Although the overall number of full-time equivalent child and family social workers has increased in recent years, stakeholders have raised concerns about high workload and difficulties faced in retaining staff.

Statistics on the children’s social care workforce

The Department for Education publishes data on the children and family social care workforce on an annual basis, the most recent data available covers the period 1 October 2020 to 30 September 2021 (defined as 2021 in the section below). This data is for England only.

Workforce characteristics

In 2021, there were 32,502 full time equivalent (FTE) children and family social care workers (an increase of 2% compared to 2020), and 5,977 FTE agency workers (an increase of 3% compared to 2020). These were the highest levels recorded in the last five years for both social workers and agency workers.

In 2021, 87% of children and family social care workers were female. This exceeds the rate for teachers (75%), and the 45% average rate in the “professional occupations” (defined as mangers, directors and senior officials and professional occupations). Of the family and social care workers whose ethnicity was known, 23% were from ethnic minority groups (excluding white minority groups). This exceeds the rate for teachers (9%), and professional occupations (15%). It is lower than the rate recorded for children in need (29%).

Retention measures

The full time equivalent (FTE) turnover rate is defined as “the number of FTE social workers leaving a social work role in the year divided by the number of FTE social workers in post at the 30 September” [of a given year]. Social workers who have started maternity or sick leave are not included as having left the sector.

In 2021, the FTE turnover rate was 15.4%. This was the highest rate recorded in the last five years. In 2020 the rate was 13.5% which was lower than the previous two years. This might be due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic; in the two years prior to the pandemic the turnover rate was above 15%.

In 2021, the FTE vacancy rate was 16.7%. This was the second highest rate recorded in the last five years (below the 17.0% peak recorded in 2017).

In 2021, 33.1% of FTE leavers left after less than two years of service, 36.3% left after more than two years but less than five years, and 15.3% left after more than five years but less than ten years. In 2021, around 60% of children and family social care workers had been in service for less than five years.

Additional transparency data published by the DfE in May 2022 showed that:

  • Of the 3,630 social workers who left permanent local authority social work roles in 2021, 77% left children’s social care altogether and 23% moved to agency roles.
  • The majority of those leaving had been in the local authority for less than five years.
  • The highest proportion of social workers who moved into agency roles were aged 20-29 (ie. in the early stages of their careers).

Social worker pay

The table below shows the median annual earnings for social workers in full-time employment. The table shows cash earnings over the last ten years, as well as real term earnings in April 2022 prices (after they have been adjusted for inflation).

Source: ONS, Earnings and hours worked, occupation by four-digit SOC: ASHE Table 14
Notes: Figures have been rounded to the nearest £100
Real term figures are in April 2022 prices
Real term figures have been adjusted using CPI measure of inflation, taken from April in each year

The figures show that between 2011 and 2021 there was a 22% increase in median annual earnings for social workers in cash terms, and a 4% increase in real terms.

Independent Review of Children’s Social Care

On 15 January 2021, the Government launched an Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, led by Josh MacAlister.

Case for Change Report (June 2021)

In June 2021, the Review published its first report, The Case for Change, setting out what it had identified as the biggest problems in children’s social care. The report noted attempts in recent years “to bring more people into social care and equip social workers with the right knowledge and skills.” However, it said the workforce shows signs of “significant strain” and there is “more to do to recruit, retain and support a high quality workforce”. The report added that frequent turnover of social workers “was highlighted…repeatedly by children, parents, kinship carers, foster carers and adopters as a cause of frustration, delay and lack of support” (pp 79-80).

Final Report (May 2022)

The final report of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care was published on 23 May 2022. The report recommended the Government invest £253 million over four years in the professional development of social workers, new national pay scales, routes to build expertise and remain in practice, more flexible working, and action to reduce bureaucracy, so that social workers are backed to spend their time doing what they do best – creating change with children and families” (p24).

The report’s conclusions and recommendations regarding the social care workforce included:

Reducing Bureaucracy

  • Children’s social care is “complicated, bureaucratic and too often risk averse, and this has the combined effect of taking social workers’ time away from practice and reducing their ability to support children and families” (p180).
  • Children and families told the review that social workers “do not have enough time to get to know them” (p180).
  • Clear action is needed to “address workload pressures and get social workers back to practice” (p182).

Early career framework for social workers

  • Providing support in the early years of social workers’ careers is important “for ensuring they are happy and satisfied in their work, improving retention and increasing stability for children and families” (p184).
  • Beyond some limited support for social workers in their first year, “there is little support to help build knowledge and skills in the early years of their careers” (p184).
  • The lack of career progression for social workers seeking to build expertise by remaining in practice, rather than moving into management roles is an issue. There has been “little action” on this in the last 10 years and “front-line progression options remain limited.” The “modest additional pay, status and professional development associated with roles such as Advanced Practitioners, has not gone far enough to address this long-term career structure problem” (p185).
  • There should be an Early Career Framework for social workers, like that introduced for teachers, to cover the first five years in the profession, leading to the role of “Expert Practitioner” and a higher salary. Progression through the Framework, and the national pay scales, will be linked to successfully completing units (p185).
  • To support the Early Career Framework, the DfE “should work with an independent pay review body of experts, to set and introduce national pay scales which better recognise and reward the development of expertise” (p185).

Agency social workers

  • The rates of agency work in children’s social care are “inexcusably high” at 15.5% (p188).
  • Once social workers are in agency rules “they are more likely to move around, contributing to the instability children and families experience” (p188).
  • Agency social workers are more expensive, “reducing resources that might otherwise be available for children and families” (p188).
  • Research suggests use of agency workers may cause “a loss of over £100 million per year that could be better spent on front-line activity to support children and families. This is another example of profiteering in the children’s social care system” (p188).
  • The Government should “develop rules to tackle the overuse of agency social workers” (p188).

Government response

In a ministerial statement following the report’s publication, the then Children’s Minister, Will Quince, said he supported “the principle of the review’s proposed Early Career Framework” and would “set out robust plans to refocus the support social workers receive early on – with a particular focus on child protection given the challenging nature of this work.”

The Minister said the Government would establish a National Implementation Board “of sector experts and people with experience of leading transformational change and the care system”, which will respond with an implementation plan by the end of 2022.

Government policy

A parliamentary question in March 2022 asked for the DfE’s assessment of efforts to recruit and retain social workers. In response, the then Children’s Minister, Will Quince, said:

The number of full time equivalent (FTE) child and family social workers employed by local authorities in England is increasing every year. On 30 September 2021, there were 32,500 FTE child and family social workers employed by local authorities in England. This is an increase of 2.0% compared to 2020, and an increase of 14.1% compared to 2017.

While the department recognises this may not be the picture some local authorities are seeing on the ground, we are working closely with local authorities and using central programmes and funding to respond to their needs.

The department is supporting the recruitment and retention of social workers through our investment in fast track initial social worker training programmes, and in professional development programmes to improve leadership. We are also seeing some innovative practices from local authorities that are driving down agency rates and stabilising their workforces.

Our COVID-19 Recovery Action Plan aims to stabilise and strengthen children’s social care as we transition out of the pandemic, so we deliver well for children and young people and provide a strong foundation for longer-term reform, informed by the Care Review.

Further information on the professional development programmes supported by the DfE was provided in response to a PQ on 31 May 2022.

On 12 July 2022, it was announced Frontline had been awarded a £7 million contract to deliver a new professional development programme starting later in 2022. Further information on the programme, and also on existing programmes, was provided in the following article on the Community Care website: DfE awards Frontline £7m contract to run social work leadership training scheme.

Parliamentary Material

Statements

Independent Review of Children’s Social Care

23 May 2022 | Ministerial statements | House of Commons | 715 cc31-45

Statement on how the Government are responding to “The independent review of children’s social care … ” and the Competition and Markets Authority’s children’s social care report.

Parliamentary Questions

Children: Social Services

14 Jul 2022 | 32590

Asked by: Helen Hayes

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, if his Department will make an estimate of the amount spent on early help social services in 2021-22 by region.

Answering member: Brendan Clarke-Smith | Department: Department for Education (DfE)

The department publishes local authorities’ planned and actual expenditure on education and children’s and young people’s services annually. The data for 2018-2022 is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/section-251-materials. The department does not hold data on early help expenditure.

Children: Social Services

21 Jun 2022 | HL705

Asked by: Baroness Blower

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the funding recommendations in The independent review of children’s social care: final report, published on 23 May; and what plans they have to invest in the care system in response to the report.

Answering member: Baroness Barran | Department: DfE

The department is now considering the recommendations of the Independent Review of Children’s Social care carefully with those with care experience and all interested stakeholders. We will publish an implementation strategy later this year, which will set out how the department will improve children’s social care. This will include establishing a National Implementation Board that includes people with their own experience of the care system.

In the meantime, the department is taking action, which includes:

  • Support for families with a multi-million-pound package to improve access to support, advice, and services from birth through to adulthood. This includes a total of £695 million for Supporting Families over the next three years. As such, up to 300,000 of the most vulnerable families can be helped before they hit crisis point.
  • Getting the right placements in the right places for children in care by investing £259 million to support provision and create additional places in children’s homes. This is the biggest package of investment in children’s social care placements since 2010. The department has also invested £142 million to introduce new national standards, Ofsted registration, and inspection for supported accommodation for young people. This provision that is currently unregulated.

As the department develops its implementation strategy, it will consider where legislation might be required.

Children: Social Services

31 May 2022 | 6820

Asked by: Rachael Maskell

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, whether he plans to take steps relating to the training of the children’s social care workforce as a result of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care.

Answering member: Will Quince | Department: DfE

The introduction of regional care cooperatives, early multi-disciplinary interventions and children’s social care workforce training, as recommended in the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, will be considered as part of the development of the department’s implementation strategy.

Children: Social Services

31 May 2022 | 6815

Asked by: Rachael Maskell

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what steps he is taking to improve leadership in children’s social care.

Answering member: Will Quince | Department: DfE

Through our professional development programmes, the department supports leaders in social work to continue to develop the knowledge and skills needed to provide the best possible services for children and families. We are investing £5 million in our children and family social work leadership programmes in the 2022/23 financial year, supporting more than 1,000 leaders. This includes a new leadership programme which will begin in Autumn 2022 and will support a leadership career journey, improve the quality of leadership and ensure a pipeline of high-quality leaders.

In 2020, we also launched the Upon Inspiring Leaders Programme to give aspiring and new Directors of Children’s Services the skills and support they need to thrive in this challenging role. To date, 100 participants have benefited from this support.

The department will also closely consider the recommendations related to leadership from the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, published on 23 May. We will do this alongside any recommendations from the National Panel Review into the tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson, which was published on 26 May. We will also closely consider recommendations from the Competition and Markets Authority’s study into children’s social care placements, which published its final report in March.

The department will set out an implementation strategy by the end of the year that takes account of the three reviews.

Social Workers: Labour Turnover

22 Mar 2022 | 140365

Asked by: Steve McCabe

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what recent assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of efforts to recruit and retain new social workers.

Answering member: Will Quince | Department: DfE

The number of full time equivalent (FTE) child and family social workers employed by local authorities in England is increasing every year. On 30 September 2021, there were 32,500 FTE child and family social workers employed by local authorities in England. This is an increase of 2.0% compared to 2020, and an increase of 14.1% compared to 2017.

While the department recognises this may not be the picture some local authorities are seeing on the ground, we are working closely with local authorities and using central programmes and funding to respond to their needs.

The department is supporting the recruitment and retention of social workers through our investment in fast track initial social worker training programmes, and in professional development programmes to improve leadership. We are also seeing some innovative practices from local authorities that are driving down agency rates and stabilising their workforces.

Our COVID-19 Recovery Action Plan aims to stabilise and strengthen children’s social care as we transition out of the pandemic, so we deliver well for children and young people and provide a strong foundation for longer-term reform, informed by the Care Review.

Press Material

The following is a selection of news and media articles relevant to this debate.

Please note: the Library is not responsible for either the views or the accuracy of external content.

Community Care, Regulate or ban social work agencies to tackle ‘profiteering’, urges ADCS president, 8 July 2022

Children & Young People Now, Where have all the workers gone?, 4 July 2022

FE news, Social Work England publishes education and training proposals to improve public confidence in profession, 29 June 2022

Children & Young People Now, Star Hobson review chair: ‘Over reliance’ on agency social workers contributed to toddler’s death, 28 June 2022

Children and Young People Now, Care review: Key proposals for the children’s services workforce, 1 June 2022

Local Government Association, Independent Review of Children’s Social Care – LGA initial view, May 2022

Department of Education, Fundamental shift in children’s social care set out, 23 May 2022

The Guardian, Overhaul of children’s social care in England urgent and unavoidable, review finds, 23 May 2022

Sky News, Children’s social care: System needs ‘radical reset’ to prevent ‘enormous’ problems down the line – report, 23 May 2022

Community Care, ‘Inadequate’ councils bore brunt of sharp rise in social workers quitting posts last year, analysis shows, 6 May 2022.

Community Care, Caseloads bigger, more complex and harder to manage, say children’s social workers, 25 March 2022

Children & Young People Now, Children’s social workers leaving posts at five-year high, 24 February 2022

External Reports

British Association of Social Workers, The BASW Annual Survey of Social Workers and Social Work: 2021, 9 March 2022

Social Work England, Social work in England: Emerging Themes, 31 January 2021

Social Work England, Social Work in England: First Reflections, 21 January 2021


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