The Department for Education is likely to go ahead with rules restricting agency social work in statutory children’s services in England, a sector leader has indicated.
Association of Directors of Children’s Services workforce policy lead Rachael Wardell said ADCS had repeatedly raised the need for the DfE to implement its proposed rules and that the department had been receptive to its lobbying.
The DfE consulted on the proposals, which include capping the pay of agency staff to the equivalent of permanently-employed social workers, between February and May this year, and is due to report back on the consultation this September.
The proposed rules proved highly divisive following their publication, with the ADCS urging faster implementation than the target date of next April, and agency leaders – and many social workers – warning they would worsen existing staff shortages, with one in five social work posts vacant in children’s services as of September 2022.
DfE ‘has listened’ to directors on agency rules
However, despite the opposition from some quarters, Wardell indicated to last week’s ADCS annual conference that the rules would come into force.
“We are pushing the point to government over and over and over about how important it is to go ahead with the reforms,” she said. “My sense is that we have been listened to by the DfE.”
In an interview with Community Care, ADCS president John Pearce said it was now supportive of the April 2024 start date proposed by the DfE.*
What are the proposed rules on agency work?
- All procurement of agency staff should follow national rules.
- National price caps on what local authorities may pay per hour for locums, based on the average earned by equivalent permanent staff, on a like-for-like basis.
- 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 to have completed 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.
Growth in use of agency teams
The ADCS’s support for restrictions on locum work stems from what it sees as the growth in unacceptable practices by some social work agencies when placing staff, particularly restricting supply to teams in cases when councils need individual workers.
The number of social workers councils hired through such project teams grew fivefold from 2021-22, according to research by ADCS published last year, while the proportion of children’s services social worker roles held by agency workers reached a record high of 17.6% in September 2022, up from 15.5% the year before.
Banning the use of project teams is among the eight rules, along with a national price cap on costs per locum worker – effectively capping their pay – and a prohibition on social workers taking up an agency post in local authority children’s services until they have acquired five years’ experience.
“If we do achieve what we intend to do with these reforms we will bring to an end some scurrilous practices including here today gone tomorrow project teams and agencies who can’t provide you with one agency social worker but with six plus a team manager,” Wardell told last week’s conference.
This critique is rejected by agency representatives, with the Recruitment and Employment Confederation also warning that the proposals would “damage services and drive people out of social work”.
BASW: need to address factors behind agency work
The British Association of Social Workers England, while accepting that “market forces” had led to increased costs from agency work, as well as greater inconsistency of support for families, warned that implementing the plans without addressing the drivers of locum work would be “destabilising” to the workforce.
Agency staff working in council children’s and adults’ services were more satisfied across a range of measures than permanently-employed social workers, found the Local Government Association’s latest social work health check, based on a poll of almost 8,000 practitioners from October 2022 to January 2023.
Pearce said he recognised the need to address the pull factors for agency work, in an interview with Community Care at last week’s conference.
“That’s where local authorities have a huge responsibility,” Pearce said. “We need to make sure we are good employers and we are ready to welcome with open arms those agency social workers who want to come into the permanent workforce. It’s our expectation that a significant proportion of those in the agency world will come into permanent roles. We need to create environments in which they want to do that.”
*The story has been updated to include this detail.