Social workers moving to agency contracts accelerating workforce issues, Ofsted says
Ofsted says that the workforce issues that have “plagued” social work for years have worsened since the pandemic as more professionals move towards agency contracts and residential workers leave the sector entirely.
A new report looking at the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children's social care has warned of serious consequences for the social work sector, saying a national strategy is more urgent than ever.
Drawing on evidence from Ofsted inspections, focus groups and interviews with inspectors, the report finds that the pandemic has exacerbated long-standing staffing challenges in children’s social care, which has serious consequences on the number of suitable children’s home places available and the different needs staff are able to support.
As a result, some children are living in places where their needs are not being met, and in some cases are being placed in unregistered homes, without regulatory oversight. A recent BBC investigation found 120 children in care illegally placed in unregulated homes in England, with some homed in caravans or narrowboats.
High numbers of agency social workers and high caseloads are also preventing purposeful work with children and families. The reliance on agency staff means that children lack stability and, in a number of recent inspections, children have reported that frequent changes in social workers have been a problem for them – though this was frequently cited as a challenge for some pre-pandemic.
Pre-existing gaps in in-patient and community-based provision for children with mental health needs have grown, and children’s needs have become more complex. Ofsted says the mental health of children and young people deteriorated during the pandemic, and that they are seeing increasingly complex mental health needs among the children who require support.
This leaves some children without the right care, or placed too far from their families and communities. In some places, services for children and their families have not been fully reinstated or are running at a lower capacity than pre-pandemic levels. Ofsted is concerned this could lead to delays in identifying vulnerable children and their needs, and families may have fewer opportunities to ask for help. Access to therapeutic and respite services for disabled children also continue to be limited, leaving many children and families without the support they need.
The report also highlights the limits of home-based working for peer support and for learning and development opportunities for social workers and other staff. Face-to-face interaction with colleagues is particularly important for newly qualified social workers, who have mainly operated in pandemic conditions and have had limited opportunities to interact with, and learn from, experienced colleagues. Staff training continues to be mostly online, despite concerns that it is less engaging for staff and reduces retained learning.
The report also raises concern over the escalating cost of living for families, which is already having an impact on children’s services. Local authorities suggest that that greater financial strain on families may lead to higher numbers of children in need and child protection cases, which would further exacerbate existing sufficiency and workforce issues.
“Children’s social care has been plagued by workforce challenges for some time,” said Amanda Spielman, Ofsted Chief Inspector. “But we have seen these issues accelerate in recent years, with more social workers moving to agency contracts, and residential workers leaving the sector entirely.”
“As a result, too many children, with increasingly complex needs, are not getting the help they need. A workforce strategy and improved support for disabled children and those with mental health needs, and their families are more urgent than ever.”
Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) President Steve Crocker said the report highlights issues that are all too familiar to children’s services.
“The entire children’s workforce worked tirelessly throughout successive lockdowns and local restrictions so that those children and families who needed our services the most were supported. However, COVID-19 also exacerbated many pre-existing problems which we are still grappling with.
“Children are waiting longer to be seen by mental health professionals, access to and costs of suitable placements for children in care are unsustainable and we are struggling to recruit and retain enough experienced social workers. Local authorities are working innovatively to resolve some of these problems, however, we simply lack the kind of long-term funding that will allow the sector to adequately address many of the problems we face.”
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