‘Momentum for change’ to tackle profession’s staffing ‘crisis’, says Social Work England lead

Universal recognition of need for change among sector leaders, as regulator is 'inundated' with applications from practitioners to take part in groups examining solutions to workforce pressures, says Sarah Blackmore

Three blocks carrying the message 'need to change'
Photo: Natallia/Adobe Stock

Should more casework be transferred from social workers to non-social work qualified staff?

  • It should be decided on a case-by-case basis (45%, 234 Votes)
  • No, this would undermine the quality and integrity of the profession. (38%, 200 Votes)
  • Yes, this would free social workers up to focus on more complex cases. (17%, 87 Votes)

Total Voters: 521

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There is “momentum for change” among sector leaders and practitioners to tackle the social work’s mounting workforce “crisis”, according to a Social Work England lead.

There was “a universal recognition of the fact that change is needed” among a group, consisting largely of sector leaders, that the regulator has convened to tackle social work’s worsening recruitment and retention issues, Sarah Blackmore told adults’ directors last month.

The regulator had also been “inundated” by applications from practitioners and others to take part in the group’s work, said Blackmore, the regulator’s executive director of professional practice and external engagement.

This will involve contributing to three workstreams – on recruitment, retention and agency work and other working practices – which will start work shortly.

The social work ‘crisis’ in numbers

‘Perfect storm’ of high caseloads and perceived low status

Speaking at the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services’ (ADASS) annual spring seminar, Blackmore said the worsening picture for recruitment and retention in social work reflected a “perfect storm” for the profession that had built up over many years.

Sarah Blackmore, Social Work England

Sarah Blackmore, Social Work England

This was driven by factors including rising demand “high caseloads, inflexible working practices, disproportionality for our global majority colleagues, perceived low status and credibility of the profession…and of course the impact of funding issues”.

Blackmore warned that some of the solutions put forward to date – such as banning agency social work, increasing international recruiting or making greater use of non-qualified staff to carry out social work tasks – had been inadequate.

On locum staff, the Department for Education (DfE) has proposed rules to restrict their use in council children’s services to curb rising costs and practices such as agencies only supplying social workers through project teams.

The situation had led former Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) president Steve Crocker to moot a ban on the use of agency staff in children’s services, though he and the ADCS subsequently backed the DfE’s proposals, consultation on which closed this week.

Blackmore said, while there was a need to deal with the practices of some agencies in only supplying “expensive” project teams or stipulating that staff need not carry out face-to-face practice, there would “never be a time where social work will not need some element of agency workers”.

‘Knee-jerk approach’ in recruiting from overseas

Amid a 175% increase in the number of overseas social workers applying to work in England over the past three years, said there had been “a knee-jerk approach, where overseas social workers are being recruited often without local support, cultural adaptations, pastoral care, or sometimes even a recognition that there may be registration issues”.

She said there were also “important ethical considerations of moving social workers from countries where there is already great need for them to deal with a problem we have not addressed”.

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) recently raised concerns about Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) proposals for councils to have more assessments carried out by non-qualified staff, to deal with social worker vacancies.

Blackmore told the spring seminar that the “increasing delegation” of previously social work tasks to non-qualified staff risked “the gradual erosion of the integrity of the social work profession” as well as further depleting an already-stretched social care workforce.

Workforce group membership and terms of reference

The group meets every six weeks and is chaired by Social Work England. It currently includes:

  • from government, the chief social worker for adults, Lyn Romeo, and representatives from the DHSC and DfE (the DfE was not initially involved but Blackmore said it was now);
  • from senior management, ADCS, 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, BASW 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:

  1. Share advice, expertise and strategic leadership to help set a national direction for the social work workforce.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

‘Momentum for change’

She said Social Work England had convened the workforce group to develop “a broader, more considered systemic approach” and, in the meetings so far, there had been “a real sense of collective energy and momentum for change”.

“There is hope, and opportunity, and perhaps for the first time, a universal recognition of the fact that change is needed and must now come, and willingness to step up both individually and collectively of those who are in a position to bring that about,” she told the spring seminar.

Social Work England has also encouraged practitioners to apply to take part in the group’s three workstreams.

In a statement to Community Care, Blackmore said: “Thank you to everyone who has submitted an expression of interest for the workstreams. We have been inundated with offers of support and will be contacting successful applicants very shortly before setting up the first series of meetings.”

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24 Responses to ‘Momentum for change’ to tackle profession’s staffing ‘crisis’, says Social Work England lead

  1. Nina May 12, 2023 at 4:52 pm #

    Have been here many times before , consultation has to lead to real changes in the lived experience and employment culture and environment for social workers, case loads and support and stress of work has to be addressed.

  2. Peter Rodgers May 12, 2023 at 5:11 pm #

    Not being treated by poo by those very leaders would help

  3. M Loughrey May 12, 2023 at 5:18 pm #

    The Social Work title is protected but it does not bring with it any particular benefits. I work in a local authority that uses non qualified workers who get paid the same as qualified workers. The Social Workers have to maintain their registration and demonstrate CPD and can be subject to investigations and sanctions by Social Work England. Non qualified colleagues have neither to maintain registration nor demonstrate CPD. Nor are they subject to any professional body and sanctions. I’m also aware that social work students are dropping out of courses once they realise the realities of the job.

    • Dawn May 13, 2023 at 8:24 am #

      The job has not the status of those colleagues working in health. Social workers work long hours with high caseloads more than often and undersupported by unrealistic managers.

      The pay is extremely low for the demands and responsibility of the job. If you can’t keep up with the pace of the work your capability is questioned. As a highly experienced practitioner working in front line safeguarding teams for 18 years I have seen many changes. The above continues. Social workers in my line of work are tired and often at breaking point.

      Change to address these issues is required. I have witnessed quality staff quitting the job in droves and this will continue. I’ve considered this myself and to be perfectly honest I don’t see many jobs where expectations are that work cuts into your own time as a regular standard practice.
      Not acceptable.

      • Melanie May 15, 2023 at 5:14 pm #

        I absolutely agree with Dawn. Very little has changed in the past 24yrs of practice. On a positive note, caseloads have reduced significantly from 60+ to a third (or less). Despite this, the issues remain. The Munro review talked of excess burocracy, sadly this remains an issue. Excessive paperwork reduces the quality time spent with families and children. There are inexperienced managers. There is covert and overt bullying by some managers. Social workers have complex caseloads, the quality of assessments and court reports in some cases need to improve, children are being left in neglectful situations for far too long (multiple years of the same interventions and plans with little change). Workers struggling to understand the complexities of disguised compliance. Staff moral is low, staff and their opinions are not valued. The more able you present as a practioner is the more expectations and cases allocated to you to the point of social work burn out. But social workers are replaceable so out goes one and another is employed albeit via an agency. Poor pay, not enough experienced workers on the ground to support the newly qualified or less experienced social workers. Long hours, not enough pay for working almost 7 days a week. A lack of team spirit since staff are usually remote working and desk hopping. no sense of team and settled community support therefore, low work moral . I recall sitting in a team in a static desk. This was a clear luxury but it was expected since it was simply a way of working. The insular, nuclear approach is dangerous so needs reviewing. I appreciate that councils have sold off the buildings but to not review but a solid team spirit carry a team through tough times and the workforce is less likely to be so transient. When the profession is truely respected, then it is easy to see the changes that we are all desperately wanting since the conversation not be so repetitive. The idea is not to further damage the profession, but for us to improve and move the conversation on to make the service cutting edge. One which we can all be proud of.

    • Robina May 14, 2023 at 6:41 am #

      That is shocking for me to read, having qualified in a social work degree in 1997, with very little career break. Where currently I sign off unqualified entries. I knew there was significant renumeration disadvantage on social work council graded psy to those on nhs agenda for change contracts * practitioner bands* almost 8k for the same job! But to hear now, that qualification is being undervalued..what is the point of the regulator ,when the social care ,unqualified in a SW degree is being used paid equally not regulated and the qualified has caps on grading,pay and progression..
      It seems, the LEAP in-house opportunities are in reality not there..ww seem to be boxed in and boxed out! For anything really progressive. Who is actually demonstrating they have the social workers * backs*

    • Christina-Esther May 15, 2023 at 4:27 pm #

      Good point – makes you think about what power social workers actually have

    • JD May 17, 2023 at 5:58 pm #

      That isn’t good..getting paid the same as Social Workers and not qualified..Bizarre!

  4. J Knowles May 12, 2023 at 5:41 pm #

    SWE are to blame partly towards this situation. An organisation full of ex Police but not social workers. If there are social workers there these people (hidden and protected) like their new power to make decisions on your career when they dont come close to your experience. Truly awful.

    • Roryboy May 13, 2023 at 7:53 am #

      Forgot to add… the report was written over the weekend, I have professional integrity, as do many others.

  5. Marilyn Stanton May 12, 2023 at 8:21 pm #

    The issue of ageism in Social Work should be addressed to retain experienced workers

  6. Tiffany P May 12, 2023 at 11:59 pm #

    Heard this lark a million times before… All very well and good recognising the whole system needs to change… Will believe it when I see it

  7. Roryboy May 13, 2023 at 7:49 am #

    Unqualified staff to conduct assessments! But not the mountain of forms we have to complete! in my current safeguarding post I have to complete paper work for invites to conferences. A complaint was made because I took a stance, I put it to the manager please tell me “ what do I prioritise invites of report for review” guess what was stated, yes complete the invites. Many years of practice and CPD and this is what it has amounted too.

    Social work shortage, I wonder why?

  8. Rosie Jakob May 13, 2023 at 8:29 am #

    It is a real.shame that there is nobody on the workforce group from Cafcass or from the Ministry of Justice which has responsibility for Cafcass social work staff. The particular insight practitioners in Cafcass have of multiple regional LAs could be invaluable. Alongside this, the failure to include this sector of social work practitioners in any pay deals agreed for those employed by LA social care has just sent a further message of devaluation and lack of recognition to this staff group.

  9. Yeah May 14, 2023 at 10:57 am #

    Fancy statement, again, but it won’t change a thing. There’s not REALLY any sort of way to encourage change, so it will have to be either go with the flow, or change of career choice. For it to change, it will take a lot of effort, from all side’s. Just talking about it won’t ever be enough.

  10. Catherine Parry May 14, 2023 at 6:55 pm #

    A huge opportunity missed to really listen to staff doing the job either permanent or agency.
    It’s fine having all that expertise in a room , but surely practitioners on the front line are the best source of evidence to establish what change is needed. We are all signed up why don’t you ask us ?

    • Catherine Parry May 14, 2023 at 6:57 pm #

      Is the PSW for children representing ?

    • Melanie May 15, 2023 at 5:25 pm #

      I agree with you Catherine, therein lies the problem.

  11. Rich Harrison May 15, 2023 at 9:17 am #

    These so called leaders are so distanced from the reality of the social work role it is laughable.

    Until there are capped case loads on a weighted basis giving time for social workers to undertake the work in a planned and structured way then nothing will change and social workers will continue to leave the profession.

  12. kat May 15, 2023 at 4:40 pm #

    More hot air from over-paid ‘leaders’ and others that have never done social work. The crisis is now – every day in the uk SW’s are deciding its too much and are resigning – we need immediate action to stop the drain of SW. The damage to SW of going through the process of burning out needs to be respected. What is not needed is more talking!
    This should have been said in response to the governments decision to consult further about the recommendations from all the reviews – they are just kicking the ball down the lane to avoid having to fund costly changes to a broken system – SWE and ADCS needed to pipe up then and refuse to co-operate with any more ofsted inspections until a FUNDED action plan to address the shambles we are in is on the table.

    1. Review all tasks and ask people that are actually doing the work to decide which ones make a difference in a child’s life and do those. ATM ofsted and the DFE decide what is important via performance measures and because LA’s are held to account on them everyone dances to that tune.
    2. Allow the voice of the child to be acted on – we have teenagers that have asked for virtual visits as its the platform they prefer ….but we visit in person anyway as if they were virtual the LA would be in trouble with ofsted
    3. SW in my authority cant claim plain time for the masses of additional hours they work whilst doing huge journeys around the country to see kids in placements. They are told to claim TOIL that they never have space to take – wonder why people are leaving???

  13. Led By Liars May 15, 2023 at 6:05 pm #

    Most real “social work” is not done by Social Workers. I speak as a qualified social worker of fifteen years.
    Actual social work is done by a range of people including (but not limited to) teachers, volunteers, support workers, family workers, care workers, early help staff, police officers, and a range of other people associated with children and families and vulnerable adults in one way or another.
    The increasing professionalisation of Social Work drives out people who want to do social work and places the onus on alternatively qualified (not non-qualified) staff, as qualified Social Workers to do not have the capacity to practice actual social work.
    This has created an unequal system where none of the workers are happy, the service is wildly inconsistent (depending on area), and the public are confused and let down.

    Also, do not get me started on the issue of public services being run on business models and being reliant on the markets.
    Pay staff fairly for the work they do, and employ support staff to do support and administrative work.

    • Anne May 31, 2023 at 4:15 pm #

      Completely agree! I am leaving SW after 28 years, moving to a charity into an unqualified, but to me a real SW role. My repetitive strain injuries will I hope heal after all the typing that we do these days and I hope that despite the drop in income I will enjoy more freedoms to act and be creative and focus on being person and not admin centred. How wonderful to just get on and do some therapeutic and supportive work without being hampered by having to be Jack of all trades, by doing all the admin and form filling! I have spent many years watching other’s from the side-lines doing real SW, whilst I just carried on sat in front of that screen typing endless and disproportionate forms, carrying out tasks that someone unqualified could do and all the time wondering why the hell I bothered to qualify and keep jumping through the hoops we do to remain so. It’s sad, but I think that Care Management in adult social care has diluted SW role (I remember in one authority, we all had to refer to ourselves as Care Manager’s regardless of qualification/registration).
      Oh well – bye bye Social Work and good luck to all those that remain.

  14. Dee May 20, 2023 at 1:28 pm #

    I wonder if these overpaid opinionated fools ever bother to have real down to earth conversations with real social workers, not managers and senior managers that consistently want to portray something better than it what is. Come back to the real world and then and make change and stop talking about and making it all about your own self-importance. Make a bloody difference and stop telling us what we already know and regurgitating the same old stuff for over 20 years. YOU have no clue how social workers feel about your organisations – sick of hearing it

  15. Amanda Hollingshead June 2, 2023 at 10:50 pm #

    Review after review after review. Yap yap yap. All talk no action. Yawn.