How removing child assessment deadlines is improving social work

As ministers confirm the removal of child assessment timescales, Helen Combe talks to the social workers testing the new approach

Removing assessment deadlines has lead to fears cases will drift
Removing assessment deadlines has lead to fears cases will drift

The government’s decision to scrap national timescales for assessing vulnerable children, as recommended by Eileen Munro, has been welcomed by many in the sector.

Yet removing these deadlines is not straightforward, as discovered by councils testing more flexible timescales and a new single assessment process that brings together initial and core assessments.

The biggest fear was cases would drift, says Lucie Heyes, social work reform programme manager for Islington Council’s children’s services, where two out of six children in need teams are involved in trials.

Rather than initial assessments being completed within 10 days, social workers must visit the child within that time with progress reviewed by a manager at 45 days.

“Before you had 10 days to visit the family, do lots of information checks and write a report,” says Heyes. “There’s a lot of pressure and that can make you prioritise the wrong things like documentation and recording.

“Now on that first visit social workers can do basic safety checks but there’s more time for building a rapport and relationship with the family, which leads to a better assessment.”

Social workers also have more time to look into a family’s history, plan their visit and reflect on it afterwards.

Meanwhile, without initial assessment reports to rely on, managers are having more face-to-face conversations with workers resulting in swifter decisions and earlier support for families.

Concerns about drift

Drift was a problem early on with 25 per cent of assessments taking longer than 45 days and 12 per cent a matter for concern.

But after further work with managers, just six per cent went over 45 days with 31 per cent done within 35 and 63 per cent within 50.

Heyes says managers need a good tracking system.

“There is value in having some kind of deadline to help people get things done and move on and so families know there is an end point,” she adds.

James Thomas, director of family services at Westminster City Council, stresses that while removing timescales is helpful, it is not a solution in itself.

“If timescales aren’t at the forefront, you need to think about what is most important,” he says. “Put simply, we’re trying to replace timescales with quality. That’s easy to say but has involved a complex range of strategies.”

Westminster focused on several areas including analysis and supervision.

“We’ve concentrated on the quality of analysis with quite a lot of training but also talking a lot more about it in team meetings and supervision,” explains Thomas. “We’re trying to get people to be more thoughtful. Previously they would spend a lot of time gathering information but the analysis could be a bit last minute.”

Social workers must now complete their “primary analysis” within 15 days while assessments are reviewed at 35 and 45 days with the “vast majority” expected to be completed within 45.

The need to improve supervision

When it came to improving supervision, Thomas admits it has not been easy to move away from a more traditional performance management culture. “Old ways of doing things are surprisingly embedded,” he says.

Overall assessments now take “slightly longer” but there are signs quality has improved.

Thomas believes one strong indicator is a significant drop in the number of child protection plans from a consistent 130 in recent years to less than 100 now.

“That’s down to more effective practice and better engagement with families and multi-agency partners,” he says.

While many report an improvement in the quality of assessments, Wandsworth has seen them speed up, much to head of family and community services Catherine Duffy’s surprise.

In 2010/11, 81 per cent of core assessments were completed within set timescales. Yet the first six months of the trial saw 92 per cent completed within 45 days.

“That wasn’t what we expected,” admits Duffy. “I think it’s partly because we’ve been looking closely at how assessments are being done but also that when you remove timescale constraints, social workers seem to adapt by doing social work in a better way, working in a timely rather than a time-scaled way.”

However, she was also surprised by the reaction of frontline staff. “I assumed they would like it and want to do it straight away but they actually found it very confusing and started to self-impose timescales,” she says. “Managers felt quite uncomfortable or anxious.”

Her advice for others is to ensure teams are well-prepared with social workers very much involved in redesigning case management and recording systems.

First line managers in particular need support because “there is more responsibility on them”.

Confident assessment skills

A key challenge is ensuring practitioners are “confident in assessment skills,” adds Lyn Burns, assistant director of children’s services in Cumbria, who agrees IT is a crucial part of the equation.

Cumbria has created a much simpler single assessment tool, which is about to be rolled out across the county. Previously initial and core assessments used two different systems.

Staff training and development has been critical, says Burns, and her authority has identified “practice champions” to help social workers through the changes.

“When the security blanket of timescales is removed, our responsibility as managers is to ensure people are confident in their practice and help them develop assessment skills and skills in writing plans,” concludes Burns.

A good quality assessment is a starting point, she stresses: “It’s how you use those assessments that’s important.”

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