Special report: Ofsted; the careers of local authority child and family social workers

Social workers in a local authority with a ‘requires improvement’ Ofsted rating are more likely to experience stress, high workloads and fulfill too many roles, a study has found.
The longitudinal study of local authority child and family social workers found that social workers in a local authority with a ‘requires improvement’ rating were the least positive about their working experience, being more likely than average to agree that their workload was too high (56%); they were being asked to fulfill too many roles (53%) and they felt stressed by their job (53%).
"The most common causes of stress at work were: too much paperwork (68%); too many cases (50%); insufficient time for direct work with children and families (44%); working culture / practices (42%); and lack of resources to support families (36%)," said the report. "Front line social workers in the qualitative research raised concerns about the balance between direct work with families and children as opposed to the bureaucratic requirements of the task or meeting the requirements of the computer system. This could lead to a gap between initial expectation and the reality of the job."
The longitudinal study was carried out by a consortium led by IFF Research, working with social work academics at Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Salford. The Department for Education (DfE) commissioned the consortium to conduct the longitudinal study in 2018 tracking the careers of local authority child and family social workers in England over five years.
The report found that agency workers were more likely to work at a local authority rated inadequate by Ofsted, 21%, compared with 8% who were employed directly. However, they reported less stress - 45% agreed they felt stressed by their job compared with 53% of directly employed local authority social workers, and 43% agreed they were being asked to fulfill too many different roles compared with 48% of directly-employed local authority social workers.
Career enablers
The three most commonly cited career enablers were having a good relationship with other colleagues, personal determination and ambition and good support from managers. This was followed by availability of training and Continuing Professional Development opportunities, flexibility/ taking on diverse roles, and the amount and quality of supervision they received. Social workers from authorities with an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating were more likely than others to report that virtually every factor had helped them to progress in their career.
Social workers in ‘outstanding’ rated local authorities were also the most positive, with fewer agreeing that their workload is too high, that they are asked to fulfill too many roles and they are stressed by their work.
Those working for organisations with an Ofsted rating of ‘requires improvement’ were more likely to report working more than their contracted hours ‘all of the time’ (43% compared with 40% average).
Surprisingly, social workers working in inadequate and outstanding authorities held similar caseloads of 17 and 18,respectively, while those working for authorities which were good or requires improvement to be good experienced higher caseloads.
In the qualitative research, stayers and leavers of the profession both complained that too much of their work time was spent completing paperwork as opposed to undertaking direct work with children and their families. There was a feeling that some of this was driven by Ofsted requirements - or their local authorities’ interpretation of these requirements - which had led to layers of additional paperwork.
Job satisfaction
Social workers at outstanding authorities were more likely to feel valued by and be loyal to their employer - 79% compared with 67% of those working for a local authority deemed by Ofsted as ‘inadequate’ and 66% working for a local authority rated as ‘requires improvement’.
Local authorities with higher Ofsted ratings also delivered reflective supervision more frequently than those with lower Ofsted ratings. While 57% of social workers in outstanding-rated local authorities received reflective supervision at least every three to four weeks, 46% of social workers in local authorities rated as requires improvement or inadequate received that level of reflective supervision.
Social workers were asked how satisfied they were with the sense of achievement they get from their work, the scope for using their own initiative, the amount of influence they have over their job, the extent to which they feel challenged and the opportunity to develop their skills in their job.
The majority of social workers (over two-thirds across all aspects) were satisfied with each aspect of their day-to-day job. For every aspect of their job, social workers from local authorities with an outstanding Ofsted rating were significantly more likely than social workers from authorities with a requires improvement rating to be satisfied.
Around three-quarters of those in local authorities rated as outstanding were satisfied with the amount of influence they had over their job compared with two-thirds of those in authorities rated as requires improvement.
Over three-quarters of social workers were satisfied with the nature of the work itself, with around one in 12 (8%) dissatisfied. However, social workers in outstanding authorities were less likely to be dissatisfied. Seventy six per cent of those in local authorities rated as requires improvement were satisfied with the work itself compared to 82 per cent of those rated outstanding or 80 per cent of those rated good.
Markedly, satisfaction with job security decreased as Ofsted rating declined. Social workers from local authorities rated as ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted were more likely to be satisfied with their job security (85%) than those from local authorities rated as ‘good’ (78%), who were in turn more likely than those rated as ‘requires improvement’ (72%). The latter group were then more likely than social workers from ‘inadequate’-rated (63%) authorities to be satisfied with their job security.
Working above contracted hours
The study asked social workers how many hours they were contracted to work per week and the majority were contracted to work full-time. The mean number of contracted hours was 35, with the majority 77% contracted to work between 36-40 hours a week. Working on a part-time contract less than 30 hours per week was twice as common among women than men (15% compared with 8%). Several social workers told interviewers that they had changed to part-time working to cater for family commitments or to reduce their workload to manageable levels.
Almost all social workers said that they worked more than their contracted hours. Ninety eight per cent said they worked more than their contracted hours occasionally, two in five said they did this ‘all the time’ while another third worked over their contracted hours ‘most weeks’. The mean number of actual hours reported by social workers was 42 compared with the mean of 35 contracted hours meaning social workers are typically working an additional seven hours per week beyond their contracted hours.
Those working in child and family social work for two to three years were more likely to report working over and above their contracted hours ‘all the time’ 44%, compared with 40% on average.
Social workers specialising in child protection and looked after children were more likely to report working over their contracted hours ‘all the time’ (44% and 45% respectively, compared with the 40% average).
The study asked social workers how many caseloads they held in their role. Caseholders reported a huge disparity in cases held from one case to 150 cases. It was most common for caseholders to have 16-20 cases with the mean number of reported cases resting at 19. Those working in the area of youth offending and those working in the area of fostering fostering reported the lowest caseload with a mean of 17.
Social workers who had been in the profession for up to one year reported an average of 16 cases, compared to the average of 19, whereas those who had worked for two to three years reported an average of 20 cases.The caseload of agency workers was higher than those employed directly at 20 compared with 18 among those working in full-time front line positions employed directly by the local authority.
Eighty five per cent of social workers reported barriers to career progression, with high workload being the most commonly perceived barrier mentioned by around half of social workers. This was followed by poor organisational leadership (26%) and poor support from managers (25%). A ‘lack of meaningful progression opportunities’ was cited by just over one fifth (22%) of social workers.
The study also noted that some social workers leaving the profession were particularly vocal about the impact of austerity on vulnerable families, and the implications for children’s social work. Several of them talked about the challenges facing families as a result of poverty, and suggested that the reduction in service provision was resulting in their difficulties intensifying to the point where problems became intractable, with consequences for social work and social workers.
2-3 years post qualifying is a 'crucial point'
All social workers, including agency staff, were asked where they expected to be working in 12 months’ time, if at all. Almost three-quarters planned to be working directly in local authority child and family social work and one in ten planed to be a locum social worker. A further 11% planned to move out of the sector and/or profession, including moving into different areas of social work.
The survey explored the reasons for leaving, or considering leaving, child and family social work. General workload and working time were the most common reason followed by high caseload, levels of paperwork and the general working hours.
Another important driver was the culture with 28% reporting that they did not like the working culture of local authority social work), while the job being incompatible with their family or relationship commitments and social workers feeling that they were not making the best use of their skills or experience were also mentioned relatively frequently.
"Overall, the majority of social workers who took part in the survey were motivated to enter the profession for altruistic reasons, found their job satisfying, felt loyal to their employer, and planned to stay in local authority child and family social work in the next 12 months. Most were positive about their line manager, in particular that they were open to ideas and recognised when they had done their job well," said the report.
"When asked about various aspects of their job, satisfaction was highest for having scope to use their own initiative and the sense of achievement they get from their work. The majority of social workers also felt their entry route had prepared them well for the profession," it added.
However, the study noted that 2-3 years post qualification is a crucial point in the social work profession, as people move out of the ASYE year. ASYE was viewed positively given its focus on managed caseloads and time for post-qualifying learning. For some, the experience after this was a shock as they felt no longer protected and were expected to be functioning as an experienced social worker, the report found.
Front line practitioners who had been in child and family social work for 2-3 years tended to be less satisfied on a range of measures, and reported the highest levels of stress. There is a need to explore how to better support the transition out of ASYE into experienced practitioner roles in order to support retention and develop resilience, the report concluded.
The majority of social workers who took part in the study worked more than their contracted hours and expected to do so in order to fulfill their roles. Flexible working arrangements were welcomed as a way to manage this issue.
Around half of the social workers who took part in the survey felt stressed by their job. In particular, where practitioners felt they had an excessive caseload or unmanageable workload, they recognised that this impacted on their ability to engage and work successfully with families. Often bureaucratic procedures and paperwork were seen as getting in the way of this engagement, and there is a need to explore ways to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy.
One of the most striking features of the qualitative interviews was the similarity in responses and how precarious the positioning was between staying and (thinking of) leaving. Any one of the features identified in the report, except for the leavers at the extreme end of the spectrum, was not enough to tip a worker from staying to leaving. It is unclear how many of the negative features need to be present before child and family social workers decide it is time to move on, or what combination of factors need to be present to retain them, and this will be explored in future years of the study.
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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