Social work recruitment crisis highlighted as barrier to children's social care reform
Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 21 September, 2023
The recruitment and retention of social workers has been raised as a key concern in responses to a consultation on the government’s strategy to reform children’s social care in England.
Respondents also highlighted funding, economic strain on families and local authorities, and lack of support services as barriers to realising reform ambitions.
The 14-week consultation sought views on the government’s Stable Homes, Built on Love strategy published in February in response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care by Josh MacAlister.
The government strategy was widely criticised at the time for only pledging £200 million over two years, far short of the £2.6 billion over four years recommended by the review.
The consultation notes that respondents want to see prioritised “improvements to operational delivery and reducing workforce pressures”.
It says: “Social workers told us… that they do not always feel supported, valued and trusted.
“We heard that there is not enough recognition of the difficult decisions they make on a daily basis, nor of the skills, expertise and challenge required to do the role, and that social workers can feel frustrated by the lack of time spent with children and families”.
The government said its newly established National Workload Action Group will aim to find solutions to workload concerns.
A need for “the right level” of support and supervision for social workers to ensure their wellbeing and improve practice were also highlighted as “integral” to the success of the reforms.
One practitioner told the consultation: “Being a social worker is a huge privilege but there is a high risk of burn out and PTSD from the cases that we work with therefore to keep people in the role there needs to be time for the managers to offer proper clinical supervision to support the staff to decompress.”
The impact of the public perception of social work was highlighted, with some respondents calling for a national recruitment campaign.
The government said it is working with regulator Social Work England “to inform and educate” people about social work and promote it as a profession.
A new Early Career Framework to provide clearer pathways for social workers entering the profession would help with retention of social workers, said the government. The framework is being tested at “early adopter” local authorities ahead of a national roll out in September 2026.
But calls for this to be linked to a new national pay scheme for social workers were ruled out by the government. Instead, it said it is considering “how we can bring greater transparency on pay and different social worker role types”.
A set of new national rules to reduce reliance on agency social workers has been consulted on separately and responses to this are expected to be published soon.
The government said a virtual portal providing advice and support due to go live next year would also help local authorities with recruitment and retention.
A third of respondents said additional investment is needed to deliver the reforms. One practitioner said: “This reform needs the right financial investment across the whole system if we want to see real change to improve outcomes for children, young people and families.”
Another said: “We need funding and better services. We need things like better early intervention with families as the threshold is really high.
"Yes, we should have good social workers, a culture and system that learns and changes. Love and a stable home should definitely be key. The missing pillar is more funding.”
The government said it recognises “more investment and a wider programme of support” will be needed after the initial £200 million for phase one over two years.
But it stressed it would “continue to assess the evidence base for reform” and test “innovative new approaches to find more efficient and sustainable models of delivery” of services.
Half of respondents said support for disabled children should be improved. This included providing earlier assessments, lowering thresholds to access support and reducing waiting times.
A quarter raised concern about funding saying better financial support was needed to recruit and train staff and foster carers and to provide education support in mainstream schools.
A key plank of the government’s strategy is a rebalancing of the system away from crisis intervention to family help. The government is testing community-based, multi-disciplinary pathfinders at 12 local authorities backed by £45 million.
Most respondents were supportive of this element of the strategy, though a tenth were neutral and seven per cent were opposed.
A quarter of respondents raised concerns about having a single family help service blurring the threshold between early help and support for child in need plans.
The MacAlister review emphasised the importance of kinship care, calling for better support and for family members to be paid similar to foster carers.
Respondents to the consultation agreed kinship carers should be financially supported. They also called for access to therapeutic and mental health support.
One kinship carer said: “We feel it is important that kinship families are given the same attention and support as foster and adoptive families as we are doing the same job as them, just because we may be family we are still giving up full time employment to bring the best, safe outcomes for our children who just happen to be family.”
The government said it is “committed to explore the case for introducing a financial allowance for kinship carers”. It plans to publish a national kinship care strategy by the end of this year and invest £9 million on kinship care training and support.
The MacAlister review and a separate inquiry by the Competitions and Markets Authority raised concern over profiteering in children’s social care by placement providers.
Sufficiency issues have resulted in children being placed far from home and at significant costs.
The review recommended Regional Care Cooperatives should be commissioned by groups of local authorities to manage provision.
The government plans to pilot this. But almost half of respondents to the consultation raised concerns about the model. Some said the cooperatives risked being “too far removed” from the children and local providers.
One senior leader said: “We do not believe that Regional Care Cooperatives can be successful in their stated aim of bringing the financial excesses and many other problems caused by the care marketplace under control.”
The government said: "We remain committed to co-designing the Regional Care Cooperative pathfinders with the sector."