By Kate Shoesmith
We welcome the fact that the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) is no longer calling for curbs on agency social work in England to be implemented earlier than the government’s April 2024 target date.
Moving the date forward would have been risky short-termism at a time of shortages of social workers.
However, our core view is that the Department for Education’s (DfE) proposed rules on agency work (see below) won’t fix the issues facing the local authority children’s services workforce.
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.
Social work recruitment challenges
The results from the DfE’s latest children’s services omnibus showed that, of the third of local authorities who responded, a majority cited recruitment and retention to be a key challenge.
Seven in 10 local authorities, who were polled in January to March 2022, were not confident they would have enough permanent child and family social workers to meet their needs over the next 12 months.
The situation for the workforce has since deteriorated, with the vacancy rate in local authority children’s services rising from 16.7% to 20% in the year to September 2022, according to the DfE’s annual workforce census.
We need to move beyond suggestions that there is something unacceptable about people choosing to work for agencies or agencies existing – when they are just a response to demand and provide a flexible choice in how people work.”
Why practitioners go agency
Social workers turn to agencies primarily to help them manage their work/life balance. A lack of flexibility, poor pay, heavy caseloads, burnout and, sometimes, difficult work cultures are fundamental challenges to social work – which this proposed policy will not really address.
In fact, four in ten children’s agency social workers, out of a sample of 147, told the REC that they would leave the profession entirely if these DfE rules go ahead. They predicted the impact of the plans would also see colleagues quit and children receive worse care.
The loss of agency staff in anything like this proportion would give vulnerable children even less chance of getting the care they need.
It’s also really not the case that agency work is so much more expensive or less compliant. There are already regional agreements in place to ensure the rates of pay and agency margins are reasonable.
In fact, in many areas, agency margins have significantly declined over the last few years – despite demand increasing. Recruitment is a professional service and if you’ve ever tried to hire on top of doing your day job, you may know how much work it takes, especially in a tight labour market.
Making social work a more attractive profession
But it is also a fact that we believe social workers should get the pay they deserve. Expecting to increasingly get more service for less pay serves no one.
Where the focus should really be is on how to make social work a much more attractive profession, one that is rewarded fairly. We question how this can be achieved by simply curbing the agency services that are just plugging gaps in services when needed.
There will always be a need for contingent workers – sick leave, parental leave and immediate and urgent increased demand for services happen in every workplace.
Many local authorities and recruiters work well together.
Better partnership working needed
Based on our experience working with the NHS, the most efficient arrangement is when the hirers – local authorities in this case – and agencies work in a genuine partnership.
Recruiters can provide insight on workforce issues alongside supplying workers – both temporary and permanent – when the need arises, freeing up councils to focus on delivering services.
What will help in the long term is the establishment of a national agency and temporary staffing strategic forum.
This should bring together sector stakeholders, including recruiters, to collectively discuss workforce challenges, sharing insights across sectors such as health, social work, education and others. This would support learning in building better, more strategic staffing procurement.
That will do far more to ensure we have more social workers in England in the long term than the DfE’s proposed rules.
Kate Shoesmith is deputy chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, the representative body for employment agencies.