Filling the gap: Addressing the shortage of children’s support workers

Children’s services need support workers. The demand for qualified individuals in this field is rising dramatically due to an increase in complex family situations and diagnoses like autism or ADHD that require extra support. However, the number of available properly trained workers is not keeping up. This gap means children may face long wait times to receive essential services or work with support staff who are overextended. As a society, we must make filling this shortage a priority – our most vulnerable population deserves adequate support and resources to help them thrive.

In this blog, we will delve into the critical importance of children’s support workers, examine the factors contributing to the shortage, and explore potential solutions to bridge this gap and ensure a brighter future for the children who depend on these essential services.

The growing need for children’s support workers

The number of individuals leaving the profession rose to 5,400 in the 2022/23 period, comprising 17.1% of the total workforce – marking an 8.5% increase from the figures recorded in 2021/22 and representing the highest number of departures since the commencement of comparable data collection in 2013/14. Conversely, the number of individuals entering the profession declined to 4,800 in 2022/23, reflecting a 12.5% decrease compared to the previous year and marking the lowest number of entrants since the inception of comparable data collection. It is important to note that this shift does not signify a reduction in available positions for social workers; rather, it underscores the mounting challenges in filling the existing vacancies.

As of 31 March 2023, the count of children in need surpassed 403,000. Although this figure reflects a slight reduction compared to the statistics from 2022, it still exceeds the numbers reported in 2020, predominantly before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in England. The upturn in the count of children in need in 2022 is likely associated with the easing of COVID-19-related school attendance restrictions. The demand has outpaced recruitment efforts, resulting in a concerning shortage of qualified professionals in this critical sector. This upward trend is expected to continue as funding for early intervention and preventive services expands. However, many local authorities are struggling to recruit and retain enough suitable candidates to fill open positions.

There are several reasons for the shortage of children’s support workers. The job requires a specialised skill set and training, but compensation is typically lower than in other social services fields. Heavy caseloads and administrative burdens also contribute to high turnover rates. At the same time, the ageing population means more experienced workers are retiring from the sector.

Dependency on agency workers

High vacancies in local councils have increased reliance on agency workers, with 6,800 agency social workers employed in 2022/23, a 13.4% increase from the previous year. This surge raised the proportion of social workers functioning as agency staff to 17.6% in 2022/23 from 15.5% in 2021/22. However, this figure likely underestimates the actual extent, as the Association of Directors of Children’s Services notes a growing trend of hiring agency staff on a managed team basis, not individually recorded in agency data. Over the past five years, council spending on agency workers has surged by 38%, exacerbated by difficulties in recruiting and retaining care staff and foster carers. This high turnover among social workers not only poses challenges to social care quality but also impacts children, hindering the formation of strong relationships with their social workers and introducing disruptions into their lives. The primary factor contributing to difficulties in retaining social workers is attributed to high caseloads, with the 2022 British Association of Social Workers annual survey revealing that 52% of social workers struggled to cope with their workload. The 2022 figures still exceed those in 2015, and cases have become more complex on average since the onset of the pandemic.

Lack of funding and resources, poor pay and job instability

Children’s support worker roles are often temporary or part-time, offering little job security. One proven framework to bridge this gap involves a comprehensive approach that encompasses policy reforms, educational initiatives, community engagement and targeted professional development opportunities. Policymakers can play a pivotal role by advocating for increased funding in social care programs, better wages, increased availability of full-time permanent positions and improved working conditions for children’s support workers. A study by the Department for Education found that regions with higher investment in social care resources exhibited lower turnover rates among support workers, indicating a direct correlation between funding and workforce stability.

Educational initiatives are equally crucial in addressing the shortage. The data indicates that only 40% of children’s support workers have received specialised training in the past two years. Collaborative efforts between educational institutions and social care organisations can establish tailored curricula that equip aspiring support workers with the necessary skills. Additionally, offering financial incentives and scholarships for students pursuing careers in social care can attract more individuals to this field, addressing the shortage at its roots.

Offering supervision and opportunities for growth

Furthermore, targeted professional development opportunities are essential for retaining and advancing the skills of existing children’s support workers. According to the Health and Social Care Information Centre, areas with well-established mentorship programs and continuous learning opportunities exhibited higher job satisfaction among support workers. By implementing structured pathways for career progression, regular supervision, performance review, advanced training and recognising the contributions of support workers, organisations can create a supportive environment that encourages long-term commitment to the profession.

By addressing these key challenges – lack of funding, inadequate training and poor compensation – local authorities and children’s services can begin to fill the gap in this critical sector.

For three decades, Brook Street Social Care has served as a reliable recruitment ally for the social care sector. Specialising in adult care, education, housing, services for children and niche social care recruitment, we support care providers with immersive recruitment and training programmes, and a 24/7 easy-access portal where care workers can earn credits towards their professional qualifications. We also have the expertise to align the ideal candidate with the right position, ensuring success for both employer and candidate. For our clients seeking a diverse and skilled candidate base, we’re the go-to place. Contact us today.