Following a referral to children’s social care, the local authority has a statutory obligation to consider whether “there are concerns about impairment to the child’s health and development or the child is suffering harm which justifies an initial assessment to establish whether this child is a child in need” (HM Government 2010: 5.34). Regardless of the length and breath of the case itself, assessments have to be completed within set statutory timescales. An initial assessment has to be completed within 10 working days and core assessments within 35 working days.
This essay proposes that removing current distinction between initial and core assessment and the associated fixed statutory timescales for their completion will improve the quality of assessment reports completed by children’s social workers. A development of a single assessment form to replace initial and core assessment form would give social workers additional time to reflect and review historical information collated and collaborate with other agencies before completing the assessment thus improving practice. Although it is acknowledged that there may be challenges in implementing this proposal, this essay pre-empts that this change would give social workers greater opportunities to complete direct work with children and incorporate their views and feelings into the assessment (Munro and Lushey 2012).
In the view of the above proposal, the essay explores the influence of the wider national and European policy agenda on the change proposed and explores some of the potential challenges from social work context which may impact on the implementation of the proposed changes. Finally, drawing on Change Theory, I critically discuss how my proposal could be implemented, meeting the challenges previously identified.
But first, initial and core assessments are defined. An initial assessment is a brief assessment completed on each child referred to the local authority within a maximum of 10 working days of the referral date. Where necessary, it determines whether the child is in need; whether there is reasonable reason to suspect that the child is suffering or likely to suffer from significant harm; whether the child requires any services and if so what types; finally, a recommendation is made whether a more detailed core assessment should be undertaken (HM Government 2010: 5.36).
The meaning of ‘need’ is explored under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. A child is said to be in need if:
[He] is unlikely to reach or maintain a satisfactory level of health or development, or [his] health and development will be significantly impaired without the provision of servicesâ€¦[or he] is disabled, (HM Government 1989).
Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 places a duty on local authorities to make enquires when there is a “reasonable cause” to believe that a child who is found or lives in their municipality is suffering, or likely to suffer from significant harm. A completion of the core assessment is the means in which a section 47 enquiry is initiated and should be completed within 35 working days. In these circumstances, the aim of the local authority is to determine what form of intervention is required to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child (Ibid; Brown et al. 2012).
A core assessment refers to an in-depth assessment which addresses key aspects of a child’s needs. This assessment may be completed at different junctures depending on the child’s needs; an existing child protection concern is not a requirement (Brown et al 2012). According to Department for Education (2011) 40% of core assessments bare no relation to section 47 enquiries.
Harm under section 31(9) of the Children Act 1989 is defined as ” ill-treatment or the impairment of health or development; ‘development’ means physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development; ‘health’ means physical or mental health; and ‘ill-treatment’ includes sexual abuse and forms of ill-treatment which are not physical” (HM Government 1989).
Completion of both an initial and core assessment has to be undertaken in accordance with Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and Their Families (DOH 2000) and information regarding children’s needs should be obtained within the three general domains of that form the assessment triangle: the child’s developmental needs; the parents and/or caregiver’s ability to respond to those needs; and wider family and environmental factors (HM Government 2010: 5.36, 5.62; Turney et al. 2011).
Current statutory guidance on the completion of initial and core assessments are criticised for the following reasons:
Firstly, imposition of a rigid timescale means that there is little time for social workers to meaningfully engage with children. This drive to meet performance targets may thus be at the expense of the quality of assessments, engagement with children and families and multi-agency collaboration with professionals (Hawkes 2005; Holland 2010; Munro and Lushey 2012).
Secondly, current statutory assessment timescales are unrealistic especially the 10 working days set for the completion of initial assessment. It does not take into account that there might be some difficulties in engaging with certain families and assessments may as a result be form-led rather than needs led (Horwarth 2002). Turney et al. (2011) argued that the pressure to meet statutory timeframes set for initial and core assessment may lead to the developments of short cuts which may provide latent conditions for error and in turn increase the risk factors posed to vulnerable children.
An assessment which is child-centred contains thorough, concise and accurate information; includes chronological information about family and wider history and makes good use of information from a wide net of sources is considered a good assessment (Turney et al 2011). A good assessment is crucial in improving outcomes for children as it can contribute to maintaining the welfare of children by preventing delays in the provision of support and services.
Despite the Assessment Framework’s copious guidance in completing good assessment, (DOH 2000) research evidence continues to highlight on-going concerns of social workers assessment analysis (Dalzell and Sawyer 2007). Holland (2010) contends that strict imposition of tight timescales combined with high caseloads does not allow for in-depth analysis through critical reflection of available evidence.
The need for the proposed change
Replacing child in need initial and core assessment timescales with a single assessment form and removing fixed statutory timescales for the completion of initial and core assessment will improve quality of children’s social workers practice and increase the scope for practitioners to exercise their professional judgement. Although the single assessment forms will still retain the structure of Framework of the Assessment of Children in Needs and their Families (DOH 2000), it is hoped that this development will allow social workers to exercise their professional judgement about what information to record.
Research studies and enquiries into child deaths and analysis of serious case reviews consistently report that the quality of social workers assessment reports have at times fallen short of the expected standard particularly in the following areas: failure to engage with the child, differential thresholds, inadequacies in information gathering, shortcomings in critical analysis, and shortfalls in inter-professional working (Turney et al. 2011).
Whilst it is acknowledged that the implementation of a single assessment form may not necessarily eradicate some of the shortcomings of the current assessment forms highlighted above, it is hoped that removing timescales for completing assessment will improve quality of completed reports by creating an environment where workers are under less stress to extract all information during the first visit to the family and thus more attention can be paid on what is happening for the child. Moreover, reducing prescription concerning timescales would enable social workers to arrange to meet with children and families at a convenient time for the family rather than at short notice to meet statutory timescales. For cases whereby parents are reluctant to engage in services or cases where there are linguistic or cultural barriers to overcome, flexibility in timescales can be used as a mechanism to improve practice (Munro and Lushey 2011).
Collaborative working relationship between social care services and families is essential in promoting the welfare of the child (DOH 2010). Having sufficient time to work at the child’s pace is therefore crucial to improving practice. Moreover, assessments may take longer if family members have special needs which have to be met so that they can meaningfully contribute to assessment (Holland 2010). Whilst there is a need for assessments not to lose focus and direction, assessments need to be completed jointly by both social worker and the family within a context which takes into account issues of power, inequality and discrimination. Lack of flexibility within assessment is almost inevitably going to come at the cost of key principles such as partnership and empowerment. Hawkes (2005) suggests that there is just as much evidence about the impact of partnership and empowerment upon the outcomes of children as there is for the need to prevent delay and drift in assessment which may be caused by flexibility measures of assessments.
Influence of wider national and European policy agenda
The need for a thorough assessment of children and families where there are child protection concerns is a key focus of many national policies in the UK. The Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and Their Families (DOH 2000) for example acknowledges that improving assessment process is a critical aspect in improving social work practice with service users and ensuring multi-agency working. Although the framework offers guidance to social workers on how to meet the needs of children through a comprehensive process of assessment leading to action, its imposition of rigid timescales to complete assessments challenges some of the principles of the Children Act 1989. The guidance fails to take into account that the time it may take longer to engage with some families who may be initially hostile towards intervention. Moreover, due to lack of time to engage fully with children, social workers may be unable to ascertain and incorporate the child’s feelings into assessment (Calder 2003).
Similarly, the importance of timely and clear assessment was highlighted in Lord Laming report into the death of eight year old Victoria Climbie (DOH 2003). Lord Laming’s enquiry led to the implementation of Children Act 2004 which emphasised the need for improve outcomes for all children. For children who come into attention of social services, these outcomes could be explored further in assessments. These outcomes are: being healthy, staying safe, making a positive contribution; and achieving economic wellbeing (HM Government 2004).
As well as national policies, international legislations including the European Convention on Human Rights Act (1998) and United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) influenced the proposed change as enshrined within these legislations is the need to protect child and their interests (ECHR 1998:Article1, 2; UNCRC 1989: Article 2, 3, 12) and advocating for a single assessment form is a means of ensuring children’s voices remain the central focus of assessments.
Potential challenges from the wider social work context which could impact on the implementation of the proposed changes
Although this essay has highlighted some of the potential benefits of having a single assessment form and removing fixed statutory timescales, some potential challenges which could impact on the implementation of the proposed changes are critically discussed here.
First, increased flexibility concerning timescales does not necessarily mean that the potential benefits discussed previously will be realised because a key aspect in realising these benefits largely depends on the skill and capacity of individual social worker and wider organisational contexts in which they are working. Although the aim of a flexible timescale was proposed in this essay to enhance social worker’s understanding of children’s needs, should the proposal be implemented, some social workers may use it as an excuse to postpone complex decisions (Turney et al. 2011).
Secondly, in the absence of timescales social workers may spend longer time completing assessments. Whilst it is acknowledged that the more information gathered, the longer it may take to analyse, however, in the absence of additional staffing, the extra time social workers are seemingly spending on direct work with children and families may place greater demands on the team. This in turn may lead to the following: longer working hours to compensate for the additional time spent on assessments; prioritising child protection cases which may result in delay and drift in cases, which based on the presenting issues appear less serious; or changes to the threshold for intervention (Broadhurst et al. 2010; Holmes et al. 2010). The effect of such challenges may therefore inhibit worker’s ability to conduct additional visits, engage in more direct work with families and therefore undermining the intended aim of the single assessment proposal (Monro and Lushey 2012).
Change is inevitable; it can be threatening, disruptive and difficult to manage as it involves adapting to new settings, working practices or personal circumstances (Hayes 2010). Although one of the core values of a social worker is to advocate for change on behalf of their service users (Dolgoff et al. 2008) as a profession, it has been quite resistant to change (Munson 2012). Whilst there is no standard formula in managing change, there is a body of useful theories which that can help analyse how to manage the challenges of change in order to improve on practice and ensure better outcomes for service users. Here, I draw on Kurt Lewin’s(1951) theory of change and discuss how developing a single assessment form to replace current initial and core assessment forms can be implemented meeting some of the challenges previously identified.
Lewin (1951) argued that implementing change involves managing competing forces and actively facilitating the driving forces to achieve the desired change while seeking to reduce or eliminate restraining forces (Russell and Russell 2006). In the first step of his three step change model, Lewin contends that to implement change, change leaders will need to unfreeze the status quo. Individuals who will be affected by the change must be led to recognise why the change is necessary (Griffin and Moorhead 2011). Next, the change itself is implemented. Finally, refreezing involves reinforcing and supporting the change so it becomes a part of the system.
Using Lewin’s model, the first step (unfreezing) implementing my proposed change would involve convincing Michael Gove, current Secretary of State for Education to grant local authorities dispensation of Working together to Safeguard children guidance because of its capability to improve social work practice with children and families. After this unfreezing is accomplished, a pilot scheme conducted with several local authorities analysing the likely impact of implementing my proposed change on practice will be introduced. If the results of the pilot scheme are positive, the scheme will be rolled out nationally (implementation). Following implementation, regular training, robust supervision and support systems will be introduced to support social workers in writing assessments (refreezing) in order to meet challenges previously identified.
As influential as Lewin’s model of change is, some critics have argued that the model is too rigid and assumes change occurs in static steps. It is argued that Lewin’s theory lacks the flexibility required to fit with the chaotic process of change (Longo 2011). In relation to my proposed change, Lewin’s theory fails to..
Similarly, Williams et al. (2002) argue that whilst Lewin’s model of change is useful in conceptualising how to bring about change, it fails to explore how what causes individuals to accept or resist change.
Similarly to Lewin (1951), Beckhard and Harris’ (1987) change model provide a useful analogy of what motivates individuals to change. They argue that for change to happen, the forces of change must outweigh the perceived costs of change (in terms of emotions, energy financial costs etc). Beckhard and Harris suggest that to successfully implement change, individuals need to be convinced that the present is problematic; individuals need to perceive desirable vision of the future and that there is a means of achieving it (Williams et al. 2002). Although this model is valuable to understanding how to manage planned change, similarly to Lewin’s (1951) theory, Beckhard and Harris (1987) also assume that that there is a logical, linear process to achieving change. Burke (2002) argues that in practice, planned change occurs in a spiral fashion rather in a linear line as suggested by both Lewin and Beckhard and Harris. According to Deutsch et al. (2006) there are many unintended and unanticipated consequences which may affect and be affected by planned, change efforts and neither of the change theories discussed above explore this in depth.
Whilst a change in current policy of how initial and core assessment are being completed may appear irrational, a recommendation for such change was recently proposed by Eileen Munro in ‘The Munro Review of Child Protection’ (Munro 2011). The Secretary of State for Education granted eight local authorities (Hackney, Knowsley, Cumbria, Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham, Wandsworth and Islington) between March and September 2011 permission to carry out flexible assessment practices. Although a vast majority of social workers and managers were in favour of the single frame assessment form and findings from the pilot study reported that flexibility of assessment timescales improved practice and quality of assessments (Munro and Lushey 2012), this proposal has yet to be implemented nationally. This recommendation is good example of some of the challenges implementing change. As simply put by Chaudry et al. (1994) “a good idea that is very difficult to implement is, after all not that good an idea”.
In conclusion, this essay has highlighted some of the potential benefits of developing a single assessment form which replaces current initial and core assessments and the associated fixed timescales for their completion when completing assessments children. Whilst this essay acknowledges that implementation of the proposal does not necessarily guarantee improvement in the quality of assessments produced by social workers or the amount of direct work completed with children and families, it is felt this flexibility in timescale will enhance social work practice with children (Munro 2011). Importance of supporting social workers via training and adequate supervision was also acknowledged in ensuring completed assessments are of good standard. As well has exploring the influence of