Adult social worker numbers hit record high on back of funding rise

Directors welcome 7% boost to size of workforce in year to September 2023, but highlight 10% vacancy rate and councils' struggles to recruit experienced practitioners

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Adult social worker numbers in local authorities hit a record high last year, official figures show.

English councils increased their headcount of adult social workers, including agency staff, from 17,300 to 18,500 in the year to September 2023, a 7% boost, according to annual statistics released this week by Skills for Care.

Over the same period, the social worker vacancy rate fell from 11.6% to 10.5%, while the annual turnover rate dropped from 17.1% to 14.5%.

The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) welcomed the increase in the size of the workforce but warned that vacancies still remained high and that councils were struggling to recruit experienced practitioners.

Highest recorded number of adult social workers

The number of adult social workers is the highest recorded in a data series going back to 2012, and follows four years during which workforce numbers have hovered between 17,000 and 17,500.

The increase has been driven by two factors: an excess of new starters (3,000) over those leaving their roles (2,400) in the year to September 2023, and a rise in the number of indirectly employed social workers, mainly those in agency roles.

The indirectly employed made up 12% of the workforce in 2023 (2,300 staff), up from 11% in 2022.

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£2bn increase in real-terms spending

The increase in councils’ social worker contingent formed part of an overall rise in the number of adult social care staff employed, directly or indirectly, by authorities from 113,900 to 117,400, the highest figure since 2015.

This comes on the back of a £2bn boost to councils’ budgeted spending on adult social care from April 2023 to March 2024, a 10% increase in real terms.

This was enabled by the government diverting money from reforming the social care charging system to frontline services, and permitting authorities to raise council tax by 5% this year without a referendum, with some of the proceeds ring-fenced for adults’ services.

Tackling waiting lists

Ministers intended authorities to use the extra money to fund more care packages in order to reduce the length of waiting lists for services.

As well as increasing provider capacity, this necessitated authorities employing more practitioners to carry out assessments and reviews and draw up care and support plans.

While these tasks can be undertaken by occupational therapists and non-professionally qualified social care assessors, they are often the responsibility of social workers.

According to ADASS figures, the number of people awaiting assessments, reviews or care hit a high of 542,000 in April 2022, before falling to 434,000 by March 2023. However, the total then grew to 470,000 by August 2023.

Additional money ‘helpful but not nearly enough’

The association’s joint chief executive, Cathie Williams, said: “Additional investment from the government in the past two years has helped councils to hire more social workers to help reduce the historically high waiting lists we have for assessment, planning, reviews and care, and to respond to increasingly complex needs from both disabled working age adults and older people.

“But it’s not nearly enough to turn the curve and free social workers to work with people to support them to live gloriously ordinary lives and safeguard people’s rights when they may be deprived of their liberty, experiencing abuse, neglect or self-neglect, or in mental health crisis and at risk of compulsory admission to hospital.

The workforce data follows the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) announcing £12m to help councils start training up to 400 additional social work apprentices over the next year.

Councils ‘struggling to recruit experienced staff’

However, though Williams said apprenticeships were helpful, she warned that authorities were struggling to recruit experienced practitioners.

“That means many of the new social workers last year were newly qualified and completing their first year’s in-work training,” she added.

Williams said this was evidenced by Skills for Care recording 1,700 adult social workers starting the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) in 2023, up from 1,300 in 2021.

She added that the vacancy rate for social workers remained high, at 10.5%, which is above the level in 2021 (9.5%) and far higher than the rate in 2020 (7.5%).

Cut in real-terms pay

The Skills for Care report also showed that, though average social worker pay rose by 6.1% in cash terms in the year to September 2023, this was a 0.5% cut in real terms because of the high levels of inflation during this time.

The data showed that the real value of adult social workers’ wages has fallen progressively over time, with the average full-time equivalent pay in September 2023, £41,500, being worth 7.2% less than the average in 2016.

The figures do not include the impact of the 2023-24 increase in pay for council staff in England, which was worth £1,925 for most social workers outside of the capital, £2,226 for those in outer London and £2,353 for staff working in inner London.

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