Looking for common ground

Jan Horwath is a senior lecturer at the University of
Sheffield. Her research interests include assessments, child
neglect and child welfare systems.

Co-authors – Helen Buckley is senior lecturer in social work at
Trinity College Dublin. She specialises in child protection
Sadhbh Whelan has a social work background and is a research fellow
at the Children’s Research Centre, Trinity College

In the Children Bill, the government proposes the introduction
of a common assessment framework for children. The aim is two-fold:
to reduce the number of assessments a child with multiple needs may
be subject to, and to encourage other service providers such as
education and health to complete a preliminary assessment of a
child’s needs before referring the child and family to social

Although a common assessment framework is already used in some
local authorities, there is little research into professionals’
views on it in the UK. However, three health boards in the Republic
of Ireland, which are responsible for providing both statutory
health and social work services, commissioned the authors to
research and develop a common assessment framework. The messages
from this are useful in the development of a framework in the

The research found a broad agreement that a common assessment
framework should standardise practice and reach decisions based on
sound evidence and full information about the child and family. But
three main issues were highlighted: the way in which the framework
is written and formatted, its content and the assessment process

Most respondents believed that the framework should be worded in
such a way that all professionals were “talking the same language”.
It needed to be user friendly -Êmeaning that it was
immediately clear what should be assessed and by whom. Moreover,
the framework should recognise the time constraints placed on
professionals – it should be constructed in such a way that it can
be completed quickly and efficiently. The respondents were divided
in their opinions as to whether the framework should be intended as
a checklist, acting as a series of prompts to guide the assessment,
or be based on more qualitative, open-ended questions.

The respondents were also divided regarding timescales. Some
respondents believed timescales for completing the assessment
encouraged practitioners to remain focused and avoided assessment
drift. Others believed that time limits would adversely affect some
families’ ability to engage in the assessment process.

Although the assessment framework should be standardised,
participants were in general agreement that assessments needed to
be tiered. They envisaged preliminary assessments being completed
by professionals within their own settings. Secondary or tertiary
assessments would be multidisciplinary, co-ordinated by a social
worker. As one health visitor put it, the framework should be “a
building block” whereby some initial work is done by a single
professional and the case then referred on for a multidisciplinary

Although those surveyed were clear about the benefits of a common
assessment framework, they also identified limitations. A major
concern was the need to have systems that promote
information-sharing, enabling professionals to access any relevant
information on the child and family that may be held by other

Respondents also listed a number of subjective factors that can
distort assessments, and which the introduction of a framework is
unlikely to address. These include a belief held by 13 per cent of
seminar respondents that the status of the referrer influences the
response to an assessment. For example, if a GP refers a case to
social services their concerns are more likely to be taken
seriously than those of an unqualified worker in a children’s
centre – irrespective of the quality of the assessment.

Second, the stigma attached to social services is likely to
influence practitioners referring cases, irrespective of the
outcomes of preliminary assessments. For example, a manager of a
disability service commented that if one of their service users was
referred to a child protection or child care service, the family
were likely to withdraw from all services, including the disability
services they are currently receiving. Respondents also highlighted
that stress, heavy workloads, staff shortages and lack of support,
trust and respect influences professionals’ engagement in a
multidisciplinary assessment.

So, what are the messages for policy makers developing a common
assessment framework in England? First, our research suggests that
the effectiveness of a common assessment framework depends on
establishing systems for sharing information. This is acknowledged
in the Children Bill, which outlines ways in which information
sharing between agencies will be improved to provide professionals
with details of children in their area, services they receive and
the details of relevant professionals.

Second, many of the important components are already found in the
Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their
. Therefore, it would make sense for the common
assessment framework to explicitly link into the established
assessment framework, while recognising that practitioners want a
framework that is easy to follow and helps them analyse

Third, the respondents came to no agreement as to whether time
limits on the assessment process enhanced or constrained it.
Practitioners in England have had the same debate in terms of the
assessment framework.1 Bearing in mind the in-depth
nature of assessments, careful consideration needs to be given to
constraining the process with the introduction of short

Finally, policymakers need to be mindful of the limitations of an
assessment framework. No matter how comprehensive, its
effectiveness rests with the professionals using it. What was
apparent from the Irish study is that several factors, as described
above, influence multidisciplinary assessment practice. It may be
that the introduction of multidisciplinary teams will address
problems such as status issues and stigma associated with social

However, whether professionals are working together in one team or
separately, effective assessments are dependent on professionals
having the right tools and being able to work with others to make
the best use of them.


As part of its reform of the child welfare system the government
intends to introduce a common assessment framework. Drawing on the
lessons learned from their study in the Republic of Ireland, the
authors describe the strengths and limitations of a common
assessment framework. Practitioners and managers from a range of
disciplines were involved in developing the Irish framework. Their
opinions as to what works and potential pitfalls.

About the research 

Two hundred professionals from a range of disciplines including
nursing, health visiting, social work, psychology, speech therapy
and community paediatrics attended focus groups on the framework. A
further 625 professionals attended seminars and also gave their
views on the key issues they would want to have included in a
common assessment framework.


1 J Horwath “Maintaining a
focus on the Child? First impressions of the framework for the
assessment of children in need and their families in cases of child
neglect” Child Abuse Review, 11(4): 195-213, British
Association for the Study and Prevention of Child Abuse and
Neglect, 2002

Further reading    

1 HBuckley, Child Protection Work: Beyond the Rhetoric,
Jessica Kingsley, 2003 

2 HCleaver, S Walker, PMeadows, Assessing Children’s Needs
and Circumstances
, Jessica Kingsley, 2004 

3 JHorwath, (ed),  The Child’s World. Assessing Children in
, Jessica Kingsley, 2001 

4 HWard and W Rose, Approaches to Needs Assessment in
Children’s Services
, Jessica Kingsley, 2002

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