New national rules to curb over-reliance on costly agency social workers
Children’s social workers in England will need to have worked at a local authority for at least three years before becoming an agency worker from next autumn.
They will not be able to return as an agency worker to a local authority they have left for three months and will need to supply practice-based references before being employed.
Local authorities will also be required to set a regional price cap on the hourly pay of agency workers to curb spiralling costs.
The new national rules, published today following a consultation by the Department for Education (DfE), aim to end an over-reliance on agency workers and stabilise the beleaguered children’s social work workforce.
They come in the wake of vacancy rates at a record high of 20 per cent in England. The use of agency children’s social workers is also at a record high of 18 per cent. The rate leapt by 13 per cent between 2021 and 2022, the largest annual increase since current records began in 2017.
Last year the BBC reported that spending on agency children’s social workers at 125 local authorities in England was more than £227 million by 2022, up from £164.5 million in 2017. However, the actual figure will be much higher since 87 councils contacted via a Freedom of Information request failed to respond.
Three years LA experience before going agency
The government’s response to the consultation notes a stable workforce is “vital” to allow social workers to build stable relationships with children and families.
It says: “Departures of social workers with little or no notice can make it more difficult for local authorities to ensure casework is transitioned smoothly and completed with a high quality handover plan.
“Similarly, a high number of workers moving from permanent jobs to agency roles within the same region has contributed to increased competition between local authorities and escalating costs.”
To address this, the consultation originally proposed imposing a minimum of five years working within a local authority before being allowed to do agency work.
However, the government has decided to reduce this to three years. It said: “Several respondents thought that five years was longer than necessary to achieve sufficient practice experience and some raised concerns that mandating five years PQE [post-qualifying experience] could have an impact on workforce sufficiency.
“Therefore, in consideration of the responses received, we have reduced the minimum PQE requirement for agency child and family social workers. This change strikes a balance between allowing social workers new to local authority children’s services sufficient time to consolidate their learning and understanding in a statutory context without significantly impacting on local authorities’ ability to access agency child and family social workers where it is the most appropriate resourcing option.”
The consultation proposed introducing a national cap on the hourly rate of agency social workers to bring them more in line with local authority workers.
Such a move aims to stem the tide of social workers quitting statutory work lured by better paid work and the greater flexibility offered by agency work.
The government, however, rejected introducing a national pay cap at this stage. It said it did “not have the data to be able to implement centrally determined price caps”.
Instead, statutory guidance will be issued for local authorities to agree their own regional price cap. These will be monitored by the Department for Education to provide the “basis for modelling centrally determined price caps” in the future.
Use of whole project teams
The government notes a “significant increase in the use of project teams in recent years” where local authorities are employing whole teams via agencies, including managers.
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) has accused agencies of “hoovering up social workers and then selling them back to us at twice the cost”.
The consultation proposed banning their use. However, the government has rejected this, saying there are circumstances when the flexibility they offer to authorities is appropriate.
It will instead impose stricter conditions on their employment. These include ensuring local authorities “maintain complete oversight and control” of social work practice delivered by such teams.
ADCS, however, said there was no “positive case” for using agency project teams and banning them would be in the best interest of children.
The association’s president, John Pearce, said: “Case holding social work is not a short-term project, yet local authorities are reporting using more project teams that do not engage with the kind of long-term, relationship-based practice that children and families want and need.
“The current position we are in, with many agencies refusing to supply a single social worker to local authorities and instead offering a whole project team, is unacceptable and costs local authorities significantly more money when budgets are already stretched.”
The majority of respondents (87 per cent) to the consultation supported new rules requiring all agency workers to provide references showing their skills and experience. The move aims to improve accountability.
A new system will be introduced on a standardised template following further consultation.
The DfE will consult on the statutory guidance next spring.
Response from social work agencies
Kate Shoesmith, deputy chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, said: “We understand the need to save money in public sector spending, but targeting agency social workers through a change in rules is not the solution.
"We need to make social work as attractive a profession as possible – and that means offering flexible work which is only really provided by agency contracts at the moment.
"There are nearly 13,000 vacancies for social workers in the UK according to our recent data, and four in ten of surveyed children’s social workers who work as temps through agencies told us that they will leave the profession entirely if the proposed government reforms go ahead.”