Recruitment agency practices compound pressures on workforce

The CYP Now survey shows the number of agency social work teams used by local authorities has increased 10-fold in the past five years, with children’s services officials saying staffing shortages are exerting tremendous pressure on budgets.

The recruitment and retention of “quality” social workers is described as “the biggest concern” of directors of children’s services (DECs). 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 “twice the price” of staff employed by local authorities. tips.

Department for Education figures, released in February, show the number of child and family care workers leaving their jobs in 2021 rose 16% from 2020 – the highest level in five years .

Vacancies as of September 30 last year also reached their highest level in five years.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request sent to 151 local authorities by CAP Now sees a growing number of boards mandating managed teams of social workers and social work managers over the past five years.

Out of 100 municipalities that responded to the request, 25 say they have called on a managed team in 2021/22 compared to only two in 2017/18.

Overall, 43% of local authorities say they have commissioned a managed team between 2017 and 2022, representing a total cost of £41.1million across all councils.

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

Necessary prohibition

Steve Crocker, chairman 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 “any the least” to Social Work England only to be given greater powers to regulate profits by organizations which he says are “contacting our social workers, sucking them up and then selling them to us at double the price”.

He is particularly concerned about the “growing” practice of agencies providing social workers to local authorities only as part of a team. To illustrate the point, he cites a social worker on maternity leave as an example of where he would use a temp worker to cover the role.

“At the moment, I can guarantee you that I couldn’t find a single temporary worker,” says Crocker. “But I could find eight – they’re only offered to us as a team. I have to wait until I have eight vacancies before buying a team, but that doesn’t seem like a very good idea.

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

The four teams were initially contracted for six months to cover child assessments and safeguarding work. The contract was later extended to 12 months, at a total cost to the consultancy of £482,599.

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

Crocker’s experience is mirrored by Liverpool Children’s Services Director Steve Reddy, who says that despite his local authority’s work to raise pay rates and benefits to attract permanent staff, the council is “struggling with a shortage of social workers, so we are using the agency’s teams”.

“Due to the level of demand, we need manpower,” says Reddy, noting increasing numbers of children are entering care after two years of school closures and Covid restrictions -19.

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

The council has commissioned two teams to cover a project for children in need and the 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 pressured into joining agencies for higher hourly pay, he says for others it’s a range of issues, including work balance /personal life, management, workload, health and well-being and professional development. .

Agencies that offer managed teams may have “very strict criteria on how they’re going to work, what their workload will be, what kind of work there’s going to be,” adds Reddy, noting that “that’s how they’re going to work.” ‘they completely control the market’.

A third of all agency teams mentioned in responses to JTF have been employed to cover child assessments, while gaps in areas such as safeguarding and child protection are also more likely to be filled by agency staff as permanent vacancies and outgoing care teams.

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

Targeting NQSWs

Crocker worries that the cost-of-living crisis could drive even more social workers to join agencies, at an earlier stage in their careers.

“Social workers find that 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, according to its FOI response.

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

Although it is unclear how many reduced agencies are reaping high daily rates, the total cost for the two teams of six caseworkers, including managers, is £925,000 for just 37 weeks, compared to a total of £15.2m spent on all of Sheffield’s children. social work staff budget in 2021/22.

“We know that the hourly rate for agency teams — say one manager and six staff — is higher than if we were employing agency social workers on an individual level,” Reddy says.

Despite the lure of attractive pay, tighter workload monitoring and more flexible working, Crocker questions the impact of a “relatively new” agency practice “targeting” graduates.

“The concern is that it could compromise quality because access to support, supervision and reflection are essential to excellent practice,” he says.

“If you are a Newly Qualified Social Worker (NQSW) you need a team leader who is going to support and nurture you, you need training and you need permission to make mistakes with support people around you who can pick you up and help you fix it.

“If you are alone as a temporary worker or in a team that is not part of a larger set of services, you do not understand this. I really worry that these people will eventually burn out and not get the right support and become the excellent social workers that we want them to be and no doubt capable of.

“I’m invariably impressed with NQSW in Hampshire and the quality they bring, but they need that nurturing environment, they need to have a team around them that’s permanent and doesn’t move on. job to job, because that won’t stop them. good place for later in their career.

Impact on families

Reddy and Crocker also point to the detrimental impact on vulnerable children and families of social workers who change agencies frequently, who can often leave with a week’s notice.

“I saw a complaint recently where someone, on behalf of a parent, called out to us and said that parent had to deal with 13 different social workers. This is far from ideal, both for parents and children.

“If you’re trying to do relationship-based social work and working with a family to keep them together, it’s tough if you have a quick change of social worker,” Reddy says.

This is noted in Josh MacAlister’s Independent Review of Child Welfare, which sets out recommendations to reduce reliance on agency social workers, describing it as “expensive and counter to building stable working relationships. for children and families.

Cost for advice

Another major concern raised by industry executives is the impact of the growing use of interim care workers in terms of budgets and work to improve Ofsted grades.

“Of all the things that keep you awake at night as a manager, the thing that worries me the most is the recruitment and retention of social work staff, because anything that involves improvement, managing demand and balance of books depends on us having a decent and stable workforce with a reasonable workload,” says Reddy.

“You need a stable workforce, especially with an improving workforce.”

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

“Imagine what we could do if we reinvested the money spent on agency social workers into frontline services and preventive services for children,” Crocker says.

Whether it’s an outright ban or moves to regulate the operation of agencies – or more competitive terms for children’s social workers proposed by councils – Crocker is adamant that something must be done to stop money flowing to social work agencies that could be better spent. support vulnerable children and families.

Michael A. Bynum