Social workers are expected to communicate effectively and lucidly with other professionals, but many fail to do so. Anita Pati looks at the extent of the problem and Martin Cutts offers tips on writing reports
Being able to support service users is not the only important aspect of social work; all that work can be undermined by poor recording or reports that don’t convey the issues to other professionals.
If writing a report fills you with dread, here’s one practical method to use to control those fears.
Take a big sheet of paper, turn it landscape, and plan. Jot down the report’s purpose, for example: “This report will assess why Mrs X’s care plan was changed on 21 June 2010, with reference to the headings X, Y, Z”.
Jot down the points you’ll make under those headings and some notes for the introduction, which will briefly state the report’s purpose and why it’s needed. Planning will save you time by helping you see what you know and don’t know, and what you really think.
2 Write first draft
Leave the plan overnight. Then find a quiet room away from distractions and write the first draft at speed. This gives you something to edit.
3 Write a summary
This stage is also when you can assemble the main news and put it in a summary that will go at the start. If busy people read nothing else, they’ll get the big picture.
The more times you can edit the report with a fresh eye, the better it will get. Don’t be too easily satisfied. In your editing:
● Use “I” or “we” to show what you or your team have found.
● Prune sentences to 15-20 words on average, linking them with sentence connectors such as but, so, yet and however.
● Punctuate properly.
● Use everyday vocabulary, avoiding or explaining any social care jargon – including unexplained acronyms – that people in other professions may not know.
After you’ve checked for errors, seek a second opinion from a candid colleague or outsider. Ask whether the report will make sense to your intended audience.
Martin Cutts is author of the Oxford Guide to Plain English (third edition 2009) and research director of the Plain Language Commission.
The problem with reports
Serious case reviews repeatedly highlight the importance of information-sharing between agencies. It should be remembered how the 2003 inquiry into Victoria Climbié’s death found that “illegible” medical records led to delays in action, writes Anita Pati.
From court reports, police assessments and case diaries to handwritten notes from home visits, professionals are expected to communicate accurately with colleagues in other disciplines in an accurate manner.
Joanna Nicolas, child protection consultant and trainer, says that, although life experience is important, poor English skills, as a first or second language, can affect the quality of reports.
“You need people who have life experience but you also need people who are educated academically to a level where they can write a report and not have to rely totally on the spellchecker,” she says.
Social workers, she says, need to be able to write reports that can be taken seriously in court: “This is something that can be missing because I’ve come across a lot of social workers whose spelling can be atrocious. You think that that report is going into court and it will be condemned by other professionals and reinforce the stereotypical view that many people have of social workers.”
It is not just presentation where social workers fail, she says. Analysis of content is also lacking. “It goes back to their social work training. There needs to be more time spent on learning the art of critical analysis and, once they become social workers, giving them the time to write good quality reports.”
More critical judgement is needed, agrees Alison Paddle, a social worker for 40 years, a guardian since 1991 and former chair of Nagalro, the professional association for children’s guardians.
“The biggest problem for all social workers is the lack of analysis,” she says. “It’s easy to describe something but they won’t tell you what the significance is.”
Many court reports can be too formulaic, “repeating facts to a set pattern or following a template too slavishly, so that the individuality of the child or situation is not brought out”. Paddle says some social workers fail to maximise their professional opinions and observations, which could provide telling evidence for a court.
But even a high-quality report will count for little unless it goes to the right people. Some professionals are too cautious to share information, says Adam Abdelnoor, childhood psychologist, headteacher and chief executive of children’s charity Inaura: “Often, social services information is not passed on to the school. They can sometimes be too precious with information and won’t give you details that would give you a more in-depth understanding. I sometimes talk to headteachers who don’t even know which of their children are in care.”
Many are convinced that training is the key to producing good reports. Dr Lucy Rai has just completed research at the Open University called Getting it right (write), which explores writing demands placed on social workers, focusing on how academic training prepares professionals for writing at work. She says degree courses are where social workers’ writing skills can fail to develop. “Lots of universities might think we’ll have one module where we teach them to write a report,” she says. “We have to think about how universities and practitioners work together to understand the complexity of the writing social workers are doing and to do it well.”
The same report, she says, can go out to a service user, a magistrate, a line manager and inspectorates such as the Audit Commission or Ofsted. “Professionals need at least a greater awareness of the purpose of the report, whom it is being written for and how you write differently depending on the purpose and the audience.”
GAFFES TO AVOID
Common areas where some social workers slip up in reports.
Irrelevant, inappropriate information
“Michael is a large baby. Clearly his size is inherited genetically from his father, who is a proportionately large person.”
From an Ofsted inspection of a Cafcass team, which criticised practitioner’s files on children and families for containing “irrelevant, inappropriate” information.
“D has explained that she thinks she will shortly start her menstrual cycle. D is prepared for her first period. She would appear to have no outstanding needs in this respect.”
From an Ofsted inspection of a Cafcass team, which found “the relevance of some statements was not clear” in a report on an 11-year-old girl.
“She has a bubbly personality.”
“You wouldn’t believe the number of times that people say this,” says Alison Paddle, former chair of Nagalro. “It doesn’t mean anything and it’s a cliché.”
“There was domestic violence but, because the parents had recently separated and the father was not on the scene, the kids were no longer at risk.”
Consultant Joanna Nicolas was concerned to see this in a report recently because of the flawed conclusion reached by the practitioner. “We know from research that that’s when the children are most at risk,” Nicolas says.
What clangers have you seen in social work reports? Join the debate on CareSpace.
This article is published in the 29 July 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline, “How to write a good report”