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Tue, 09 Jul 24 10:00

An opportunity to be even more ambitious for children and young...

When I qualified as a social worker in 1995 BSG (Before the Spice Girls) we’d never really heard of agency social workers, yet now taking them on is commonplace for all of us. And don’t get me wrong, there are some cracking agency social workers out there who commit to extended assignments in front line teams, who build relationships with families and share their wisdom with colleagues. But conversely, we also know that quality is variable and costs excessive and rising. It was good to see some reference to the costs of employing agency social workers in the Case for Change and whilst there was some reflection on the reasons moving to an agency is attractive for some, it didn’t offer any solutions to the cost and quality issue we seem to constantly face.

Earlier this month we held a workshop in the East Midlands, virtual of course, which I chaired, where we came together with senior leaders across most ADCS regions, to critically reflect and review the Memoranda of Co-operation (MoC) that most of us seem to use to manage the demand and supply of children’s agency social workers. There was great engagement, energy and ideas from everyone who attended. Our conclusion was that the market (if you can really call it a market since us local authorities are the only customers!) is simply not working for us in neither price nor quality, with plenty of stories shared about how some agencies and candidates try and drive up costs, the challenge of operating MoCs across regional borders, and the lack of any real quality control or accountability from agencies.

Clearly there will always be a need to employ agency social workers, but I believe there is a missed opportunity in the Case for Change to be even more ambitious and pose questions to government about the need to at least consult about regulation in this area. We know the DfE are increasingly concerned about the spiralling costs of agency social workers. At the recent ADCS virtual annual conference, the Children’s Minister said the government wants to drive down costs, although she dodged a question from me on whether the government would seek to cap the costs agencies can charge local authorities for using agency social workers. Surely a Minister’s focus on this, coupled with the Case for Change, provides the best opportunity there’s been to tackle this thorny issue? The Case for Change could be even more ambitious and start to ask some fundamental questions about the role of social work; is it necessary to be a qualified social worker to skilfully carry out all roles and tasks currently assigned to social workers? Given the agency social work challenge described here, and the issues Josh MacAlister describes about the pressures on front line social work, isn’t it time for real change?

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