The BBC has just reported that spending in the UK on agency social workers has just about doubled in the last four years - from £180m in 2012-13 to £356m in 2016-17. Department for Education figures show that the number of agency children’s social workers employed by local authorities in England rose from 3,250 to 5,330 between 2013 and 2016.
Alison Holt, BBC social affairs correspondent, makes some very sensible points in her article about why this situation has arisen and the impact it has. She mentions “… poor pay, high caseloads and the unrelenting pressure of the job”. And she rightly reminds us that social workers are often the first to face blame if things go wrong.
All of that means that many social workers opt for agency work because it gives them more control. If things get too tough they can easily go elsewhere. And that has a negative impact on the quality and safety of services resulting from too many changes of social worker.
Another factor, which Alison does not mention, is that often in the wake of a negative Ofsted report staff move on from a failing authority to be replaced by agency workers. I suspect that’s why two authorities which have had bad Ofsted reports in the last few years – Birmingham and Northamptonshire – are mentioned in the article as having very high dependence on agency staff.
I believe that at the core of this issue is a vicious spiral. Agency social workers cost more, so high spending on them means less resources to spend on permanent social workers, which in turn means a greater need for agency social workers. For years now I have argued that the crucial issue in children’s services staffing is retention rather than recruitment. There is no point spending lots of money, as our Government appears to want to do, on attracting high flying graduates to train as social workers if they only stay a few years and move on to other careers because of poor working conditions in social work and the pervasive blame culture. What is required is a stable workforce with a good proportion of staff having lots of experience. That would mean less and less dependency on costly agency staff.
Policy makers need to focus much more clearly on this issue. A good start would be for every Ofsted report on local authority children’s services to include information about the department’s dependency on agency social workers, how much it spends on permanent and agency staffing and what its staff turnover and vacancy rates are.