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Two thirds of local authorities report caseload decreases for children’s social workers

New Department for Education workforce statistics calculate an average caseload of 16.3 for children’s social workers in England in 2020 – a drop of 0.6 from the previous year – but questions remain over the way the figure is calculated.

26/02/21

Two thirds of local authorities report caseload decreases for children’s social workers

The Department for Education (DfE) has released annual statistics for the children’s social work workforce in 2019/2020, showing a decrease in average caseload, plus the equivalent of nearly 1200 more full-time social workers.

The information is based on data collected in an annual census from local authorities in England, and covers the year ending 30 September 2020, meaning this is the first data in this series to capture the effects of the coronavirus outbreak.

The average caseload per children and family social worker fell to 16.3 in 2020, down from 16.9 in 2019, the data showed.

The fall of 0.6 in 2020 follows recent downward trends, after averages of 17.8, 17.4 and 16.9 reported in 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively.

However, there remains debate over the way this figure is calculated, with social workers often reporting much higher caseloads in practice.

The statistics define a case as any person allocated to a named social worker, with each individual child counting as a ‘case’, as well as carers allocated to a social worker for the purposes of fostering or adoption.

The calculation divides the total number of cases by the number of Full Time Equivalent (FTE) social workers, a method the DfE uses to aggregate differences between the working patterns of full-time and part-time social workers.

The DfE urges caution with the figures saying cases may be held by social workers regardless of their role in the organisation and not just those specifically in a ‘case holder’ role, which may account for why social workers often report much higher caseloads in practice.

Average caseloads, based on the DfE calculation, vary from just 9.7 at Cambridgeshire County Council to 24.9 at North East Lincolnshire Council.

Social workers at local authorities in the North East typically had the highest caseloads with an average of 18 for the whole region, shortly followed by the North West with an average caseload of 17.9.

The data also captured sickness absence up to 30 September 2020, showing a rate of 2.9%, down from 3.1% in 2019.

The sickness rate varied regionally, with Inner London having the lowest sickness absence rate of 2.1% and Yorkshire and the Humber the highest at 3.8%.

The census guidance asks local authorities to report the "number of days missed due to sickness absence". The DfE says it is possible that this sickness absence data does not give a full picture of capacity shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic because, for example, workers may be working from home whilst shielding and unable to carry out face to face work.

There were 31,900 full-time equivalent (FTE) children and family social workers in post on 30 September 2020, the figures showed – an increase of 3.7% compared to the same point in 2019.

The headcount – a simple count of all individual children and family social workers, regardless of their working pattern – was 34,000, an increase of 3.2% from last year. The increases continue the upward trend seen in recent years, with more than 3,300 social workers in the headcount now than in 2017.

There were the equivalent of 6,100 full time children and family social worker vacancies on 30 September 2020, up from 6,000 at the same point in 2019.

Despite this increase, the vacancy rate fell slightly to 16.1% in 2020 – compared to 16.4% in 2019 – due to the greater number of total social workers.

As in previous years, there was considerable variation in this rate between regions, with the North East (7.5%) having the lowest vacancy rate and London (23.8%) the highest.

Overall, almost three quarters of vacancies were covered by agency workers in 2020, similar to 2019.

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