Recruitment agency practices compound workforce pressures

Fiona Simpson
Tuesday, July 26, 2022

CYP Now investigation shows 10-fold rise in agency social work teams being used by local authorities in last five years, with children’s services leaders saying staff shortages are placing huge pressure on budgets.

Agency social workers are more likely to plug gaps in areas like safeguarding and assessment, research finds. Picture: Adobe Stock
Agency social workers are more likely to plug gaps in areas like safeguarding and assessment, research finds. Picture: Adobe Stock

The recruitment and retention of “quality” social workers is described as “the biggest worry” facing directors of children’s services (DCSs). With record numbers of social workers leaving the profession, local authority leaders are being forced to turn to social work agencies, many of which now offer entire social work teams for “double the price” of staff employed by councils.

Department for Education figures, published in February, show the number of children and family social workers who left their posts in 2021 was up by 16 per cent compared with 2020 – the highest level in five years.

Vacancies on 30 September last year also hit the highest level in five years.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request sent to all 151 local authorities by CYP Now finds increasing numbers of councils commissioning managed teams of social workers and social work managers over the last five years.

Of 100 councils which responded to the request, 25 say they have used a managed team in 2021/22 compared with just two in 2017/18.

Overall, 43 per cent of local authorities say they have commissioned a managed team between 2017 and 2022, amounting to a total cost of £41.1m across all councils.

Meanwhile, the number of individual agency social workers hit a five-year peak in 2020/21 when 5,977 were employed by agencies, 4,558 of whom were actively covering vacancies at local authorities, according to latest DfE statistics.

Ban needed

Steve Crocker, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), and DCS for Hampshire and Isle of Wight Councils, is calling for a ban on the use of social work agencies or “at the very least” for Social Work England to be handed greater powers to regulate profiteering by organisations which he claims are “contacting our social workers, hoovering them up and then selling them back to us at twice the cost”.

He has particular concerns over the “increasing” practice of agencies only supplying social workers to local authorities as part of a team. To illustrate the point, he cites a social worker on maternity leave as an example of where he’d use an agency worker to cover the role.

“At the moment, I could guarantee you that I could not find one single agency worker,” Crocker explains. “But I could find eight – they are only being offered to us as a team. I have to wait until I have eight vacancies then buy a team but that doesn’t seem very sensible.”

According to its FOI response, Hampshire reveals it has employed four managed teams this year – the first time the local authority has ever done so – through agency Innovate.

The four teams were initially commissioned for six months to cover children’s assessments and safeguarding work. The contract has subsequently been extended to 12 months, at a total cost of £482,599 to the council.

The four teams, based in the New Forest, East Hampshire, Basingstoke, Hart and Rushmore, each consist of one team manager, one assistant manager and six or seven social workers.

Crocker’s experience is mirrored by director of children’s services in Liverpool, Steve Reddy, who says that despite work in his local authority to increase pay rates and benefits to attract permanent staff, the council is “struggling with a social worker shortage so we’re using the agency teams”.

“Because of the level of demand, we need a workforce,” Reddy says, noting that increasing numbers of children are entering care following two years of school closures and Covid-19 restrictions.

Like Hampshire, Liverpool has been forced to employ teams of agency workers for the first time over the past year.

The council has commissioned two teams to cover a children-in-need project and discharge of cases for a current period of six months at a total cost of £695,045.

Not just money

Reddy argues that while there is a cohort of social workers who are driven to join agencies for a higher hourly wage, he says that for others it’s about a range of issues including work/life balance, management, caseloads, health and wellbeing and professional development.

Agencies which offer managed teams can have “a very strict criteria about how they will work, what their caseloads will be, what type of work there is going to be”, Reddy adds, noting that “that’s how they’re completely in control of the market”.

A third of all agency teams mentioned in the FOI responses were employed to cover child assessments while gaps in areas like safeguarding and child protection are also more likely to be plugged by agency staff than vacancies in permanence and leaving care teams.

Reddy suggests it is because work pressures in these areas are more likely to leave staff feeling “burned out”.

Targeting NQSWs

Crocker is concerned that the cost of living crisis will push even more social workers to join agencies, at an earlier stage in their career.

“Social workers are finding they need more money to make ends meet,” he says.

Sheffield City Council employed two teams of six social workers at a cost of £350 per worker per day between July 2021 and March 2022, its FOI response shows.

The teams, which worked in children in need and child protection services across the South Yorkshire city, also included two managers at a cost of £400 per day each, around £50 an hour.

While it remains unclear how much of a cut agencies are taking from high daily rates, the total cost for both teams of six social workers including managers amounts to £925,000 for just 37 weeks compared with a total of £15.2m spent on Sheffield’s entire children’s social work staff budget in 2021/22.

“We know the hourly rate for agency teams – say a manager and six staff – is more than if we were employing agency social workers at an individual level,” says Reddy.

Despite the lure of attractive pay packets, stricter oversight of caseloads and more flexible working, Crocker questions the impact of a “relatively new” practice of agencies “targeting” graduates.

“The worry is that this could compromise on quality as access to support, supervision and reflection are critical to excellent practice,” he says.

“If you’re a newly qualified social worker (NQSW), you need a team manager who is going to support you and nurture you, you need training and you need permission to make mistakes with supportive people around you who can pick you up and help you put it right.

“If you’re on your own as an agency worker or in a team that is not part of a broader set of services, you don’t get that. I really worry that that is going to end up with those people burning out, that they’re not going to get the right support and they won’t actually develop into the great social workers that we want them to be and that they’re undoubtedly capable.

“I’m invariably impressed with NQSWs in Hampshire and the quality they bring but they do need that nurturing environment, they do need to have a team around them that is permanent and not flit from job to job because that won’t stand them in good stead for later in their career.”

Impact on families

Both Reddy and Crocker also highlight the detrimental impact on vulnerable children and families of frequently changing agency social workers, who are often able to leave with one week’s notice.

“I’ve seen a complaint recently where somebody, on behalf of a parent, was challenging us and saying this parent has had to deal with 13 different social workers. That’s far from ideal, both for the parents and the children.

“If you’re trying to do relationship-based social work and work with a family to keep them together, it’s hard if you’re having a rapid change of social worker,” Reddy explains.

This is noted in Josh MacAlister’s Independent Review of Children’s Social Care which sets out recommendations to reduce the use of agency social workers, describing it as “costly and working against providing stable professional relationships for children and families”.

Cost to councils

The impact of the rising use of agency social workers in terms of both budgets and work to improve Ofsted ratings is another key concern raised by sector leaders.

“Of all the things that keep you awake at night as a director, the one thing I’m most worried about is recruitment and retention of social work staff because all the things around improvement, managing demand and balancing the books, are dependent on us having a decent, stable workforce with reasonable caseloads,” Reddy says.

“You need a stable workforce, particularly with a workforce that’s on an improvement journey.”

In his government-commissioned report into failures at Bradford Council following the death of toddler Star Hobson in 2020, Steve Walker notes that slow progress to recruit more than 100 social workers at Bradford City Council was a “key” factor in the local authority’s failure to improve its children’s services after it was rated “inadequate” by the inspectorate in 2018.

“Imagine what we could do if we put that money spent on agency social workers back into frontline services and preventative services for children,” Crocker says.

Whether through an outright ban or measures to regulate the operation of agencies – or more competitive terms and conditions for children’s social workers offered by councils – Crocker is adamant something needs to be done to prevent money going to social work agencies that could be better spent on supporting vulnerable children and families.

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