Councils employing record number of children’s social workers on back of 25% recruitment boost

However, vacancy rate among children's practitioners falls only slightly as English councils continue to increase their use of agency staff, show annual DfE workforce figures

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Does your caseload match the average calculated by the Department for Education for children's social workers, which sits at 16?

  • I am working on 20-25 cases (28%, 162 Votes)
  • I am working on 25-30 cases (19%, 111 Votes)
  • I am working on 15-20 cases (18%, 107 Votes)
  • I am working on 35+ cases (16%, 96 Votes)
  • I am working on 30-35 cases (10%, 57 Votes)
  • I am working on 10-15 cases (9%, 53 Votes)

Total Voters: 586

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Councils are employing record numbers of children’s social workers on the back of a 25% boost to recruitment last year, official figures have shown.

However, the vacancy rate for local authority children’s practitioners has fallen only slightly, while councils are continuing to increase their engagement of agency staff, amid Department for Education (DfE) plans to curb their use.

Those were among the key messages from the DfE’s statistics on the workforce of children’s social workers in English local authorities as of September 2023, released today.

The figures show a recovery in the state of the workforce since September 2022, when the full-time equivalent (FTE) vacancy rate hit 20% following a year in which the number of children’s social workers fell for the first time since the dataset began in 2017.

Record number of social workers

The number of FTE permanent children’s social workers – including managers who are social work registered – rose by 4.7% (1,485 staff) to 33,119 in September 2023, the highest level, and the largest year on year increase, recorded.

The hike was driven by a 24.9% rise in the numbers recruited by councils in the year to September 2023, compared with the previous year. A record 6,028 FTE social workers joined a new employer in 2022-23, up from 4,826 in 2021-22.

At the same time, the number of leavers fell from a record high of 5,421 in 2021-22 to 5,254 in 2022-23, meaning the turnover rate dropped from 17.1% to 15.9%.

However, despite the boost to recruitment, vacancies fell only marginally, from 7,913 to 7,723 FTE, with the vacancy rate dropping to 18.9%, from 20%.

Use of agency staff continues to rise with DfE rules looming

Meanwhile, the number of agency staff in post as of September 2023 reached a new record of 7,174 FTEs, up 6.1% on the year above, with locums making up 17.8% of the workforce, up from 17.6% the year before.

That news come with the DfE planning to introduce rules later this year designed to curb the use and cost of agency staff in local authority children’s services.

Fall in average caseloads recorded

The increase in the numbers of both permanent and agency staff pushed down the DfE’s contested measure of average caseloads, from 16.6 in September 2022 to 16.0 in September 2023.

This is calculated by dividing the number of children or young people allocated to a named social worker by the number of FTE social workers, including agency staff, holding at least one case.

The figure has been criticised as underestimating social workers’ caseloads.

One likely reason for this is that all registered practitioners who hold cases are included in the denominator for the figures. This means those who hold relatively few cases, such as managers, depress the overall average.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services welcomed the rise in the size of the workforce and the fall in vacancy numbers but warned that this masked significant pressures in some local areas.

“Whilst the latest figures are largely positive, we should not assume this is ‘job done’ as the sector is under significant pressure,” said the chair of the ADCS’s workforce policy committee, Rachael Wardell.

Vacancy rates ‘persistently high’

“Vacancy rates remain persistently high and the rise in the number of agency social workers is a real cause for concern.

“The Department for Education has put forward measures to manage the exorbitant costs associated with the use of agency social workers which are welcome, however, we urge it to move at pace in implementing the statutory guidance.”

Wardell repeated the ADCS’s longstanding call for a national social work recruitment campaign “to promote the value of this transformative profession and the lasting impact it can have on children and families”.

But she also stressed the need to retain experienced staff with “invaluable skills and knowledge”, which required “long-term national investment in our services”.

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6 Responses to Councils employing record number of children’s social workers on back of 25% recruitment boost

  1. Paul March 4, 2024 at 11:44 am #

    Well, figures will dip again, several my colleagues leaving social work, as am I in April. Too high caseloads, no resources, dire IT systems, long hourscwith no recompense

    • David March 5, 2024 at 5:14 pm #


      And this has been going on for years with no real efforts to address things. Hence difficulties in recruitment and retention

      • Anon March 20, 2024 at 5:18 pm #

        I think its got worst in the last few years, and increasingly bad. On the plus side they have recruited more trainees, but then long standing staff are leaving.

  2. Carol March 7, 2024 at 7:37 am #

    One thing I know for certain is I would never advise a young person/relative to become a social worker due to poor salary, poor life/work balance and high level of stress consistently.

    • Anon March 20, 2024 at 5:16 pm #

      Its a shame that the helping profession, doesn’t do much to help people working in the professional, due to workload pressures.

  3. Anon March 20, 2024 at 5:15 pm #

    Given the high caseloads, which impacts upon being able to fully do the work that people came into this for, if people complain then they become targets and have to suffer then. It has changed. There are still plenty of good people in Social Work. BUT retention is often a combination of high turn over of staff, poor retention, high work loads, and having to work alot beyond contractual hours, and in some cases poor management. Teaching appears to also be stressful, but probably an occupation like occupational therapy, or nursing might be more manageable.