Some authorities are making efforts to tackle the strain of high caseloads – and are starting to see a difference in staff retention

In the children’s services department of Swindon council, a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet is helping to reduce the average social worker caseload and identifying where the department needs extra hands on deck.

The simple case management tool allocates a weighting to each child or case based on a range of factors, such as the case type (for example, children in need, child protection or children looked after), the number of siblings, and the amount of travel or court work required. Each factor is given a number of points, judged by the social worker and their supervisor, and the numbers are totted up: the more complex the case, the more points it is given.

“If it’s done properly, you see fair comparisons across teams and can tell where people might need extra help,” says Karen Reeve, the director of the department who introduced the tool after using it in four other councils.

“It’s also helpful to tell where caseloads are getting too big. We have what we call a ‘bandwidth’ of what seems right for social workers who have experience or not, and if we start creeping above that, we can put extra staff in,” Reeve added.

Swindon is one of many councils taking steps to reduce social worker caseloads. In July, Manchester city council announced plans to invest £10m in order to cut the average number of caseloads from 24 to 18 per social worker. The council will hire an extra 86 social workers and 14 team managers to make this possible, and it predicts that the higher numbers of permanent staff will reduce the proportion of agency workers from 35% to 20% by early 2018.

Walsall council is also taking action. Alongside introducing a new restorative practice approach to the way social workers engage with families, the council is recruiting 40 extra workers in order to reduce average caseloads for experienced social workers in the safeguarding family support and looked-after children teams from 20 to 15, and from 15 to 12 for newly-qualified workers.

“We want to get social workers doing real social work,” says Carol Boughton, head of safeguarding at the council. “With a lower caseload, social workers will see children and families more frequently, they’ll be more hands-on. We know that’s what social workers want and it will be instrumental in keeping them working with us.”

High caseloads are often linked to low staff retention, and Manchester, Lambeth and Cardiff councils have all published reports that raise the issue.

Boughton hopes the measures Walsall is starting to put in place will retain and attract staff. “We want social workers to have a manageable workload, to have a good work-life balance,” she says. “They need to have interesting and challenging work, supported by good training packages and group support and supervision. We want to create a safe environment where they can do the best they can.”

In June this year, Ofsted’s annual social care report identified unmanageable workloads as a common feature in services rated inadequate, and warned councils to take action on high social worker caseloads.

The average social worker caseload varies hugely across departments and local authorities, and the idea of a limit or cap is often discussed, but is rarely, if ever, put in place. The 2009 Social Work Taskforce review rejected the idea, concluding that there was no consensus on the number any cap should be set at.

Besides, says Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ workforce committee, reducing social worker caseloads is not as straightforward as simply setting a number. “It’s all about the complexity of the case, the skill level of the social worker, and how they’re supervised,” she says. “You can’t just say ‘30 is too much, 10 is lovely and 20 is the absolute limit’.”

Maris Stratulis, England manager for the British Association of Social Workers, adds: “When we talk about caseloads, we are often talking about vulnerable children, families and adults with complex needs and fundamental rights, including the right to be safeguarded and protected.

“Sadly the number crunching caseload allocation loses sight of individual needs – and the important commodity of time. You cannot develop trust and rapport with someone in need unless you are given the time to do so.”

Even those councils working to reduce the average social worker caseload seem reluctant to describe their measures as implementing a limit.

“We’re calling it a caseload promise,” says Debbie Carter, assistant director for children’s services at Walsall council. “I think ‘limit’ has quite negative connotations. It’s reflective of the restorative approach. A promise is something important, you keep it.”

While not imposing a limit or cap, having a dedicated and open caseload management tool has encouraged social workers in Swindon who are struggling with heavy caseloads to discuss them with their managers. And for Reeve, the spreadsheet has proved extremely helpful in making the case for more staff.

“We brought in the system at a time when caseloads were going up, and it highlighted the need for additional resources,” she says. “Over the last two years, we’ve hired five extra assistant team managers and 15 additional social workers above the usual limit. We’re now down to the national average for vacancies. It’s paid dividends.”

But, says Reeve, the system is not intended to be used as a replacement for professional judgment. “The case management tool gives a more subtle and refined way to measure the demands on social workers, but the weighting has to be flexible and based on the judgment of professionals – it’s not intended to be arbitrary criteria that cannot reflect the various needs of the child and the social worker.”

This article first appeared on the Guardian on 13 December 2016.

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