A common touch

Like the woman in the 1970s’ Coca Cola TV advert
proclaiming “I’d like to teach the world to
sing”, so would the children’s green paper ‘Every Child
Matters’. It wants all professionals who work with children to sing
from the same hymn sheet. One suggestion for achieving this is the
development and introduction of a common assessment framework to be
used by these professionals, writes Anabel Unity

The motivation is simple enough. Health visitors assess all
children’s health and development until they are five –
and for longer if they have special needs. In addition, children
receive baseline assessments in the first year of primary and
secondary school. But some children come into contact with a range
of agencies – Victoria Climbié, for example, was known
to 12 agencies – resulting in several assessments by
different professionals asking the same questions because the core
information does not follow the child.

The green paper says: “This is not only an inefficient use
of resources but also alienating for the child and family who have
to tell the same story to several professionals but may receive
little practical help as a result.”

Andrew Christie, director of Hammersmith and Fulham’s
children’s trust in London, says: “It will provide us
with the vehicle and means to generate a shared assessment that can
be used across all disciplines.” Christie adds that as his
trust develops its plans it has become clear that a common
assessment framework is one of the cornerstones of an integrated

“Moral panic”

Patrick Roach, assistant secretary for policy and equality at
the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers,
also backs the move. But he warns that it could result in
professionals relying on others to notice any problems before
responding. On the other hand, he says: “It cannot lead to a
moral panic where every red flag requires crisis

The government aims to establish a team to draw up and develop
the common assessment framework by March 2004, with a view to
introducing it in September. The framework should contain all
relevant information about a child so they can be assessed
holistically, says Kathy Dunnett, a community nurse and Community
Practitioners’ and Health Visitors’ Association (CPHVA)
school nursing committee member.

But is it realistic to expect a teacher, for instance, to assess
child protection concerns in the same way as a social worker? For
instance, the role of CPHVA’s members is often misunderstood,
says Dunnett, particularly in the case of school nurses. But she is
optimistic that whatever assessment is developed it would pick up
on a child in similar circumstances to Victoria’s.

South Central Connexions Partnership chief executive Pamela
Charlwood agrees that different professionals lack knowledge about
what others do, although she emphasises this is “just a fact
of life” rather than a criticism of professionals or

Holy grail

The question around a common assessment framework is whether it
will improve inter-agency working. On its own it will not, says
Charlwood, as improving working relationships depends on
establishing clear techniques to share information. 

The lack of appropriate communication between agencies involved
in Victoria’s case was one of Lord Laming’s main
criticisms in his report into her death. Chris Wright, head of
performance at the Youth Justice Board, is not convinced this will
change with a common assessment framework: “It is a bit like
the search for the holy grail. I have a considered cynicism that it
will deliver.”

He is worried some staff will assume they will not need to do
any of the detailed assessments that identify particular issues,
such as offending, and leave it to others to pick up instead.

The green paper suggests that frontline professionals, such as
pastoral staff in schools, may be best placed to discuss initial
concerns with a child or parent rather than a social worker who has
had no contact with them. The government needs to define what it
considers pastoral, says Roach, as it is often teachers who have
stepped into the breach. “The expectation on teachers has
broadened and they have begun to lose sight of the essential
aspects of their role – teaching and learning,” he
says, adding that, with adequate training, pastoral school staff
could take on more of this role.

He says any final decisions on the green paper’s ideas
must not interfere with the national agreement on raising standards
and tackling workloads. If pastoral school staff are to take on
enhanced roles, Dunnett warns they must be given the necessary
support otherwise they will feel “dumped on”.

Child care professionals should also be trained to understand
each other, says Charlwood. “The more we can use a common
language with a common understanding behind it, the more we can
avoid tragedies.”

She cites the example of the word “urgent”, whose
definition differs depending on whether you are in social services
or emergency services.


Although the green paper is to be applauded for its attempt to
radically improve children’s services, it is not without its
critics. Wright told the green paper team he believed there was
“a real danger of destabilising the very positive
progress” that had been made as professionals changed their
practice. He says: “Our quest for something new might take
our eye off the ball. I don’t want it to deflect from what
we’ve already put in place.”

The September 2004 deadline for implementing the common
assessment framework is also of concern for Roach, who is
unconvinced that it is enough time. Wright thinks the framework
could be established, but at a push.

As with most of the green paper’s ideas, the issue of
resources is paramount. There are bound to be cost implications for
the IT systems used by professionals working with children, as the
assessment framework is unlikely to be paper-based. None of the
green paper’s recommendations will happen unless extra
resources are made available, says Christie. “It has got to
be funded or the implementation will be compromised and we
won’t achieve the service improvements that vulnerable
children need and deserve.”

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