Caseload Measurement isn't an Indication of Quality

22 February 2017 00:00

Is case load weighting helpful? Or might a better measure be the quality of "case work"? For many years now arguments about the number of cases social workers should hold has raged. A recently published report by the Department for Education will no doubt have come to the attention of all social workers in the last couple of weeks (Community Care on-line).  It has calculated that each social worker in front line children services have 16 cases. In the same week as these results are published, a Serious Case Review in Norfolk reports there was pressure to close cases to meet targets. The review believed this played a role in a decision to prematurely close a child protection case to the detriment of a child. The review found that the case closure showed a “direct effect on threshold decisions and the thoroughness and quality of casework undertaken”.   Has the time come to find a different measure for our work that is not simply counted in numbers?

In the 1980s our motto as a team was “close cases!” Unallocated cases, a considerable mountain, sat on the manager’s desk which overflowed from the filing cabinet outside his door. Today these cases would never lay unallocated, but they are likely to be closed. After the review of child deaths akin to those of Victoria Climbié, Peter Connelly and Daniel Pelka in the 2000s, the deaths of Kimberley Carlile, Jasmine Beckford and Maria Colwell left their mark on 1980s social work. These inquiries changed the face of child protection that heralded the new Working Together mandate and the Children Act 1989. Managers came under pressure to allocate, deal with and close cases, rather than allow unallocated cases to queue in the system. It is no longer possible to physically ‘see’ the pile of cases that no one is working with, hidden from the naked eye as they are now by computer systems and now closed rather than labelled as unallocated. But whatever their status they still exist and are part of the revolving door. Reports from front line practice point to a problem of quality not quantity. Then as now when a child dies or is seriously injured it is the professionalism of the work carried out that is scrutinised.  

I don’t intend to romanticise a bygone era of social work, after all the problems remain startlingly familiar. Yet it did seem possible for me and my colleagues in the 1980s to do work that I see little evidence of front line workers being able to engage in now, although I think they would relish opportunity. I’ve worked in teams where I have been part of setting up and running a young non-school attender group and a group for mothers whose children were sexually abused. Co-working was something more of a norm. In team meetings I often engaged in discussions with workers who would seek specialisms of others, for example, in child development. Or we would make arrangements for joint visits so that the focus on the children and work with parents could be maintained.  Various teams I worked with were able to offer marriage counselling, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, family work and direct work with children alongside social case work. This gave workers the opportunity to develop skills and to build a professional portfolio that would be of value to the team. It also gave those we worked with an opportunity to build a relationship and to offer a comprehensive service that demonstrated a commitment in a rounded way. In the early 1990s though a pernicious policy known as purchase/provider split began, in my view, to cut off an important skills arm and further techno-rationalise the social workers role .

Caseloads have always been a matter of politics. Social work faces challenges that appear to shift, but in essence remain the same. Some of this may be about what Donna Dustin (2007) called the ‘McDonaldization’ of services. A thesis adopted from Ritzer’s 1983 McDonaldization of Society, where she saw services standardised in the same way as the hamburger chain. Social Work for good or ill is muddled in the world of a resource driven political economy based on privatisation and business. This is not to say there haven’t been tremendous advances in services where it has been possible to concentrate skills. But services are often now purchased, procured or tendered within demands that slice not only margins, but in my view, quality. So for example, competitive tendering can narrow vision. I’ve worked as a Practice Educator in voluntary and private organisations who are tied in with Government regulation in order to ensure they are funded, and where they are expected to undertake onerous administrative responsibilities to ensure they have a future. I have seen with my own eyes that this impacts on case work. For example, regulated visits of half an hour regardless of need. In my view this gives all teams in whichever services less opportunity to build relationships in a way that nourishes social professional and social care services for end users.

When I first practiced in social work, in the 1980s, caseloads were high and time to reflect as an element of practice was always limited. Sound familiar? I once read my class a section of the 1982 Barclay Report called “Social Workers: their roles and tasks”, and asked them when they thought it was written. Just a couple of students thought it might be older than it seemed.  The demands then were as alive as they are now. I hear stories and work with students and practitioners who operate from their car, who hot desk, who work in run-down buildings and tend to spin plates with their cases rather than do the kind of social work they dreamed of when they came into the job, with limited and often functional management supervision. Yet I also, on the whole, meet workers who are committed, compassionate and want to remain doing their job. The number of cases a social worker holds is not the main issue. It’s much more about the quality of the work carried out in teams, however they are structured, and how those teams can manage to support each other with good rounded resources and skills. A case is simply a file with information in it about a particular child or individual who is part of a wider network of extended family, community, groups and society.  It is our "case work" that really counts.

Community Care on line 21st February - Social workers under pressure to meet targets ‘prematurely’ closed case, finds serious case review

Community Care on Line 16th February - Government reveals average social worker caseload


Dustin, D. (2007). The McDonaldization of social work: Routledge.

Ritzer, G. (1983). The “McDonaldization” of society. The Journal of American Culture, 6(1), 100-107.

Specht, H., & Barclay, P. M. (1983). Social Workers: Their Role and Tasks: JSTOR. (accessed 20/2/2017)

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