Reforming Social Work: Improving social worker recruitment, training and retention

Jun 24, 2013

Councils across England are failing to fill vacancies in their social services teams due to budgetary pressure and a lack of newly qualified social workers with ‘real life’ experience.

The report warns that without structural reform to social workers’ training programmes, councils could be in danger of missing serious incidents of abuse and neglect. This is likely to be exacerbated by low numbers of social workers with specific training and experience in handling cases involving children.

The paper found that the supply of social workers will not equal demand until 2022. Even though more students are enrolling in social work qualifications than ever, with around 6,000 entrants a year since 2005, too many newly qualified men and women are unable to find a job. In 2011, over 1 in 4 (27%) of newly qualified social workers were unemployed in England.

As part of the research, Policy Exchange submitted a Freedom of Information request to councils across the UK to find out the number of vacancies in social services teams. Vacancies are defined by empty posts as well as temporary staff hired in by the council from outside agencies. 155 Local Authorities responded sufficiently to the questions.

  • 13 councils had 50 or more vacancies
  • 4 councils had 100 or more vacancies
  • 2 councils had over 200 vacancies

Percentage vacancy rate within social service departments:

Wokingham Borough Council 60.5%
Waltham Forest 54.8%
City of London 50%
Isle of Wight Council 38%
Torbay Council 30%
Luton Borough Council 27%
Croydon 26%
Peterborough City Council 25%
Cheshire West and Chester 25%
Rutland County Council 24%

Older workers are also leaving the profession, with nearly three quarters (70%) saying their caseloads are ‘unmanageable’. Other frustrations cited by existing social workers included the amount of time they had to spend filling in paperwork and lack of time spent dealing with individual cases.  A study cited in the report said that only 15% of social workers’ time is actually spent in the field.

Recommendations include:

  • A greater number of top quality 200-day ‘real life’ placements should be made available to ensure students gain sufficient expertise to land a good job and stay in it.
  • Establishing a ‘teacher organisation’ status to encourage local authorities to take on more students for social work placements during their studies.
  • Clawing back the taxpayer funded Social Work Bursary, which amounts to nearly £5,000 a year, should new social workers drop out of the profession within a particular time frame.
  • Establishing more diverse career routes for social workers, including an emphasis on development of ‘practice educator’ positions to supervise training and development. This would allow more experienced social workers to combine front-line work with mentoring and teaching roles.


Guy Miscampbell

Guy Miscampbell
Economics & Social Policy Research Fellow, 2012-2014 Read Full Bio

Ed Holmes

Ed Holmes
Senior Research Fellow for Economics & Social Policy, 2009-2013 Read Full Bio

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