Children’s social worker sickness, vacancy and agency rates at record high

Joe Lepper
Thursday, February 23, 2023

Rates of sickness among children’s social workers, staff vacancies and reliance on agency workers increased markedly over the last year and are now at record levels, official government figures have revealed.

Average social worker caseloads rose last year, latest DfE data shows. Picture: Tom Campbell
Average social worker caseloads rose last year, latest DfE data shows. Picture: Tom Campbell

The figures, published today (Thursday), show that the number of vacancies in 2022 was 7,900, up more than a fifth (21 per cent) on the previous year’s figures and the highest rate since 2017, when the Department for Education started to collect data in this way.

This is leaving children’s services relying on agency support, with 6,800 full time equivalent temporary workers used last year, up 13 per cent on 2021's figures and another record high. Four out of five agency workers were covering vacancies in 2022, compared to three quarters the previous year.

The figures also reveal that children’s social work is blighted by an exodus of staff, who are increasingly having to take days off through sickness.

Last year, children’s services lost 5,400 full time equivalent social workers, up almost a tenth on the previous year, another record figure.

The figures reveal that the number of social workers has fallen for the first time since 2017. Last year, there were 31,600 full time equivalent social workers in post, down 2.7 per cent on the previous year.

The DfE says that “difficulties in recruitment and retention” and a lack of newly-qualified graduates entering the profession “helps to explain the fall in the number of children and family social workers”.

Meanwhile, the sickness absence rate increased to another record high rate of 3.5 per cent, from 3.1 per cent in 2021.

Caseloads are also up, from 16.3 per social worker in 2021 to 16.6 last year, however this is still below the pre pandemic level of 16.9 recorded in 2019.

At the end of September 2022, a total of 20,200 full time equivalent social workers were working on 335,600 cases.

The DfE points out that the number of cases has not risen and the increase in caseloads can be attributed to a fall in the number of social workers.

“Sadly, these figures are not a surprise,” said a spokesman for the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).

“We know social workers are dedicated to supporting children and families but over the past five years we have been warning government that their working conditions have been deteriorating year after year.

“Time and again the reasons our members have given have remained consistent: unmanageable caseloads, not enough staff support and a lack of resources to truly help families, especially in early preventive services.

“Without urgent action we are risking highly motivated and experienced social workers leaving the profession, as well as risking the loss of newly qualified social workers early in their careers as they are not being supported enough to stay in the sector.”

Concerns over recruitment and retention, caseloads and a reliance on agency staff were all highlighted in last year's Independent Review of Children's Social Care chaired by Josh MacAlister and the government’s subsequent response.

But while MacAlister’s review called for more than £2bn of investment in children’s social care to ease problems, the government’s response contained only £200m worth of improvement measures.

“Without sustained, long-term funding we fear these workforce figures will worsen, with the impact being felt most by vulnerable families,” said the BASW spokesperson.

According to the Local Government Association (LGA), more than four in five councils are struggling to recruit children's social workers and almost three quarters have staff retention problems, which means "councils are increasingly having to turn to agency staff to plug gaps, which is more costly and leaves less for children's services overall".

LGA chair James Jamieson added: "Local workforce shortages are adding to the challenges facing our local services.

“In the coming years, some services are likely to continue to see a significant increase in demand which they will not be able to meet without an increase in the supply of skilled staff.

"Government investment in local government and its workforce is key to ensure services are protected and also to delivering its own policy agenda."

Steve Crocker, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) added that whilst the government's committments in its response to MacAlister's review were welcome, action must be "swift and meaningful".

"ADCS has long raised concerns about the significant recruitment and retention pressures in the system but this is now very clearly a crisis", he said.

"The children and families who we support rely on a stable workforce with a consistency of worker who knows their story and can meet their needs. ADCS research shows that more children are coming into contact with children’s services, we must have a sufficient, permanent workforce that can meet this rise in demand."

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