High social worker caseloads are often like the overcome canary in the mine: an indicator of something being wrong with a council’s support for vulnerable children and families.
While one cannot automatically equate higher caseloads on an individual council with a worsening of its social work – social workers can take on more cases if supported by greater investment in back office staff – it is hard to believe a dramatically worsening national picture indicates anything other than a sector reeling from austerity.
Children’s services caseloads increasing by a tenth in a year is surely a troubling indicator of how services nationwide are increasingly in difficulty. A vicious circle emerges: the scaling back of preventative services increases demand, the burden on social workers increases, this pressure results in many leaving the profession, and the ensuing inability to tackle problems results in the original problems worsening, heaping more pressure on the remaining social workers. If caseloads are going up, social workers will spend less time with families getting to understand the root of problems: the profession becomes less fulfilling and less successful.
Councils have mostly increased their investment in children’s services in recent years in response to growing demand. However, yet more funding reductions will have the inevitable effect of meaning this investment cannot be maintained (at least without a devastating effect on expenditure on an authority’s other services if they are to be sacrificed instead).
To cite perhaps the most prominent example, Rotherham MBC invested heavily in social work following its child sexual exploitation scandal and, from the pits of despair, has improved sufficiently for its children’s services to win a good rating from Ofsted this January. However, this investment has had a predictable impact on the council’s reserve levels and its annual budget report admits that to “spend at current levels on these services is unaffordable in the long term”. If expenditure on just about the most prominent example of council failure in recent years cannot be maintained, heaven knows how many lower profile counterproductive cutbacks are being made elsewhere.
As the incoming Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Stuart Gallimore said last week, quite simply, “there is no fat left to cut”. Councils are having to cut back on the early help services – the children’s centres and youth provision – which would alleviate problems and improve child welfare in the longer-term. They are being forced into a short-termist financial outlook which both harms the most vulnerable and increases longer-term budget pressures. Youth support is cut, knife crime rises and criminal justice spend increases while young lives are blighted - or lost. There is no sense in this.
The government has sufficient foresight to appreciate the long-term benefits of investment in infrastructure to drive growth but it refuses to recognise the value of investment in preventative services. Ministers are wilfully blind to the impact of austerity which is all too visible for those dependent on crucial local services.