Children’s social care continues to be ‘plagued’ by workforce challenges, with the pandemic worsening long-standing staffing problems.
A report on the ongoing impact of the pandemic on children’s social care, drawing on evidence from inspections, focus groups and interviews with inspectors, found staffing challenges were having consequences on the number of suitable children’s home places available and the different needs staff can support.
This resulted in children living in places where their needs were not being met, and in some cases being placed in unregistered homes, without regulatory oversight.
The report, Children’s social care 2022: recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, found high turnover of social and residential workers and the reliance on agency staff meant children lacked stability in their relationships.
‘As well as the implications for children, the staff shortage creates significant challenges for the workers who remain in the sector,’ it said. ‘Workloads are high and the demands of an already challenging job can become unsustainable. The impact on these workers should be considered in the context of the challenges they have faced and additional support they have provided over the past two years.’
This included residential staff isolating in children’s homes and missing out on time with their own families.
Researchers found residential care workers, typically on low salaries, were leaving the profession for jobs with higher pay and a better work-life balance. Providers were also struggling to recruit and retain registered managers, the report said. ‘The number of children’s homes with a vacant manager post was increasing before the pandemic, and this rise has continued, from 9% of children’s homes without a manager in March 2019 to 17% by March 2022.’
Due to a lack of staff, some providers have been forced to reduce capacity. ‘Among some of the largest providers, lack of staffing has resulted in homes standing empty, temporary closure of homes, and plans for expansion or new registrations being abandoned. As large providers typically have greater flexibility in staffing, this suggests that smaller providers may face even greater challenges,’ the report said.
While some operators were offering financial incentives to attract workers, other strategies included a focus on staff wellbeing, such as offering wellbeing days, and more investment in training, including helping staff to gain qualifications.
Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: ‘Children’s social care has been plagued by workforce challenges for some time. But we have seen these issues accelerate in recent years, with more social workers moving to agency contracts, and residential workers leaving the sector entirely.
‘As a result, too many children, with increasingly complex needs, are not getting the help they need. A workforce strategy and improved support for disabled children and those with mental health needs, and their families are more urgent than ever.’
The Ofsted research follows an Education Committee report in July into the education of children in social care. It found system-wide failings were resulting in looked-after children receiving inadequate and ‘unacceptable’ education.
Just 7.2% of looked-after children achieved the grade 5 ‘good pass’ threshold in English and mathematics GCSEs, compared to 40.1% of non-looked-after children. Children in residential care at age 16 scored over six grades less at GCSE than those in kinship or foster care. It also found poor outcomes for care leavers.
A government schools white paper sets out aims to raise pupils’ attainment in English and maths by the end of primary school and GCSEs, and act as a roadmap for levelling up education for pupils in England, including those in care or who have a social worker.
A Department for Education spokesperson added: ‘These children benefit from targeted additional funding and the support of a dedicated staff member in every local area to identify and champion their needs. We are also strengthening links between social care and education to keep vulnerable pupils engaged in school, ahead of widescale reform to the care system through our response to the independent review of children’s social care.’