Social work needs to be properly funded to retain the workforce and protect vulnerable children and adults
The national review into the horrendous murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson has been published this month with recommendations to strengthen the child protection system. Cases like this are extremely rare in the UK as social workers tirelessly work 24/7 to protect and safeguard thousands of children each year, and it is crucial to understand the context of Arthur and Star’s tragic deaths and what changes need to be made.
There is a thread running through the national review describing services and agencies as overstretched, under strain, having high staff turnover rates, and experiencing issues with reduced and ambiguous funding. These disruptive factors have been reflected in the working conditions reports (2018, 2019, 2022) that SWU and BASW presented to Government as evidence that the social work sector is in crisis. These reports draw from the largest investigation of social worker working conditions and wellbeing ever conducted with over 5,000 social workers having contributed details of their work circumstances and views about their jobs.
It was clearly evident throughout the SWU and BASW reports that those who work in the sector are incredibly committed to their work, to maintaining the highest of standards for service users, and for the most part they want to find a way to remain working in social work. Addressing the working conditions of social workers and providing adequate funding are necessary steps in responding to the ongoing staffing crisis. The Government has not listened.
Funding for social work services has always been a major issue. One of the biggest crisis areas is local government budget cuts which have significantly increased financial pressures on the social care system. The national report lists this as a direct contributing factor to Star Hobson’s death as “the reason given by Bradford District Care Foundation Trust (BDCFT) was human error in the context of a service under some strain with high caseloads and reduced funding under a new contract from the local authority.”
The findings of SWU’s survey for LBC Radio in January disturbingly reveal that this is not a unique situation and that high social work caseloads are putting the vulnerable at risk. 58% of social workers say their caseloads are unmanageable and 94% expect to see referrals increasing over the next 12 months, with 71% expecting to be inundated.
A child protection worker in the West Midlands who responded to the survey told LBC Radio she has been responsible for 50 children at once, even though the safe cap should be between 15-25. Another child protection worker said, “Raising concerns about the lack of action on cases is the norm. However, with a lack of resources, it is difficult to take the right action at the right time. Managers hear and listen to us, but it’s the way the system is, and we have had to learn to accept it most of the time.”
Social work needs to be properly funded to retain the workforce and protect vulnerable children and adults. More importantly, present social workers urgently need positive professional working conditions to provide the best service. This includes increasing the availability of part-time and flexible roles, as many experienced social workers who have family and caring commitments are currently finding the lack of part-time and flexible roles a barrier. We need to reduce stress factors and provide wellbeing support, increase management training for Social Workers Managers, and create opportunities for manageable caseloads and a consistent approach to caseload allocation.
SWU has been calling for better support for front-line social workers for years and will continue to do so, including through our joint research partnership with BASW and Bath Spa University. This research clearly shows that social workers are strongly engaged in their work and want the very best outcomes for people that use services, but they are hampered by poor working conditions and a lack of resources.
Unfortunately, Social Workers are also often facing the brunt of poor media representation and at SWU we are working hard to address this.