Locum social workers more likely to work for inadequate authorities

Study finds locums have higher caseloads, but less stress

Published on 20th August 2019

Locum social workers are more likely to be working for authorities rated as inadequate by Ofsted, a study has found.

The longitudinal study of local authority children and family social workers found that 21% were agency staff compared with 8% employed directly. They were less likely to work at an authority rated by Ofsted as outstanding - 3% compared with 10% employed directly.

Agency workers were also more likely to work in Greater London (32% compared with 13% of social workers employed directly) and in the South West (18% compared with 7%employed directly), the study revealed.

The Department for Education commissioned a consortium led by IFF Research, working with social work academics at Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Salford in 2018, to conduct a new longitudinal study tracking the careers of local authority child and family social workers in England over five years. This report covers the first year (Wave 1) of the survey and follow-up qualitative research, which was carried out between November 2018 and March 2019.

One in 10 social workers plan to be locum in 12 months

It found that half of agency employed social workers said increased flexibility and almost half cited better pay as reasons why they had become a locum worker, with higher pay being by far the most commonly cited single driving factor (29% cited this as their only or main reason).

Locum social workers were significantly more satisfied than directly-employed social workers when it came to pay - 65% compared with 46%. However, they were less satisfied with job security.

Substantial proportions of agency workers explained that agency work appealed because of more opportunities to gain experience of different roles (34%), they were dissatisfied with permanent employment (25%) and that agency work offered better work-life balance (21%) and greater professional autonomy (16%). In contrast, lack of availability of local permanent jobs does not appear to be a major push factor into agency work (cited by just 6% as a reason for entering agency work).

Agency workers were more likely to be working on a temporary contract (82% compared with less than 1% of those employed directly) although 5% reported that they were working on a permanent or open ended contract.

The survey asked all social workers, including agency staff, where they expected to be working in 12 months’ time. Nearly three quarters planned to be working directly in local authority child and family social work, and one in ten said they planned to go locum. A further 11% planned to move out of the sector and/or profession, including moving into different areas of social work.

Locums are more likely to be male

The vast majority of social workers who participated in the survey were female (82%), one in six were male (16%) – the remainder did not answer the question.

The proportion of male social workers was higher among:

• Agency workers (25% of agency-employed social workers were male compared with 15% of local authority employed social workers

• White non-British (29%) and Black African/ Caribbean/ British social workers (23%), compared with 15% among White British social workers, and

• Social workers aged 45 or over (20% male compared with 13% of those aged under 45).

In terms of role and area of practice, locum social workers were more likely to be front line practitioners (70% compared with 52% of social workers employed directly) and to work in the child in need or child protection practice area (64% compared with 51% employed directly) and assessment (31% compared with 25% employed directly).

In terms of demographics, agency workers were more likely to:

• Be older (26% were aged 55-64 compared with 18% employed directly and 14% were aged 25-34 compared with 25% employed directly);

• Be male (25% compared with 15% employed directly);

• Identify as Black African/ Caribbean/ Black British (33%, compared with 7% of those employed directly); and

• Less frequently report physical or mental health conditions (9% compared with 16% employed directly).

Higher caseloads

Locum social workers tended to have more experience in the profession, for example, 54% had been working in child and family social work for 10 years or more compared with 45% of directly-employed social workers, and 28% of agency workers had 6-10 years of experience compared with 19% who were directly employed.

Around one quarter of social workers had worked in another area of social work, yet this was higher amongst locum social workers at 33%. A smaller proportion (10%) had worked outside of social work altogether yet this was again more common among agency workers (14%).

Locum social workers experienced higher case loads than directly employed social workers. Those working in full-time front line agency positions reported an average caseload of 20 compared with 18 among those working in full-time front line positions employed directly by the local authority.

Despite a higher caseload, locum social workers were less likely than to report feeling stressed. While 45% of agency staff reported feeling stressed by their job, 53% of directly employed local authority social workers said they were stressed due to work. While 43% of agency workers agreed they were being asked to fulfil too many different roles, this rose to 48% among directly-employed local authority social workers.

Agency workers who reported feeling stressed by their work cited fewer reasons for this than average and were significantly less likely to report the following:

• Too much paperwork (mentioned by 58% of agency workers compared with 69% of directly-employed local authority social workers);

• Insufficient time for direct work with children and families (mentioned by 34% of agency workers compared with 45% of directly-employed local authority social workers); and

• High staff turnover (23% of agency workers compared with 32% of directly employed local authority social workers).

Locums 'less likely' to receive reflective supervision

Social workers employed by a local authority were more likely to feel loyal to their employer than those working for an agency, as might be expected (72% compared with 65%), however, they were less likely to feel valued than locum social workers (53% compared with 60%).

The report suggests that this may reflect the previous findings on how feeling valued is linked to length of time in the role as agency staff had typically spent less time in their role compared with their local authority counterparts). It may also reflect pay differentials between directly-employed and agency staff, for doing similar work.

Agency workers were more likely than directly-employed local authority social workers to have received no reflective supervision at their current employer (15% compared with 8%), although the report says this is understandable given that some of them are likely to have been at the employer for a relatively short period of time.

Rachel Dickinson, ADCS President, said: “The first phase of this study gives us some valuable insights from child and family social workers and there are important messages here for local authorities to take away. There are messages for the Department for Education and the Treasury too, particularly in relation to a lack of resources cited as a common cause of stress by social workers. We know that there is not enough funding in the system to meet the level of need in our communities and that this is impacting on our ability to improve children and families’ life chances, as a country this will cost us significantly both in human and monetary terms.

“Every social worker I’ve met has come into the profession to make a difference in people’s lives and this is reflected in the results of the study. It is encouraging that most of the respondents feel satisfied by their job and plan to stay in child and family social work for the next 12 months because we know job satisfaction is fundamental to retention and that the children and families we work with value continuity in their social worker. It is positive that over half of the social workers surveyed feel valued by their employer, that some don’t is concerning. Social workers carry exceptional responsibility on behalf of us all. It is important to us that social workers feel valued, well supported in their role and have manageable workloads so that they can spend more time with children and families making positive and enduring changes in their lives. Despite the impact of austerity, local authorities are doing a range of things to resolve difficulties which affect social workers, including investing in dedicated administrative support teams and IT systems and offering flexible working arrangements, and we will strive to continue to do so.

“We continue to be concerned that we are not recruiting and retaining enough social workers nationally. Local authorities are using their limited resources to encourage more people to choose social work as a career and to make them want to stay but a national recruitment and retention campaign, funded by the Department for Education, which clearly articulates that good social work can, and does change lives would undoubtably help with this endeavour," she concluded.

Longitudinal study of local authority child and family social workers (Wave 1)


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