Everyone agrees the common assessment framework is a useful tool which should result in better outcomes for children and reduced workload for social workers. Gordon Carson investigates why it has yet to live up to its promise
The Common Assessment Framework has been at the heart of government moves to improve early intervention for children with additional needs since 2005. But even now debate rages about its effectiveness and doubts continue about the extent to which it has been embraced by different agencies.
Last month the Local Government Association identified the full implementation of the CAF as an area that could free up considerable social worker time.
It was responding to a report from Loughborough University which said social workers were “investing considerable time on cases involving children with additional needs that fall below the threshold for social care intervention and that could be safely managed with targeted support in the community”.
Independent children’s services consultant Martin C Calder says that professionals in other agencies, fearful of being made scapegoats in a climate of blaming and shaming, are “reframing CAF cases as child protection cases and putting pressure on social work”.
He adds that although teachers, for example, may want to become involved in the process, many cannot find the time. In addition, some senior school leaders see CAF as an “add-on” to the core work of schools, according to a report to be published soon by the National Foundation for Educational Research/Local Authority Research Consortium.
All local authorities in England were expected to implement CAF, along with the lead professional role and information sharing, between April 2006 and March 2008. Although this was not a statutory obligation, figures from the Children’s Workforce Development Council suggest it had become well-embedded during this period; one in five implementation managers responding through a self-assessment (completed by 143 of 150 children’s trusts) said they had fully introduced CAF, while a further 54% had started implementation.
However, Philip Gilligan, senior lecturer in social work at the University of Bradford, carried out an in-depth study of CAF when it was piloted in two areas of northern England and found that teachers who had “enthusiastically” joined pilots became disillusioned when a CAF assessment did not lead to any changes to the services being offered to children.
“Doing the assessment reinforced people’s concerns and clarified the issues but not in the context of there being resources to meet needs,” he adds. “Some people were saying ‘might my time not be better spent doing something else?’.”
Dr Janice Allister, safeguarding lead for the Royal College of General Practitioners, says GPs are keen to engage with the CAF process but are often unclear about what is expected of them. In addition, she says the CAF form can be overly complicated and time-consuming.
Allister agrees, however, that GPs are key to the CAF process due to, in some cases, their greater familiarity with family circumstances and ability to lead on cases across age groups. She denies GPs see it as a social worker issue.
Health visitors and school nurses have their own concerns about CAF, particularly at a time when their workforce is shrinking. Dave Munday, professional officer at Unite Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association, says health visitors do not see CAF as the domain of social workers, but would often like their social work colleagues to help them through the process.
In what will be a familiar gripe for many social workers, Munday says health visitors are “just so busy that in some circumstances they will try to make sure they don’t have to do [a CAF]”.
Despite these widespread concerns, CAF is producing positive results, according to the latest report from the NFER and LARC. Of 24 local authorities studied, 15 provided evidence that the CAF helped to improve the emotional health of children and their families through targeted support, while 14 said it had improved parenting and eight reported it had created better relations between families and schools.
While these results support the objectives of the CAF, the workload pressures on agencies, and the lack of resources available to meet the needs of children identified through the CAF process, are preventing it becoming the exceptional early intervention tool envisaged by its political proponents.
➔ Further information on the Common Assessment Framework
Bexley Council identifies key to implementation
Bexley was one of the first councils to pilot the CAF and Sue Gower (left), CAF co-ordinator for the London council, says the key to implementation is winning the “hearts and minds” of practitioners across the children’s sector, not just in social care.
All practitioners need to be made aware of CAF processes, she says, and to this end Bexley has an electronic learning package and has prioritised inter-agency training on fulfilling the role of the CAF lead professional. Every children’s services setting, whether a school or children’s centre, also has its own CAF lead.
To deal with the movement of children and families between London boroughs, Gower was also involved last year in creating the Pan London CAF Protocol. This is supported by a website and certification course to help practitioners understand its aims and elements.
Gower says she is passionate about the CAF because she has seen first-hand, in her former role as a children’s centre manager, how the CAF process helped a troubled young boy on the verge of being excluded from his nursery. A CAF assessment helped to identify his needs and enabled him to remain in the setting, while contact was made with the primary school he was due to attend so a smooth transition could be arranged.
Gower says such cases show how the CAF can alleviate pressure on social work if used properly. “The intervention happened quickly and no extra resources were needed, through people just doing their jobs.”
MAKING CAF WORK: TOP TIPS AND GOOD PRACTICE
● Improve awareness about CAF among the wider children’s workforce.
● Make it clear from day one that CAF is everyone’s responsibility.
● Bring all agencies together regularly.
● Make it easy for professionals outside social care to understand how they can use CAF.
● Highlight the benefits of early intervention by other agencies.
● Show how cases that do not involve child protection concerns can be solved collaboratively through the CAF and good inter-agency working.
● Walsall holds a bi-monthly forum for about 45 staff from statutory and voluntary agencies, and from adults’ as well as children’s services.
To further improve awareness, Walsall holds an annual integrated working day. At last year’s event professionals from across the children’s sector manned 100 stalls to provide information about their services.
● Social workers do not lead on CAF assessments in Bexley but are asked to contribute their expertise if required. In addition, staff from other agencies must complete a CAF before they try to refer a case to social work.
“We’re aware that other practitioners need additional training so they have the right skills,” says Sue Gower, information sharing and CAF co-ordinator in the area. “Otherwise they may look at cases as social issues and think social care should be leading.”
● Independent children’s services consultant Martin C Calder points to a guide that Alcohol Concern produced that highlights the key issues for practitioners to consider when assessing parents with alcohol and drugs misuse problems. “If I’m a teacher, even after going through the CAF I might say it’s not my responsibility, but I can’t say I haven’t been given anything to help me do an assessment,” he says.
This article is published in the 22 April 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “What’s the matter with CAF?”