Britain is facing an exodus of social workers, the government has been warned, as a new report suggests staff are “utterly exhausted” by a soaring and more complex caseload.
Channel 4 News has a survey conducted by the British Association of Social Workers which suggests deteriorating working conditions are driving staff to leave.
Around 72% of social workers said they were unable to complete their work within contracted hours, while over 37% said the volume of cases had not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Some respondents described their workload as “impossible”, with at least 20% saying they now wanted to leave the profession.
Government workforce figures released last week revealed that nearly 5,000 children and family social workers quit their jobs last year in England – an increase of 16% since 2020. The number of job vacancies is now at a five-year high.
One frontline worker who recently left the sector told Channel 4 News: “Quite simply, there is not a safe space for social workers to be operating in.”
A government spokesperson said ministers “recognise the pressure on children’s services” and were providing councils with “£4.8 billion in new grant funding to help maintain vital frontline services”.
Andy, a social worker for a local authority in Merseyside, said his caseload had tripled during the coronavirus pandemic, with domestic violence and substance abuse driving referrals.
His concern has now turned to the impact of a cost of living crisis on safeguarding and the potential for cases to escalate quickly into “higher risk situations”.
He said he had witnessed an uptick in the number of families requiring urgent support with food and utilities and teams often being called out in the middle of the night.
“If people are ending up involved with social services because they are going to run out of electricity – that is a big deal isn’t it?”
Asked for his current assessment of the social work landscape, Andy told Channel 4 News: “My fear is we lose more social workers and those who are just clinging on.
“We have to listen to horrendous things happening to children. Some people think, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I’ve heard too much now, I can’t manage it – and it is impacting my own family.’”
The survey of more than 2,000 social workers across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland also highlighted frustrations around staffing levels, cuts to local services and the volume of administrative tasks or so-called “red tape”.
Spending on preventative children’s services fell from 41% of council budgets in 2010 to 25% in 2018, according to the Local Government Association [LGA].
Mounting pressures on children’s social care is predicted to lead to costs increasing by an estimated £600 million every year, the LGA says, with eight in 10 councils in England already said to be overspending their child protection budgets.
Explaining why he chose to leave the profession, the former social worker – who asked to remain anonymous – said: “The system is so overwhelmed and stretched there will be occasions when the care for children isn’t good enough.
“The workloads are unmanageable and that leads to social workers having to make really difficult decisions about what they prioritise. That can be draining when you’re always having to cut corners and always having to work gaps in the system.
“With the current trajectory, it is really hard for experienced social workers to stick it out.”
The report and warnings come at a time when child protection is firmly under the spotlight, following a spate of national headlines concerning the tragedies of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, 16-month-old Star Hobson and two-year-old Kyrell Matthews.
The government has ordered a national review into the murders of Arthur and Star. A safeguarding review into Kyrell’s death published last week found social workers and police missed vital opportunities to intervene.
When asked to assess the public’s current perception of social work, an overwhelming majority of respondents to the survey said it was negative.
“It demoralises people,” Andy said. “I am trying my best here to protect children every day of the year, every hour of the year. It feels like getting the blame for seriously harming children when it is perpetrators, criminals, monsters who do this stuff to children.
“But we also need to be accountable for our actions. If I don’t do my job correctly, there’s big consequences and I have to be accountable for that.
Dr Ruth Allen, Chief Executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said: “The sector continues to face challenges from years of chronic underfunding in social services.
“If there is serious intent by the government to address children and adults’ protection failures, giving the sector the resources and funding it desperately needs must happen urgently.”
In response, the Department for Education insisted there were more social workers “than ever in the profession” and councils were being supported in the further recruitment of staff.
“There are a number of mental health services available through councils along with peer-to-peer support sessions for social workers to help them share best practice and the challenges they face,” a spokesperson told Channel 4 News.
“We recognise the pressure on children’s services, which is why we are providing councils with £4.8 billion in new grant funding to help maintain vital frontline services, including children’s social care.”
Written by Jamie Roberton.