The frame game

Victoria Climbié was involved with nine different agencies before she was killed. The Lord Laming inquiry, set up in response to her death, found that the lack of communication between these agencies was a key factor in the tragedy.

The Every Child Matters green paper that followed in 2003 proposed the introduction of a common assessment framework (CAF), with a focus on early intervention and preventive work (see Framework facts).

Designed to be used by practitioners in all agencies and to “follow the child”, the CAF aims to improve outcomes for children by getting professionals out of their silos and talking to each other in a “common” language about a child’s needs.

An initial government evaluation of children’s trusts, published at the end of September, showed professionals view the information-sharing agenda that is central to the CAF’s success as a “major challenge”. Some raised concerns over “entrenched” sector cultures, citing “inter-professional rivalry, suspicion and boundaries”.

While every local authority is expected to be working on plans for implementing the CAF now, 12 local pilot areas are ahead of the game having started trialling the framework for the Department for Education & Skills in April. The one-year pilots aim to provide examples of how the CAF is used within these settings and how multi-agency working can best work to benefit children, young people and families. The results of the evaluation will inform any changes to the CAF form and guidance before the system is implemented rolled out nationally in 2008
One of the pilot areas is Poole, working in conjunction with Dorset and Bournemouth, which has been using the CAF since September. Jan Sayers, Poole’s principal officer for children and families, says it has been effective in getting agencies working together, but has taken time and resources.

Poole was the first council to provide CAF training for staff, and it has taken 18 months of awareness-raising sessions since the introduction of Every Child Matters in 2003 to ingrain a new way of working. “Not everyone has been used to doing a common assessment and some have found it takes a long time to complete.  It takes time to put a system like this in place,” Sayers explains.

Implementation has not been plain sailing in other pilot areas either. Leicestershire Council is a CAF pilot area working in conjunction with Leicester and Rutland Council. Peter Chester, service manager at a Leicestershire social services project for children and young people, says the change in working practices: “should not be underestimated”.

“These changes touch all areas of the children’s workforce. They challenge the practitioner to see the whole child, to think outside of their specialist area and to practise joined-up working,” he adds.

In Sheffield, which is also piloting the CAF, Des Charles, programme development manager of Sheffield children and young people’s partnership, predicts that “thousands” of professionals will need CAF training. Sheffield is currently providing 60 places a week on a one-day course incorporating the CAF. In Barnsley, another CAF pilot area, the first phase of training has just been completed.

While the issue of time and resources in preparing staff raises some questions over whether all councils will meet the deadline of implementing CAF by 2008, there are some positive signs on the horizon.

Poole has prioritised the development of CAF within extended schools, and Sayers says schools have been “really committed” to making it work. She also believes it has proved useful in dealing with children’s problems before they escalate.

In the case of one 11-year-old, concerns about antisocial behaviour led to a discussion between agencies using the CAF about how to help the family. As a result, a school youth worker set up a programme of support that really made a difference (see CAF gave us a format).

CAF has improved communication, but concerns remain about how long it will take to create effective information systems – and how they will work. “If there is integrated working, then integrated systems are required to reflect and support that reality,” Chester says.

Agencies are waiting to see what the government’s delayed electronic children’s database will look like, as ministers are still to decide when to move towards implementation.

While a database will help, professionals need systems to manage CAF information “soon” Chester says. It is just one of the many elements that need to be put in place before professionals will see whether the CAF can deliver.

Chester says: “Agencies agree that the CAF will need resources to succeed – to enable staff to be trained, to make changes to information systems and, most importantly, to provide services to children and young people with additional needs.”

‹ The aim of the CAF is to ensure information about individual children is not duplicated by different agencies, and to shift the focus from dealing with crises in children’s lives to preventing things from going wrong in the first place.
‹ The basic tools of the CAF are a simple pre-assessment checklist to help professionals identify children who would benefit from a common assessment, and a system for common assessment to help professionals gather and understand information about a child’s needs and strengths, based on discussions with the child, their family and other professionals.
‹ The CAF also provides professionals with a standard form to help them record and share, where appropriate, the findings of the assessment.
‹ All local authority areas are expected to implement the CAF between April 2006 and the end of 2008, and should be working during 2005/06 to prepare for this.

CAF gave us a format
Jon had a reputation for being out of control. 

He was excluded from school for assaulting staff and was put on an acceptable behaviour contract – one step away from an Asbo – after riding in stolen vehicles, writing graffiti, smashing up public property and being racist to neighbours.

While Jon got support from a number of services, his prospects were deemed to be poor. Like many children in trouble, Jon was “drifting” between services, according to Lee Martin, the local manager of the junior youth inclusion project.

But using the common assessment framework, with Martin as the lead professional, local agencies were able to start changing Jon’s behaviour.

Martin says: “We used the CAF initially as a way of clarifying what we needed to address. It helped us not only to think of Jon as a child with difficult behaviour but to make sense of how things at home with his brother and sister and the relationship between his parents contributed. The CAF gave us a format to look at the whole situation.”

A plan was agreed by agencies including educational welfare, social care, and the junior youth inclusion project. An education welfare officer got Jon a place at a pupil referral unit, while the inclusion project helped him meet the terms of his behaviour contract.

Jon’s family were supported in a housing move to address overcrowding, and Jon got the chance to take part in sport and leisure activities. Since then, Jon has not reoffended or breached his behaviour contract.

Martin believes Jon and his family have greatly benefited from the approach using the framework. “An important part of the CAF is that you return to the plan and look at it again,” he says. “It helps to keep us all on track, see what progress has been made, and see what to move onto next. I am very proud of the progress that Jon has made.”

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