Children's social work workforce
- Receive updates
- Sign up for email alerts
This release provides information about children's social workers employed in local authorities and agency social workers. The latest collection covers the year from 1 October 2019 to 30 September 2020.
The information is based on data collected in an annual census from local authorities in England. Children and family social workers are social workers registered with Social Work England (SWE), formerly the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), working in a local authority in a children’s services department or, if working in an authority where the services are joined up, a social worker that works primarily on children and families work.
A time series of national, regional and local authority breakdowns of the data is available in the ‘Download associated files’ section.
Since last year the children and family social worker statistics have been published as official statistics, whereas in previous years they were classified as experimental statistics. More information on official statistics is available from the UK Statistics Authority.
Figures are shown on both a full-time equivalent (FTE) and headcount basis.
Headline facts and figures - 2020
The latest collection covers the year ending 30 September 2020 and so this is the first data in this series relating to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Headlines of particular interest are:
- The average caseload per children and family social worker fell to 16.3 in 2020, down from 16.9 in 2019. Information collected in the Vulnerable children and young people survey suggests that total referrals to children’s services were below average between April and September 2020. However, the average caseload fall of 0.6 follows recent downward trends, including a decrease of 0.5 between 2018 and 2019.
- The sickness absence rate was 2.9%, down from 3.1% last year. See the sickness absence section for further detail about how this relates to workforce availability during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other headlines are:
- There were 31,900 full-time equivalent (FTE) children and family social workers in post at 30 September 2020, an increase of 3.7% from the same point in 2019.
- There were 6,100 FTE children and family social worker vacancies at 30 September 2020, similar to the same point last year.
- There were 5,800 FTE agency children and family social workers in post 30 September 2020, similar to last year.
- The FTE agency worker rate at 30 September 2020 was 15.4%, down from 15.8% at the same point last year.
Number of social workers in post at 30 September
There were 31,900 full-time equivalent (FTE) children and family social workers in post at 30 September 2020, an increase of 3.7% compared to the same point in 2019. The corresponding headcount was 34,000, an increase of 3.2% from last year. These increases continue the upward trend seen in recent years.
Age and gender of social workers
In 2020, 55% of FTE children and family social workers were between 30 and 49 years of age, with 16% aged 20 to 29 and 7% aged 60 years or over; a similar distribution to last year. The overwhelming majority of FTE social workers were female (86%).
Time in service at local authority
The overall distribution of time in service for social workers was similar to last year. At 30 September 2020, 60% of FTE children and family social workers had been in service at their current local authority for less than 5 years.
Social worker role
At 30 September 2020, just over half (51%) of FTE children and family social workers were reported as being in a case holder role, similar to 2019.
The percentage of social workers that were qualified without cases was unchanged from last year at 13%, but down from 15% in 2017.
A case holder is a children and family social worker that manages cases, but is not in a senior manager, middle manager, first line manager or senior practitioner role.
Ethnicity was known for 81% of social workers in 2020. Of these, 78% were white, 12% black, 6% Asian and 4% mixed - the same as last year.
Number of cases and average caseload
A case is defined as any person allocated to a named social worker, where the work involves child and family social work.
This may include:
• an individual child allocated to a social worker (for example a family of three siblings would be three individual cases) including those on a child protection plan, children in need, fostering and adoption cases and care leavers;
• a carer or carers allocated to a social worker for the purposes of fostering or adoption
Cases may be held by social workers regardless of their role in the organisation and not just those specifically in a ‘case holder’ role.
Average caseload calculation
The caseload is calculated as the total number of cases held by FTE social workers in post at the 30 September divided by the number of FTE social workers at 30 September that hold one or more cases.
There were 334,800 cases held by 20,500 FTE social workers and agency workers at 30 September 2020. This was equivalent to an average caseload of 16.3, which is lower than the averages of 17.8, 17.4 and 16.9 reported in 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively.
A majority of local authorities (two thirds) reported a decrease in caseload compared to 2019.
Information collected in the Vulnerable children and young people survey waves 1 to 10 indicates that total referrals to children’s services were 13% below the average for the previous 3 years between April and September 2020. The referrals section of the children in need National Statistics release also indicates that there was a reduction in referrals to children’s services in March 2020.
The number of cases held is typically smaller than the number of children in need at 31 March. This may be explained by a number of factors, including different count dates for the data collections and variance in the interpretation of the department’s guidance. Furthermore, not all disabled children are allocated to a social worker.
The collection of individual level data for the past four years enables us to calculate an average caseload measure. However, it should be noted that over this period local authorities have reported some difficulties in linking cases to the social worker holding those cases.
The above issues should be taken into consideration when interpreting caseload figures.
Calculation of the FTE agency worker rate
The FTE agency worker rate is calculated as the number of FTE agency staff working as social workers at 30 September divided by the sum of the number of FTE agency staff working as social workers at 30 September and the number of FTE social workers.
There were 5,800 FTE agency children and family social workers at 30 September 2020, the same as in 2019. The corresponding headcount was 6,000, which was similar to last year.
The FTE agency worker rate at 30 September 2020 was down slightly to 15.4%, from 15.8% last year and at the same level as 2018.
Just over three quarters of FTE agency social workers were covering vacancies, similar to last year. This rate varied considerably between local authorities. Some local authorities reported that less than a quarter of their agency workers were covering vacancies, while others reported all of their agency workers were covering vacancies.
In situations where agency workers are not covering vacancies they may be employed by a local authority to manage seasonal peaks, or deal with acute backlogs, as an alternative to employing social workers on a permanent basis. For this reason, high agency worker rates do not necessarily imply a local authority has recruitment and retention issues.
For the purpose of this collection vacancies are defined as any FTE vacancy within a local authority’s organisational structure, including vacancies that are not being actively recruited for, and those covered by agency workers.
Calculation of the vacancy rate
The vacancy rate is calculated as the number of FTE vacancies at 30 September divided by the sum of the number of FTE vacancies at 30 September and the number of FTE social workers at 30 September.
There were 6,100 FTE children and family social worker vacancies at 30 September 2020, up from 6,000 at the same point in 2019. Despite this increase, the vacancy rate fell slightly to 16.1% in 2020, from 16.4% in 2019. As in previous years, there was considerable variation in this rate between regions, with the North East (7.5%) having the lowest vacancy rate and London (23.8%) the highest.
Overall, almost three quarters of vacancies were covered by agency workers in 2020, which was similar to 2019.
Calculation of the sickness absence rate
The 2020 sickness absence rate is calculated as the number of days missed due to sickness absence during the year divided by the number of FTE social workers at 30 September multiplied by 254 days (the number of working days in a leap year, taking account of bank holidays). The rate for non-leap years is based on 253 working days.
The sickness absence rate in the year ending 30 September 2020 was 2.9%, down from 3.1% in 2019. This rate varied regionally, with Inner London having the lowest sickness absence rate of 2.1% and Yorkshire and the Humber the highest at 3.8%.
The census guidance asks local authorities to report the "number of days missed due to sickness absence". It is possible that this sickness absence data does not give a full picture of capacity shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic; for example, workers may working from home whilst shielding and unable to carry out face to face work. The Vulnerable children and young people survey has been collecting information on social worker “availability” during the pandemic.
Number of starters and leavers to the local authority
As in recent years, there were more children and family social worker starters than leavers, with the gap between the two narrowing this year.
There were 5,200 FTE social worker starters in the year ending 30 September 2020, a decrease of 12.5% compared to 2019.
Starters are social workers who joined a vacant social worker post at a local authority in the year ending 30 September. This includes social workers who have previously worked in the same local authority, but in a non-child and family social worker role, and children and family social workers joining from another local authority.
A move or promotion from one child and family social work position to another within the same local authority is not counted as a starter. Similarly, social workers returning from maternity or sick leave are not counted as starters.
The number of FTE leavers during the year also decreased, but at a slower rate and was down by 7.7% from last year to 4,300.
Leavers are social workers who left a social worker post at a local authority in the year ending 30 September. This includes social workers who are staying at a local authority, but moving to a non-child and family role, for example moving to adult social care, and those continuing as children’s social workers but moving to a different local authority.
Leavers also include social workers who have begun a career break, those seconded out of an organisation or those leaving the profession altogether. They do not include social workers who have started maternity or sick leave.
A move or promotion from one children’s social work position to another children’s social work position within a local authority is not counted as a leaver, unless the social worker left employment at the local authority in between these roles.
The FTE turnover rate decreased to 13.5% in 2020, from 15.1% in 2019.
The turnover rate is calculated as the number of FTE social workers leaving a social work role in the year divided by the number of FTE social workers in post at the 30 September.
Age of starters and leavers
As might be expected, a greater proportion of FTE starters (29.5%) were aged 20 to 29 years compared to leavers (16.2%), whereas a greater proportion of FTE leavers (29.5%) were aged 50 or over compared to starters (17.1%). For 30 to 49 year olds, a similar percentage were recorded as starters and leavers.
Time in service of leavers
During the year ending 30 September 2020, 69.7% of FTE children and family social worker leavers had been in service in their local authority for less than 5 years, a slight increase from 67.7% in 2019.
Help and support
If you have a specific enquiry about Children's social work workforce statistics and data:
Children’s services statistics team
Telephone: Mark Taylor
037 0000 2288
If you have a media enquiry:
020 7783 8300
If you have a general enquiry about the Department for Education (DfE) or education:
037 0000 2288
Create your own tables
Explore our range of data and build your own tables from it.Create tables