At a glance

Requiring insight to help resolve issues around recruitment, progression and retention within child and family social work, the Department for Education (DfE) commissioned a five-year longitudinal research project. The initial survey was conducted in 2018 among over 5,000 social workers, and the final wave will finish in December 2022. Each year, DfE has received detailed insight tracking social workers’ job satisfaction, career progression, future plans and movements out of the profession. Findings from the study have provided strong evidence on social workers’ career development and issues around recruitment and retention.

About the client

The DfE is responsible for children’s services and education, including early years, schools, higher and further education policy, apprenticeships and wider skills in England. As part of its remit, DfE is responsible for supporting professionals who work with children and young people (including social workers) and making sure that local services protect and support children.

Challenges and objectives

Recruitment and retention is an ongoing challenge within local authority child and family social work. The most recent statistics (for 2021) show the number of leavers, and the number of vacancies, at its highest for five years. In 2018, DfE commissioned IFF to conduct a landmark longitudinal study tracking child and family social workers over five years, to explore the factors driving job satisfaction and career progression, why people leave the profession or move into agency roles, and what would encourage them to stay.


IFF designed and conducted a large-scale, nationally representative online and telephone survey of local authority child and family social workers. At Wave 1 this included working with over 90 local authorities to generate a baseline survey that covered over 5,000 child and family social workers (almost one in six of the workforce). Each year’s survey since then has followed up people willing to be recontacted, topped up by a new sample of fresh entrants to the profession. Each wave includes qualitative depth interviews focusing on topics including why people move into agency work, equality and diversity within the profession, and the impacts of Covid-19.


To date, findings from the study have provided strong evidence on social workers’ career development and issues around recruitment and retention, which have informed workforce recommendations in the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care and been used in DfE’s economic analyses and policy development.