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SWU Blog: Social workers speak up about the new workforce statistics for social work in England

Despite some positive figures regarding the general adult social care workforce, the reality is that ongoing budget cuts in local government have raised fears that social work and social care resources and jobs continue to be under threat.

NHS Digital and the Government released 2020 England statistics for adult care social services and the children's social work workforce last week. The reports are showing some positive figures with a continued trend of reduced case loads for children and family social workers and an increase in the number of social workers across the board. In fact, the number staff employed by children’s social services in England has been increasing every year since 2013.

However – despite an increase each year from 2017-2020 – the total number of local authority jobs for adult care social workers has overall decreased by 36,600 (or an average of 4,600 jobs each year) between 2012 and 2020.

The NHS Digital report only covers the 114,100 staff members employed by local authority adult social services departments in England, but an estimate of the size of the rest of the adult social care workforce as of September 2020 will be published by Skills for Care in July 2021.

John McGowan, SWU General Secretary, said:

“The recently released figures regarding children's social workers employed in local authorities and agency social workers highlights a move in the right direction regarding caseloads and absence rate but it is a concern that the vacancy rate remains static.  We all know that social work continues to be an incredibly challenging profession – on top of pressures for hard working social workers, we are also hearing that first line managers are feeling squeezed on one side by pressure from their own managers and on the other side by pressure from trying to support the staff they manage. In addition, the amount of time social workers are having to spend on admin and other tasks is further exacerbating the situation. 

Despite some positive figures regarding the general adult social care workforce, the reality is that ongoing budget cuts in local government have raised fears that social work and social care resources and jobs continue to be under threat. The present Government has emphasised that Local Authorities could make further efficiency savings without affecting frontline services, but it has failed to protect adult social care and children services from unprecedented cuts in spending. If reductions on this scale continue, it is difficult to see how the social care system and pressure on social workers will be sustainable in the long term and post COVID-19.

Overall and stats aside, it is a worrying reality that the demands on social work and social care will escalate. COVID-19 and any recovery will continue to impact family finances and increase stress at home, both in reducing income for many (such as parents on zero-hours contracts with little job security, or who work in particularly affected industries such as hospitality) and increased costs (of higher food and utility bills caused by family being at home more and the pressures on). To minimise the impact of COVID-19 on these children, young people, and adults, we recommend the Government undertakes adequate funding and support for social work as this will be needed as potential safeguarding and adult protection referrals start to come in.”


However, despite the positive figures in the reports social workers are still struggling. Social work practitioners we spoke to this week – who either are currently working in England or who have worked in England – say that the trends in the report are not reflected by their experiences on the frontline. Here are some of their comments:

“In adult care we are working with large case-loads between 50-80 cases. We are isolated at home with no acknowledgement of the effect the work is having on our mental health and well-being. We have now been informed our authority is hoping to close our offices. We rely on the support of colleagues, we have increasingly complex caseloads, we do not have all the equipment we need for home working, we have job vacancies that no one wants to apply for and cannot be filled by agency Social Workers.

Our annual leave was cancelled at the start of the pandemic in 2020. We have now been told to take our leave or lose it.

Social Work is not a cost saving profession, however it has clearly become an undervalued profession by many in senior positions or positions of power. After all we are not even worthy of a pay rise. I see excellent workers leaving the profession as they can no longer cope with the attitude of senior managers and a government that no longer cares.”

- Social Worker, Adult Social Care, Derbyshire


“I am not working in England anymore but many of my friends are. Vacancy rates are most likely worse than when I left end of 2016. I understand specialist teams have been hacked to death, such as Adult Safeguarding teams taken away and staff farmed back into locality / access teams. Assertive outreach team caseloads increased well above the policy implementation guidelines from 12 to caseloads of 25-30 which is highly dangerous in terms of the nature of risks and complexity of client groups.

SWs in England are not being well supported, and do not have it easy in comparison to any other country / region in UK. The only reflection I have is that there seemed to be more willingness in England to use agency staff to support; I have not found this to be the case in Argyll and Bute / Scotland.”

- Social Worker, Adult Community Care, Argyll & Bute


Many social workers are finding the isolation of working from home difficult, but the shift to digital working has been a positive change for some. An agency social worker we spoke to shares the positive impact that going digital has had on her work – but will the more inclusive aspects of this way of working last beyond the pandemic?

“As an independent agency social worker working primarily within hospital settings, I have experienced and observed a huge shift in working practices within acute and community settings. Specifically, where Information Technology has developed alongside evolving workplace settings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and Adult Social Care delivery.

At one time I may have physically met most of my team members, if I was lucky enough to whilst filling a gap in service delivery, helping reduce current workload pressures and temporarily relieving permanent staff stress levels.  As a short term contracted agency worker I have always felt like the extra cog in an already eternal cyclical system of processes.

So now during lockdown and with the creative use of IT tools such as Microsoft teams, it has meant that for the first time ever as an agency worker I have met everyone in my team. The daily online meetings have created an opportunity for time and space to have in-depth interactions between substantive and agency employed staff.

I believe that the pandemic has created an evolution of a new form of ‘commonality’ and working practices are developing in a way that co-creates a service delivery in the form of a more collective decision making process because all voices within the team have the opportunity to participate on screen.

More opportunities have been available to share working practices and consider ethical and moral dilemmas. Notably, it has been my experience that management has joined in with their staff and overall as an agency worker I have felt included in this way, as a team participant.

However, I wonder as an agency social worker, will these cooperative changes continue or has the invisible force of a pandemic created a fast ‘shifting sands’ culture of temporary social work practice structures. I realise I have not touched upon many areas and forms that are developing and affecting many of my independent social worker colleagues; I have simply shared an experience of a personally significant dynamic that has evolved to a more cohesive community approach within an existing team structure.”

- Lucky Kaur, Independent Social Worker in the South West region