Welsh councils must be legally required to set maximum manageable caseloads for their children’s social workers and to take all reasonable steps to maintain them.
This should be backed by a “comprehensive workforce sufficiency plan”, potentially including national pay and conditions, to ensure authorities have enough practitioners to implement safe workloads.
Those were among the messages from the Welsh Parliament’s (Senedd) children, young people and education committee in a report on reforming provision for children in care and care leavers in the country.
The paper was based on a 10-month inquiry designed to examine what the Welsh Government’s 2021 commitment to “explore radical reform of current services
for children looked after and care leavers” should mean in practice.
Against the backdrop of a 23% rise in the care population from 2013 to 2022, the committee held meetings with care experienced people, birth parents whose children had been taken into care and practitioners, as well as taking written and oral evidence.
Social work caseloads ‘too high’
“Overwhelmingly, we heard that children’s services social workers’ caseloads are too high,” said the report. “Care experienced young people told us time and time again that they struggled to get the support they needed from their social workers because high caseloads meant that they weren’t able to spend enough time with each individual child or young person.”
Issues included a young person not being given sign-off to go on a rugby tour by his social worker, and another not being able to spend time with his birth parents on his birthday for each of the past eight years because social workers were unavailable on the day or did not process the request in time.
Professionals delivered the same message, with some reporting that caseloads of 35 were common, while the committee also heard that high workloads undermined practitioners’ abilities to build relationships with parents.
The situation was driven by the country’s significant recruitment and retention issues, which the committee said was “the most commonly raised concern
throughout our inquiry”.
Lack of practitioners in Wales
Social worker vacancies in council children’s services rose by a quarter, from 210 to 263, against a total workforce of approximately 1,716 practitioners, according to figures supplied to the committee by Social Care Wales.
The workforce development body also reported that, of the 326 social workers the country needed to enter the workforce each year, only 202 were qualifying through Welsh courses annually.
Along with workload, pay levels, a lack of availability of flexible working and public and media perceptions of the profession were all raised with the committee as reasons for the shortage of practitioners.
Most young people the committee spoke to backed legislation to cap workloads, while professionals suggested that a caseload of 12-16 would be manageable. The British Association of Social Workers warned that the differences in complexity of cases made legislating for a cap unfeasible, and the committee acknowledged further work would be needed to “mitigate any unintended consequences of a legislative approach”.
However, it said that the Welsh Government needed to “acknowledge, in the most powerful way it can, that high caseloads are unsafe and are critically damaging children’s social work”, by introducing legislation based on that in place for nurses in Wales.
Legislation to limit caseloads
This would require councils to “calculate maximum caseloads for children’s social workers that enable effective, relationship-centred social work, and to take
all reasonable steps to maintain [them]”.
Supporting this, it urged the Welsh Government to “begin work at pace on a children’s services workforce sufficiency plan” to ensure there were enough practitioners to deliver on the caseloads legislation. This should cover:
- routes into social work, including apprenticeships and other vocational options;
- pay, terms and conditions, including the feasibility and benefits of extending flexible working;
- career pathways, including how to retain practitioners at the front line while also offering progression into management or specialisation;
- a potential national approach to the pay and conditions of social workers to ensure consistency and harmonisation across local authorities.
More support for social work students
In response to the committee’s report, a Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We are working with care-experienced children and young people to radically reform services to provide the very best support and protection, and ensure they thrive when leaving care.
“Our ambition is to deliver a wide range of changes, including eliminating profit from care and reducing the numbers entering the care system and keep families together.
They also referenced last year’s decision to boost the value of the social work bursary and Social Care Wales’s social work workforce plan, also issued in 2022, which included measures to improve recruitment, education, skills and wellbeing.
“We recently announced a £10m package of support over the coming three years for social work students as part of our ongoing work to recruit more social workers” the spokesperson added. “We are working with the sector to improve recruitment and retention of social workers including through the recently published social work workforce plan. We will consider the recommendations in the report.”