Recent research adds impetus to the reforms proposed by the Munro report, say Dr Nathan Hughes and Dr Nicki Ward
The Final Report of the Munro Review of Child Protection presents a vision for a ‘child-centred system’ within which professionals are enabled to utilise their expertise, so as to make ‘the best judgments’ possible when supporting a child or family. Central to this reform will be a reduction in bureaucracy and an end to the ‘one-size-fits-all’, standardised approach to service provision, epitomised by routinised assessments to prescribed timescales. A number of recent research studies support such a shift and offer valuable evidence as to the flaws in standardised assessment processes.
Sue White, Karen Broadhurst and colleagues recently explored statutory social work practice in five purposively sampled children’s services. Drawing on interviews, focus groups, observations and documentary analysis (see Broadhurst et al, 2010b), this study critiques aspects of current organisational practices, specifically in relation to the impact of processes of performance management. Their findings are consistently critical of attempts to ‘micro-manage’ social work practice, arguing that ‘a rigid performance management regime, and a centrally prescribed practice model, has disrupted the professional task’ (White et al, 2010).
One key example highlighted by Broadhurst et al (2010a) is the ‘faulty design’ at the ‘front door’ of children’s services, as apparent in the application of a standardised initial assessment system. Performance management techniques (particularly the target to complete initial assessments within seven days) are seen to encourage, or even require, ‘short-cuts’ in initial assessment processes, whereby complex cases are necessarily quickly categorised. In addition, electronic assessment processes, such as the Integrated Children’s System, are seen to provide inappropriately rigid recording practices. Speed of categorisation and rigidity in recording are found to provide conditions for ‘latent errors’ in initial assessment, including incomplete assessments and the ‘copying and pasting’ of text between records.
Concern with the application of standardised approaches to assessment in children’s services is not confined to the UK. Gillingham and Humphreys (2010) report on the use of four standardised ‘Structured Decision Making tools’ (SDM) in child protection services in Queensland, Australia. An ethnographic methodology was employed in six case study sites to understand how the tools were utilised by practitioners. Gillingham and Humphreys are clear that none of the stated aims of the SDM are apparent in practice. The research found that decisions were made prior to the use of the tool, with the electronic recording system often completed in retrospect, to match the outcome already decided. Practitioners were critical of the tools for ‘over-simplifying’ and failing to deal with complexity. The tools were presented as ‘an administrative burden’, premised on ensuring accountability for decision-making, rather than providing a useful aid in reaching an appropriate decision.
Service user views
Similar themes are apparent where service user perspectives of the child protection system are considered. Drawing on 67 in depth interviews with service users (including 13 young people), of child protection services, Buckley and colleagues (2010) found that, despite the anxieties of being under the scrutiny of child protection services, service users particularly appreciated interventions which were relaxed and not rushed. The researchers note that service users valued social workers ‘being “normal”, “easy to talk to” and reassuring as opposed to being “bossy”, “business like” and judgemental’. The researchers conclude that there is a need for greater awareness of the way that communication styles can impact upon assessments, interventions and outcomes.
Good use of tools
These studies all indicate that standardised tools are not being used as intended; either because they are incomplete, inaccurate, or untimely in their completion, or because they inhibit the social worker role. Such tools are heavily criticised for having ‘deflected attention from the core task’ (Gillingham and Humphreys, 2010) of understanding and responding to children’s needs, and for undermining the development and application of the skills and expertise of workers. Gillingham and Humphreys argue that this reveals a ‘wrong turn’ in the implementation of such tools, with organisational needs inappropriately emphasised over practitioner and service user needs. Such criticisms echo the proposals of the Munro Report in its call for the development of assessment processes that are informed by the needs of the practitioners that will use them, that accurately reflect the ways in which such tools are used, and that complement rather than replace their expertise. Forthcoming reforms should have at their heart an understanding of the ‘reflexive, individualised and tailored responses’ employed by practitioners, and recognise the ‘multiplicity of rationalities’ operating in decision making and planning for children (Broadhurst et al, 2010b).
About the authors: Dr Nathan Hughes and Dr Nicki Ward are lecturers at the School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham
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● Broadhurst K et al (2010a), “Performing ‘initial assessment’: Identifying the latent conditions for error at the front-door of local authority children’s services”, British Journal of Social Work, 40(2), pp352-370.
● Broadhurst K et al (2010b), “Risk, instrumentalism and the humane project in social work: Identifying the informal logics of risk management in children’s statutory services”, British Journal of Social Work, 40(4), pp1046-1064.
● Buckley H, Carr N and Whelan S (2010), “Like walking on eggshells: service user views and expectations of the child protection system”, Child and Family Social Work 16(1), pp101-110.
● Gillingham P and Humphreys C (2010), “Child protection practitioners and decision-making tools: observations and reflections from the front line”, British Journal of Social Work, 40(8), pp2598-2616.
● Munro E (2011), The Munro Review of Child Protection: Final Report. A child-centred system, Crown Copyright
● White S et al (2010), “When policy o’erleaps itself: The ‘tragic tale’ of the integrated children’s system”, Critical Social Policy, 30(3), pp405-429