail cards. Most DCS’s are, in all probability, actively engaged in Collusion of one sort or another. Rate Capping by industry insider’s with vested interests is actually a criminal offence unless sanctioned by Government.

      Prior to Brexit there would have been recourse to and redress from the ECJ and at Government level.

      Are HMRC sitting on their hands? And what role is the CMA playing in this? Does the ADCS even know that the Association is, itself, an economically active entity? Maybe it does and is seeking market entry as the next go to Agency now that Capita’s dominance has been halted.
      What are the investment interests? Who are the key movers and shakers?

      • Paul April 24, 2023 at 3:28 pm #

        Alec. Post ir35 there has been a mess, umbrellas offering all sorts of schemes. Many were lawful, rules changed 2018, and hmrc can apply new rules 20 years retro! Some 7000 plus workers, many areas of work, being pursued. 10 commited suicide. Ian duncan smith and 200 others been raising this, for hmrc pursue umbrellas and agencies. Suggest you google loan charge actio group

        • Alec Fraher April 25, 2023 at 11:11 am #

          I was aware of some changes Paul but it’s the interaction between the administrative arrangements of IR35 and the procurement of services that hasn’t been tested, at all.

          IR35 is only one aspect of the procure cycle and the whole cycle-life isn’t even being considered, at all.

          The changes made are tweaked adjustments in meeting the IR35 test and are simply nipping at the heals of what has become an Industry wide market stimulation exercise ~ with people’s lives.

          The use of filters like composite and umbrella administrative types simply shifts the appearance of who’s the employer. It doesn’t alter the actual work being contracted for by the Council. The appetite for proper scrutiny doesn’t exist.

          These are Part B professional services that are limited to restricted procure procedure which by design require high standardisation and little variation in what is being asked to be done. And, that the actual assessment of need for the services and the individuals recipients needs actually match and canbe specified ~ There’s not, under Part B, a procure procedure fit for use in Social Work Services ~ that’s why waivers are built into the constitutional arrangements for such services.

          That it became a lucratuve gravy train in the noughties is nested in the Modernisation Agenda, growth of the 3rd Sector and whole sale services substitution.

          For CPD see Trojan Mice by Tacket and Whyte.

        • Alec Fraher April 25, 2023 at 2:20 pm #

          Paul, I have written a few documents looking at the how this garden grows, so to speak. One looking specifically at procurement and contracting, another at the impact of the pre-brexit impact of EC Directives, which remain legacy issues, and one how the relationship between such details defy any evaluatory regulations. Ping me if you’d want them alecfraher@gmail.com.

  8. Jeff Williams April 22, 2023 at 1:16 am #

    The way agency staff are slagged off by ADCS and DFE will only push committed social workers away. As I’ve said to colleagues, when they attempt to implement the social care review, “good fxxking luck”. You’ll ostracise the wrong people, and more social workers will quit the profession, because the low pay, bullying, being vilified by the media, politicians, and the public; as well as the impact that it has on family life, is NOT worth it.

  9. Claire April 22, 2023 at 9:38 am #

    Totally agree that the villification of agency workers is unfounded and the real question is WHY SWs don’t want to go perm. Maybe it’s the dreadful managers, toxic workplaces and bullying..as well as ridiculously high caseloads and abuse from some parents. It’s also nonsense to say that SW need to have local knowledge… anybody who works in a large city or rural area is very likely to have to live a long way from the office in order to be able to afford accommodation.. also for personal safety reasons. Also we live in a modern world and flexible working is with us to stay. We cannot be shackled to jobs that drive us to misery and very poor health. Furthermore, surely it’s illegal to deprive someone from taking up employment for 3 months in a neighbouring area thus putting that person at risk of destitution? Very ethical practice!! And then we question why SWs are leaving the profession in droves?!

  10. Steve April 22, 2023 at 10:55 am #

    Should we be asking DfE to set expectations re face to face? As a profession we should lead the way on standards of practice – with all employers ensuring that all practitioners in any employment must adhere to those standards.

  11. Elaine April 22, 2023 at 5:36 pm #

    Here they go again creating a false narrative about agency social workers. I don’t see that they have provided any statistical data to support these claims. From my observation local authorities require agencies social workers like their permanent staff to do face to face work. Most local authorities have reduced their office spaces so people have to work remotely and be office based two to three days a week. This allows workers to go out and see children on their caseload.
    The social workers who are fully remote working are mainly doing audits or internal case reviews.

    Just to be clear even at the height of the pandemic social workers were out there risking their health and wellbeing to go and see children, we never stopped.

    Like Paul said if there are agency social workers who only want to do remote working then the local authorities don’t employ them. I also think they need to be honest about social workers leaving permanent roles. The majority of them are not going agency they are leaving the profession all together.

  12. Angela April 24, 2023 at 3:20 pm #

    Is this the media conflating remote working with no face to face visits. Many of us work remotely on certain days but that does not mean that we do not visit or meet with the people we are caring for. You can WFH and still go out on visits, many of us have worked tirelessly through the pandemic an have given our employers many more hours in actual work than we are employed for. It is getting ever harder to recruit SW and further article’s that only further demoralise will not help

  13. Janet April 24, 2023 at 3:32 pm #

    Social workers should not be working remotely unless there is a very good reason for it ie this should not be the default position.
    It’s not just agency staff – some Local Authority depts have virtually closed their offices.

    Re agency staff – LA’s only employ them because they have no alternative. Banning them – or making it more difficult to employ them – will only increase staff shortages and the pressure on regular staff

  14. Kat April 25, 2023 at 9:58 am #

    The ADCS need to take a look at the cohort of senior leaders. I have worked in the same LA for many years and have directly seen the damage done by the interim senior managers on between £500 and £1000 a DAY …..no knowledge of the local communities and no interest / failing to build a relationship with the staff they are leading. They sit in their homes hundreds of miles away raking in the cash, not delivering ‘transformation’ and them moving onto the next troubled LA to see if they can get their nose in the trough again. They never have to account for the failed strategies and the lack of change as they are not there – what is ADCS doing about those Agency leaders – its easy to have a pop at the social workers but I would suggest they look at the setting the same standards for Locum Senior Leaders that they want to apply to Locum SW’s

    • Alec Fraher April 26, 2023 at 10:32 am #

      It’s a matter of time before the absurdities, process and procedural anomalies are picked up by the Councils financial auditors, isn’t it?

      Although meeting the criminal standards for fraud are set high and rightly so there’s certainly huge scope to open up serious issues of feasance(lying) and misstatement.to the respective governance and scrutiny boards.

      It’s worth looking at the recent changes made in local government governance and audit.

      Social Work Services have since the May 2007 SOLACE Summit been considered a high risk area. It usuallytakes about 15yrs of political gestation for such thorny issues to reach fruition and the timing is about right.

      If the public only knew, eh?

      *I sought and gained CiPfa accreditation. It’s worth well worth it too and sw could ask for the same from their senior colleagues with budget holding responsibilities*

      • Alec Fraher April 27, 2023 at 7:32 pm #

        Having said this before it is worth repeating. The narratives of Agency v X are misguided it’s worth pointing out that the SWE pledge to build public confidence is too thin.

        The University College Cork and the Irish Association of Social Work has just published a report into the online abuse, especially false accusation, Social Workers are facing.

        Where’s SWE on these matters? Are the ADCS fanning the flames?