DfE sets up group to tackle social worker workloads

Launch of national action group comes after research finds two-thirds of children's services practitioners feel workload is too high, up from a half in 2018

Image of young woman home working and looking tired and stressed (credit: StratfordProductions / Adobe Stock)
(credit: StratfordProductions / Adobe Stock)

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The Department for Education has set up a group to tackle workloads for social workers in local authority children’s services.

Its establishment comes after DfE-commissioned research found that almost two-thirds of children’s services practitioners felt their workload was too high, as of autumn 2022, up from a half in 2018.

The national workload action group (NWAG)’s remit is to “consider drivers of unnecessary workload and to develop solutions so that social workers have enough time to spend working directly with children and families”, said the DfE.

The DfE has not published the group’s membership yet. But it has previously said it would include representatives from Ofsted, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), UNISON, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and the Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW) Network, along with people with lived experience of services.

£1m contract to support councils on workload and retention

The DfE has appointed a consortium led by Research in Practice, including Essex County Council and King’s College London, to support the NWAG up to March 2025.

This will involve arranging and managing NWAG meetings and developing and commissioning solutions to workload issues proposed by the group. The £1m contract will also cover work to help councils improve retention and make better use of agency staff, in line with proposed rules to restrict locum use.

The DfE trailed the creation of the NWAG in its draft children’s social care strategy, Stable Homes, Built on Love, published in February, in which it pledged to tackle “excessive” and “unnecessary” workload pressures on practitioners.

Its annual measure of caseloads among council children’s social workers – seen by many practitioners as an underestimate – has remained stable at between 16 and 17 from 2019-22. There has been a similar level of stability in the amount of unpaid overtime children’s social workers work – about six hours a week – over this time, according to successive waves of the DfE-commissioned longitudinal survey.

Increased workloads and job-related stress

However, the survey, which has tracked the attitudes of a group of council children’s social workers since 2018 – has found a deteriorating picture on practitioners’ experience of their workload:

  • 63% of practitioners said their overall workload was too high in wave 5 of the research (carried out in autumn 2022), compared with 51% in wave 1 (November 2018 to March 2019).
  • 65% felt stressed by their job in 2022, up from 51% in 2018-19.
  • 59% felt they were being asked to fulfil too many different roles in 2022, compared with 47% in 2018-19.
  • 61% of 2022 respondents felt the number of hours they spent on each case had increased over the previous five years.

This increase in work pressures has been accompanied by a decrease in job satisfaction – 67% of wave 5 respondents reported feeling satisfied, down from 75% in wave 1 – with researchers identifying a link between the two issues.

Caseloads linked to job satisfaction and retention risk

The wave 5 report said that 84% of those who felt dissatisfied with their job felt their workload was too high, compared with 56% of those who were satisfied.

Across all five waves, researchers have identified links between workload and retention, with half of the 6% of respondents considering leaving child and family social work at wave 5 citing high caseloads as a reason, the biggest single factor.

And retention has deteriorated in line with social workers’ feelings about their workload, with the average vacancy rate among council children’s social workers rising from 16.1% to 20% from 2020-22.

The DfE’s contract with Research in Practice states that the group should seek to reduce workloads by identifying ways to “streamline and reduce unnecessary regulatory, central government and local level workload drivers” and “considering effective and efficient case recording and recording of the child’s voice”.

Key workload drivers

However, this does not appear to tally with most of the factors social workers identified as key workload drivers in the longitudinal survey. Of the three in five 2022 respondents who said the average time they spent on each case had increased over the previous five years:

  • 69% said the severity of the issues faced by children and families had increased.
  • 48% said public service cuts had increased burdens on social workers.
  • 43% said there were not enough social workers, too few posts or too many vacancies in their teams.

The only high-ranking factor that correlated with the focus of the NWAG was increased paperwork, which was cited by 48% of those who reported that they were spending more time on each case.

On average, 2022 respondents to the longitudinal survey reported spending an average of 59% of time completing case-related paperwork, while 56% of those who reported feeling stressed cited administrative work as a factor.

Workload group ‘must tackle admin burdens’

In response to the establishment of the NWAG, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) England said it was vital that it tackled the burdens that took practitioners away from direct work, in line with the professional body’s longstanding 80-20 campaign.

“It is imperative that we unlock the time that social workers still spend on process driven systems – literally sitting in front of their laptops at home, in an office base or in the car,” said national director Maris Stratulis.

“BASW England welcomes this national partnership working group, collectively we need to explore different ways of enabling social workers to have more direct time with the people they work with. We hope the voices of social workers in direct practice will be well represented on the group and that pay and working conditions will also be considered, especially in view of regional disparities.”

DfE urged to address ‘recruitment and retention crisis’

However, in the light of the latest wave of the longitudinal survey, BASW also called on the DfE to “invest in a nation-wide strategy to address the growing recruitment and retention crisis, which is a huge contributing factor to the increase in caseloads as social workers are forced to absorb the work of absent employees”.

The ADCS issued a similar message in its response to the survey.

“There is a national shortage of social workers which only adds to the pressures facing our staff,” said president John Pearce.

“Local authorities are working hard to recruit and retain staff in their areas, and we urgently need the Department for Education to support us with this by funding a national recruitment and retention campaign which clearly explains the positive work that social workers do every single day.”

Supporting compliance with employer standards

The Research in Practice-led consortium’s work will also involve helping councils improve retention, specifically through producing resources to help employers meet the Standards for employers of social workers in England.

Owned by the Local Government Association, the standards set expectations of employers in areas including safe workloads, social worker wellbeing, supervision and continuing professional development

The LGA commissions an annual survey – the social work health check – to assess practitioners views on how their employers measure up against the standards, and the Research in Practice consortium’s role will be to produce resources help councils respond to the results of their annual check.

“The outputs should enable leaders to develop effective workforce strategies that improve working conditions and organisational culture in local authorities and in turn the retention of its social workers,” said the DfE contract.

The consortium’s third area of work will be around helping councils in their use of agency staff and comply with the proposed national rules on engaging locums in children’s services should these come into force, as expected, next year.

Government ‘recognises workforce challenges’

Announcing the contract award, the then children’s minister, Claire Coutinho – since replaced by David Johnston – said she recognised the increasing workforce challenges councils were facing.

She said the consortium would “draw on a wealth of expertise to arm local authority leaders with the tools they need to boost social worker recruitment and retention and to enable social workers to spend more time where it matters the most, with children and families”.

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10 Responses to DfE sets up group to tackle social worker workloads

  1. Paul September 8, 2023 at 1:07 pm #

    Workloads. Need take into account the IT systems used. One takes up to 20% longer complete tasks, welll documented. Equate that to caseloads! Camerons fault saying was not forcing LAs have an integrated children system (ICS). Of course some cheaper buy, but costly when looking at time spent by frazzled workers on these

  2. Jimmy September 8, 2023 at 1:16 pm #

    Soical workers need to log their hours, keep their calendars fully up to date and tell their managers they will be taking the time back. Then in supervision tell your supervisor there is just no capacity to take on more. The more SWs keep doing this overtime for free, the more councils will continue to up the case loads.

  3. Colin September 8, 2023 at 2:24 pm #

    I qualified in Sept 22, currently working through the ASYE program in a duty & Assessment team with children’s services. Considering I’m protected with a lower caseload I am not exaggerating to say I could probably sit at the laptop for 2 days straight and still have some additional forms to fill in and repeat the same information 5x over.
    I think systems are designed for data harvest rather than for us social workers to navigate and enter information into.

    • Paul September 8, 2023 at 8:30 pm #

      Yes. And most senior managers and directors dont know how use it. Only look at data not front end we use. Same goes for IT dept, so long as they can pull data. And different LAs can have same system but configure it so no 2 same systems same, because people who do the configuring do not do social work

    • Leanne September 10, 2023 at 9:02 am #

      I completely agree. I’m on AYSE as well and don’t think I’m overestimating to say that every hour I spend with a child equates to four hours admin time. I’m also sure my case load is not currently protected, as I have more cases than the senior social workers on the team. And it’s not like they’re less complex ones. I have no choice but to work on evenings and weekends because I would never meet deadlines. I’ve started making a note of my excess hours to try and attempt to take it back as toil but that seems futile because if I take time off, that just generates more work.

  4. Ryan Simonet September 8, 2023 at 7:13 pm #

    We need to be paid overtime, end of. I probably average 10-15 hours of OT every week.

    TOIL is a cop-out and just another way for councils and local government’s avoidance of paying us for our work.

    Were we paid overtime, watch as how quickly caseloads and bureaucracy are reigned in.

  5. Karen September 10, 2023 at 7:37 am #

    In theory this is fantastic but in practice not so much. I have been a safeguarding social worker for 13 years & in that times things have got worse in the profession. Not just with IT & allocations which are ridiculous but the complexities and issues within families. Times have changed and the system is not fit for purpose. There are more gang related issues, poverty is worse & to be fair families are more scared of gang members and what they can do than they are of social services. There is little we can offer in the way of resources due to cut backs and the plans we create to support families are as good as the paper they are written on. We can’t make people engage and there is little deterrent. So we gate keep and fire fight until a family is stable enough to close until they are referred in again with the same or similar issues. We make little to no difference in people’s lives now and it becomes a vicious cycle. We are target driven rather than family focused, we do what policy dictates rather than what each individual family needs us to do. I love my job but can understand why people are leaving in droves because the support is just not there.

  6. Claire September 10, 2023 at 9:49 am #

    Saying the average caseload is 16-17 is extremely misleading. Some SW teams have higher caseloads than others depending on the type of work e.g MASH, Assessment, Long-term, LAC etc. Also, some Local Authorities might have very low caseloads whereas many have caseloads in the high 30s which is an absolute disgrace. It’s a national scandal that Ofsted aren’t clamping down on LAs with dangerously high caseloads. Are they even aware of the issue?!

  7. Clara September 11, 2023 at 9:14 am #

    So much needs to change . How effective, in some instances, is or this gathering data on families. How does it really improve the lives of children. How many well paid management posts in LAs are based on leaders who may have not done a home visit in decades, essentially looking at “stats”, on families. All of this stems admin SWs have to do.

    In certain cases, if said family had access to decent housing, services that supported the parents’ well being, youth clubs etc-then this would be far more effective use of public funds.

    I have met workers who will over work themselves to the point of harming their health and this in part feels like its driven by unresolved childhood issues. Unlike teaching , there is a lack of strong union presence and unity and sometimes a culture of “we are the ones who trudge on”. Workers who push back and want toil and boundaried workloads can get labelled as “difficult”. Whereas those who respond to requests to take on more are praised as “super-troupers”.

    • David September 11, 2023 at 7:50 pm #

      Yes Clara those who push back are labelled as difficult and are manipulated out of the workplace by use of capability procedures, perhaps for not achieving targets or meeting timescales.