Social work reform Contents


59.As of September 2015, there were 28,570 children and families social workers in statutory settings, or a full-time equivalent of 26,500.104 There were 5,470 FTE vacancies, or 17% of the workforce, an increase of over a quarter since 2014. There were large local variations in the vacancy rate: Yorkshire and Humber was on 7%, whereas London was 25% and Outer London 29%. These retention problems are not new: the interim report of the Social Work Task Force in 2009 found that widespread staffing shortages were compromising the quality of social work.105 Shortages of experienced social workers have increased reliance on the locum social work market, with the majority of vacancies filled by agency workers.

60.In its memorandum, the Government conceded that there were retention concerns, with the average career in social work lasting less than eight years, compared to 16 for a nurse and 25 for a doctor.106 The Government concluded:

The quality of the environment in which social workers operate can be a key determinant of recruitment and retention variations. That includes: the quality of supervision and wider leadership and management; opportunities for development and career progression; workloads and levels of bureaucracy; organisational culture; and how much the local system is valued by others including the public and the local press.107

The Government suggested that it would tackle these points through its overarching reform agenda, which would improve the confidence and training of social workers to cope with everyday demands, the quality of supervision, creating a clear career path, and disseminating best practice through the system. There was also a suggestion that robust intervention in failing local authorities would eliminate unattractive places to work.108

61.A recurring theme in our evidence was the lack of focus on retention in the Government’s reforms, especially in comparison to recruitment. The LGA said:

Our main concern is that these proposals do little to address the significant problem of retaining experienced social workers, and attracting back those who have previously left the profession. These experienced workers cannot be replaced by NQSWs without some risks. We would urge the Government to focus as much attention on this issue as that of attracting new people into the profession.109

Influence of accelerated ‘qualifying routes’

62.The Government’s memorandum stated that Frontline and Step Up to Social Work

result in good rates of entrants entering and remaining in social work after graduation, minimising the usual attrition rates into the profession. Further studies showed that around 80% of the first two Step Up cohorts gained posts as social workers (compared with 61% of postgraduates from traditional entry routes moving into social work).110

63.We received evidence which challenged the Government’s interpretation of these statistics. The University of Huddersfield told us that it was too early to make any conclusions as the first Frontline cohort only qualified in 2015.111 Josh MacAlister emphasised this point in oral evidence, saying “we haven’t seen anyone finish the two-year programme yet, so I recognise that time will tell on retention figures.”112 The independent evaluation of Frontline concluded that it was unable to judge the career durability of Frontline trainees.113 It surveyed participants of the study on whether they expected to remain as a social practitioner for periods of five or more years, and periods of seven or more years. The majority across both Frontline trainees and students from traditional routes expected to remain for five or more years. 73% of students from universities thought they would remain for seven or more years, whereas only 42% of Frontline trainees did.114

64.The Government must prioritise fixing endemic retention problems in children and families social work. Its current strategy is too dependent on Frontline and Step Up to Social Work improving retention, when these programmes are too new to provide sufficient evidence they can have an impact. Furthermore, the Government is clear that Frontline and Step Up will only produce a minority of children and families social workers. There needs to be as strong a focus on keeping experienced social workers in the profession as there is on improving the quality of entrants.

Improving working conditions

65.In our private seminar the morale of social workers was described as “extremely low”. Excessive workloads were identified as one of the primary reasons for this, and evidence suggests caseloads are at dangerously high levels. Ofsted’s most recent social care report from 2013–14 found that reports from various sources cited high caseloads year on year.115 A survey in 2012 by BASW found that 77% of respondents thought their caseloads were at an unmanageable level.116

66.We received evidence calling on the Government to do more to reduce caseloads. Acorn Care and Education, an education and care provider for vulnerable people, said the variation in caseload levels across England was a serious problem that was not addressed in the Government’s reforms.117 The Children’s Society said it was “crucial that caseloads are regularly reviewed to ensure social workers are working on an appropriate number of cases that are varied.”118

67.When we put this to the Minister, he said it was up to Ofsted when inspecting children’s services to assess the impact of workload on the quality of social work.119 Colin Green, a former social worker and Director of Children’s Services, pointed out that Ofsted inspections make it very clear that “unless caseloads are manageable e.g. mid-teens to about 20 children per social worker, it is very difficult to meet the required practice standards.”120 The Chief Social Worker for Children and Families told us the solution was spreading best practice to share how local authorities with good retention rates were able to provide positive working environments for their social workers.121

68.The Standards for employers of Social Workers in England is a voluntary framework developed by stakeholder partners between 2009 and 2012 following a recommendation from the Social Work Task Force to establish a ‘health check’ of caseloads and other working conditions.122 However, as the framework is not mandatory, we are concerned these ‘health checks’ are not taking place. A 2015 investigation by Community Care, a social work professional publication, found that implementation of the standards was inconsistent, and around half of councils did not set a safe caseload benchmark.123 Dr Ruth Allen, Chief Executive of BASW, said:

There is little accountability for organisations in using [The Standards for employers] now. There is something like that framework that Government might use in conjunction with the employers and their employer bodies, LGA and so on. Maybe to resurrect that in a new form would be important.124

69.We recommend that the Government reinforce the use of Standards for employers of Social Workers in England. ‘Health checks’ of working conditions should be made mandatory. The Government should also consider making the entire framework binding for local authorities. Without better working conditions for frontline social workers, who are facing ever-rising demands, the entire reform programme will be put at risk.

Fixing the ‘blame’ culture

Improving media coverage

70.The two most significant recent reports on the state of social work in England—Building a Safe and Confident Future, by the Social Work Task Force, and The Munro Review of Child Protection—both highlighted the sustained negative media images of social work, compounded by a lack of understanding about the profession.125 A key tenet of Eileen Munro’s report was the high level of ‘anxiety’ in the child protection system. She argued that it caused increased referrals to children’s social care, and could result in the lowering of thresholds when determining whether to recommend the removal of a child from their birth family.126

71.Essex County Council told us that the media portrayed children’s services in a negative light, and that this criticism had increased in recent years.127 Nick Berbiers, Head of Young People’s Services at The Who Cares? Trust, told us that social work had failed to transmit a positive message to the public via mass media.128 At our private seminar, there was consensus that the way social workers were represented in the media contributed to poor morale and high vacancies. In the past, The College of Social Work took a lead role through its Policy and Communications Unit to promote a more balanced public view of social work. Following the closure of the College in 2015, it is unclear who will continue this work.

72.Successful social work is rarely noticed, but it is vital for improving outcomes for children and young people. What social workers can and cannot do is frequently misunderstood by the public and the media, unlike other professions such as teachers or doctors. Furthermore, the discourse about social work is too often delivered through the lens of when things go wrong, such as child deaths. In co-ordination with the social work profession, the Government should consider how successes in social work can be measured and promoted. We recommend the launch of a national public awareness campaign celebrating the positive aspects of social work, and explaining its complexities, to boost the profile of the profession. We consider in Chapter 6 how the profession should organise itself.

Creating a learning culture

73.The Government’s memorandum stated that “sometimes social workers operate in a spirit of defensive, process-oriented compliance.”129 Our evidence suggested the fear of blame within children and families social work is counter-productive to the retention of social workers. We heard in our private seminar that the negative rhetoric from central Government about social workers, and the fear of being blamed for mistakes, was contributing to high stress and low morale in the workforce. The School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol called for a “sea change in the approach to the allocation of blame and responsibility.130 Cornwall Council wrote:

The statement that non-defined ‘failure will not be tolerated’ only adds to the high anxiety experienced by frontline social workers, which in turn leads to defensive practice. Defensive practice only serves to reduce the effectiveness of social work. It also adds a barrier to recruitment and retention, especially as many operate in fear that they will be blamed (and punished) for systemic failings or the failings of others.131

74.The Munro report recommended a move towards a learning culture, so that the system could adapt its practice when things went wrong.132 Rt Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Health, announced in a written statement in March 2016 the creation of a learning culture rather than a blame culture in the NHS, so that practitioners could speak out when mistakes are made.133 Mr Hunt referred to the ‘safe space’ that applies to those who speak to the Air Accident Investigation Branch. This idea of a ‘just reporting culture’, in which practitioners are permitted and encouraged to talk about errors, can enable a system to better learn from incidents and near misses. The Safer Safeguarding Group told us:

We believe that developing a just reporting culture, in which people feel safe to talk openly about their mistakes, and a learning culture in which people can develop and grow, are key factors that will help children’s services departments retain valued members of staff.134

75.We are concerned that a ‘blame culture’ appears to exist within social work, which can be exacerbated by the way the media reports on social work cases. This culture is a significant reason why experienced social workers are leaving the profession. Tackling the blame culture needs to be higher on the Government’s reform priorities. The Government should examine the benefits of a ‘just reporting culture’, as recently announced by the NHS, to move the sector towards a learning culture as recommended by the Munro Review.

Workforce planning

76.Several submissions to our inquiry raised the issue of poor data and lack of workforce planning. Colin Green, a former Director of Children’s Services, told us that the statistics the DfE collected on the children and families social work workforce lacked sufficient detail.135 BASW said that a workforce planning strategy looking at least ten years into the future was crucial.136 Dame Moira Gibb told us:

I do think [workforce planning] is currently inadequate. It does seem to me that the problem with workforce planning is we are again focused on the entrants rather than on the retention aspects, which seem to me to be more important.137

77.Marc Seale, Chief Executive and Registrar of the Health Care Professions Council, said:

Central Government has a very important role to play. That is based on my understanding of how the system runs in health. It needs to be centrally co-ordinated but it needs absolute support from the employers, the educators, the regulator and the professional bodies to make sure they have the right data. We as the regulator hold a lot of data in terms of historic information and we do a lot of forecasting for university programmes and things like that. Again, we are always happy and willing to share that information.138

78.High vacancy rates and retention problems in social work have existed for far too long, especially in specific geographic regions. We recommend that the Government, working closely with local authorities, the regulator, and the social work sector, establish a national workforce planning system to tackle these issues. The system should include national and regional models for forecasting supply and demand, and give employers the ability to influence the supply of graduates.

104 Department for Education, Children’s social work workforce 2015, SFR07/2016 (February 2016)

105 Social Work Task Force, Facing up to the Task: the interim report of the Social Work Task Force (July 2009), para 1.22

106 Department for Education, Education select committee memorandum: social work reform (January 2016) para 38

107 Department for Education, Education select committee memorandum: social work reform (January 2016) para 39

108 Department for Education, Education select committee memorandum: social work reform (January 2016) para 40

109 Local Government Association (SWR0012) para 2.7

110 Department for Education, Education select committee memorandum: social work reform (January 2016) para 22

111 University of Huddersfield (SWR0031), para 14

112 Q73

113 Department for Education, Frontline pilot: independent evaluation (March 2016) p 13

114 Department for Education, Frontline pilot: independent evaluation (March 2016) p 50–51

115 Ofsted, Ofsted social care annual report 2013/14 (March 2015) p 42

116 British Association of Social Workers, The State of Social Work 2012 (May 2012) p 3

117 Acorn Care and Education (SWR0017) para 15

118 The Children’s Society (SWR0033) para 2.3

119 Q195

120 Mr Colin Green (SWR0011) para 10

121 Q177

122 Local Government Association, The Standards for employers of Social Workers in England (May 2014)

124 Q88

125 Social Work Task Force, Building a safe, confident future (November 2009) paras 5.1-5.12; Professor Eileen Munro, The Munro Review of Child Protection (May 2011) paras 7.51-7.65

126 Professor Eileen Munro, The Munro Review of Child Protection (May 2011) para 8.25

127 Essex County Council (SWR0023) paras 1 and 7

128 Nick Berbiers (SWR0008) para 4

129 Department for Education, Education select committee memorandum: social work reform (January 2016) para 10

130 School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol (SWR0032) para 33

131 Cornwall Council (SWR0028) para 8

132 Professor Eileen Munro, The Munro Review of Child Protection (May 2011)

133 HC Deb, 9 March 2016, col HCWS597

134 The Safer Safeguarding Group (SWR0016) para 4.10

135 Mr Colin Green (SWR0011) para 5

136 British Association of Social Workers (SWR0029) para 5.8

137 Q74

138 Q90

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12 July 2016