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Social worker vacancies soar – and so do workloads

Increasing demand and squeezed budgets mean that graduates are being employed at the deep end

Social work vacancies have soared by 74 per cent in the past year as local authorities struggle to hold on to essential front-line staff. A chronic shortage of experienced social workers, growing workloads and a high dropout rate of newly qualified graduates are making it harder than ever to find enough staff to run children's and adult services across the country, experts say.

The number of social work roles advertised by local authorities in England soared from 2,700 in May 2013 to 4,700 in the same month this year. The data confirms the battle that local authorities face to keep staffing at safe levels.

Often, the available workers are inexperienced, and when they do get parachuted into roles they are underqualified for, the dropout rate is high. The demand for more life and job experience means one in four newly qualified social workers is unemployed, according to the latest research.

Experts say that the pressure on social workers has intensified in recent years. Falling, austerity-hit budgets, on top of a growing need to protect vulnerable children and adults, has resulted in the shrinkage of many departments just at the time that caseloads have increased.

Frontline, a new Teach-First style programme to attract top graduates into social work, took in its first cohort of graduates this summer. But experts say that this will not address the urgent need for more experienced staff.

Stephen McCabe, Labour's spokesperson for children and families, who was a social worker before becoming an MP, said: "This is actually about local authority funding and there will be an element of leaving vacancies unfilled in order to make savings." He said it was also hard to retain staff in difficult front-line jobs such as child protection and safeguarding work "because of the total uncertainty about the environment in which they're working".

"One minute, the Prime Minister is saying he wants to single out social workers for praise – and the next minute, the now ex-secretary of state is saying he wants all children's services taken out of the hands of local authorities. If you create an environment where you constantly suggest a job is not being well done and vilify people for it, it's hardly surprising that people say, 'OK, then, we won't soldier on in this very difficult job'."

Mr McCabe said that the emphasis should be on strengthening front-line management and ensuring continuous professional development. "This is not just [about] money; it's about the lack of support and professional development."

The surge in vacancies has also been driven by increased movement within the sector, as social workers find ways around pay freezes. The 1 per cent cap on pay rises means that many experienced social workers are job-seeking in the hope of increasing their salaries or moving to a higher pay band. Miles Skelton, of the public sector job site Jobsgopublic, who gathered the data, said: "Social work has always been a very challenging as well as a very rewarding profession, and years of real-term budget cuts mean that more work than ever is expected of social workers. That pressure can mean that social care departments are forced to give fairly newly qualified social workers bigger and tougher caseloads than they would like. Inevitably, that is having an impact on retention."

Some local authorities have started initiatives aimed at keeping more experienced staff. They include open evenings to give experienced current and prospective social care staff opportunities to meet the council's leadership, while others offer a retention bonus or additional allowances to staff staying longer than two years.

Alan Wood, the president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said: "One of the key factors in high-performing children's services departments is workforce stability. To deliver sustainable, good services, we need strong and stable teams, and figures from the Department for Education show that the majority have a low turnover and low vacancy rate.

"Some have significant problems, particularly those who have recently received an 'inadequate' judgment by Ofsted. In one local authority, the social worker vacancy rate rose from 4 to 40 per cent following an inadequate judgment. The subsequent instability this can cause is detrimental."

The association believes the increase in vacancies may also reflect more social worker posts in the system. Mr Wood said: "Demand for services is increasing. As more families need help, local authorities are creating a number of new social worker posts to find staff who have the right skills and appropriate experience. More social worker posts in the system is a positive sign of the importance of social work to local authorities."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "This government's policies are changing social work for the better. Schemes such as Step Up To Social Work and the government-backed Frontline training pilots are making a real difference to the numbers and types of people choosing to go into the profession. Indeed, since 2010, we have invested more than £400m on bursaries and training programmes to attract the very best candidates to the profession and ensure they are properly supported and assessed"