Mission impassable

By Ann McGauran | 20 March 2024

Parachuting in agency social work project teams to councils has long been identified by many directors of children’s services (DCS) as a bugbear with potentially damaging impacts.

But in an about-turn towards the end of last year, the Department for Education (DfE) spiked its own February 2023 consultation proposal for local authorities to end the use of project teams for child and family social work.

By October, in its response to the Children and Family Social Worker Workforce consultation, the DfE said it did not ‘think it is right to fully restrict local authority flexibility to use project teams’.

This is despite the response’s acknowledgement that their use ‘can make it more difficult for local authorities to remain accountable for delivery of their statutory duties, present a risk to effective safeguarding and increase burdens for permanent staff’.

The decision has come as a shock and a significant disappointment to Rachael Wardell, who is executive director for children, families and lifelong learning at Surrey CC and the workforce lead for the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS). Speaking to The MJ, she says the ADCS ‘worked very hard with the DfE and I would say the civil servants there worked very hard with us.

‘They listened, they understood the challenges they were facing. They were really thoughtful about the proposals they developed to go out to consultation and they did include significant restrictions on the use of project teams.

‘And so, we had high hopes this would go forward as a recommendation. It was very disappointing to us that it was not possible for the department to agree at the 11th hour and it has significantly weakened the set of proposals.’

She has high praise for civil servants’ engagement throughout the process. ‘They came along several times to the [ADCS] workforce policy committee. They ran exercises with colleagues in the sector, they understand the issues very well.

‘The work we did together was the closest I’ve ever felt that they really understood what the issues were and were working hard to nail them. We received a sympathetic hearing from the civil servants but it was not possible to secure the final agreement. Who finally agrees these things? The secretary of state.’

What difference would a complete ban on the use of agency project teams make to local government’s cost pressures?

‘I am confident it would cost less and would bring costs down for two reasons. The first is it would take the heat out of the market generally. That would have a lowering impact on costs and on our own spends.

She adds: ‘If you do take the heat out of the market in the immediate short-term, you find your social workers slow down the amount of moving they do. So not only are you saving money on the cost of the social workers you have in your workplace, but you are not having to go out to recruit. You’re not paying for the churn.’

She does acknowledge the DfE’s consultation response aims to do ‘everything it can short of outlawing the practice’.

‘The local authority that takes on any such team must have the right to decide who is part of it, so it is no longer the agency who does that.

‘They must all be paid at the same rates as any other agency social worker under those arrangements. So there are measures there that will help to clamp down on the practice.’

Anticipating a tightening of the rules, local authorities decided to start moving teams on if they could, Wardell adds. ‘Then, when the final response went out from the department, making it clear they weren’t going to outlaw the teams entirely, straightaway I had incoming email from agencies cheering – and I wasn’t alone in that. Other DCS contacted me saying: “Look what they are doing the moment they saw the rules were not being changed”.’

How damaging is the use of agency project teams? ‘Different councils have different positions on the use of project teams. There are no teams of this type in Surrey because I will not permit them. If the agency provides you with the whole team then they can remove the whole team. You might gain six social workers and a team manager all at once, but you also can lose them all at once.’

She emphasises the ‘impact on your ability to implement and embed a practice model that is consistent is diminished because you’ve got this group of workers who don’t belong with your own workforce.’

While ‘all of the individuals in those teams may be perfectly competent’ the problem is one of accountability, says Wardell. ‘The organisation that is effectively managing them is not the organisation that is accountable for the quality of the work to the council. So you don’t have the council with the same levers of control that you would expect to have if you were directly employing them.’

Given the strength of her objections it seems likely Wardell and the ADCS will be knocking on the door of an incoming government about this issue before too long.

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Childrens services Social workers ADCS Council staff