The computerised framework to assess children’s needs began in 2004 as part of the Every Child Matters reforms. Social worker John Randall reports on its progress
Title: The Integrated Children’s System: enhancing social work and inter-agency practice
Authors: Hedy Cleaver, Steve Walker, Jane Scott, Daniel Cleaver, Wendy Rose, Harriet Ward and Andy Pithouse
Publisher: Jessica Kingsley, London, 2008, ISBN 9781843109440
The Integrated Children’s System is a computer-based framework introduced under the Every Child Matters reforms that all English and Welsh children’s services now have to use when assessing a child’s needs.
It comprises three key elements:
● A framework for assessment, planning, intervention and reviewing work with individual children in need.
● A set of data requirements for children’s services that inform both work at the case level and planning of children’s services in the round.
● Examples of case records that can be used to help practitioners develop their own computer-based records and help local authorities build the necessary computer systems to support them.
This study describes the historical background to ICS, going back to the early 1990s when research on more integrated approaches to children’s services began. It reports on early progress in its implementation in four pilot local authorities.
The research objectives focused first on five practice outcomes by looking at the impact of ICS on:
● Improving the quality of direct work with children.
● Providing the foundation for achieving better outcomes for children and young people.
● Supporting inter-agency working and facilitating the sharing of information.
● Providing the information needed to support planning at both individual and service level.
● Assisting the use and development of performance management.
In addition, the study considered:
● How much the ICS IT implementation had an impact on the pilot authorities’ overall IT plans.
● Whether the IT systems developed for ICS actually work.
● What different IT approaches have been taken by the four local authorities.
● Which approaches have worked well and which have been more problematic.
Four pilot authorities were chosen as a test bed for the ICS – a shire county in England, a London borough, a Welsh local authority and an English unitary authority. The shire county is one of the largest with a population of over a million people. The London borough has about 170,000 people, 12% from ethnic minority backgrounds. The Welsh authority has about 140,000, of whom 18% are Welsh speakers. The English unitary has a population of 180,000.
The research had four stages. First was the selection of the local authorities from the 28 that had originally applied to be part of the pilot. The second stage involved collecting baseline data, including scrutinising of documentary evidence to establish the situation in children and families’ teams before the implementation of ICS, and interviews and questionnaires with line managers and frontline staff.
Health, education, police and youth justice personnel were interviewed as well as social workers. In addition, there was an audit of social work case files (150 cases in all with 577 records being scrutinised). The third stage comprised training for more than 700 staff in the new ICS by members of the research team.
As well as the training sessions, a training and resource pack was developed to provide back-up for staff after the training had been completed. Stage 4 focused on gathering follow-up data to see what difference the implementation had made.
The background to this project begins in 1991 when Parker and colleagues produced Looking After Children: Assessing Outcomes in Child Care. Other key links in the chain are:
● The looked-after children project of the 1990s, with its assessment and action records and accompanying documentation. ● The “refocusing” debate of the mid-1990s that sought to shift the preoccupation with child protection to children in need.
● The Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and Their Families in 2000, and the significant changes brought about by both subsequent legislation and guidance and the development of children’s trusts.
But ICS was intended to move to the next stage, by providing a means of aggregating childcare data so that what is input at the case level can be retrieved at different levels by practitioners and managers a system that could transcend the different agencies, with their frustratingly different languages and priorities, that work with children and young people and one that could take advantage of the rapid developments in computer technology.
So the ambition of the project was huge. As the book emphasises several times, the “Integrated Children’s System is not an IT system in itself, but the volume and complexity of the information it requires means that it needs to be underpinned by appropriate information technology.”
There has been huge investment by the public sector over the past decade in IT infrastructure – both hard and software – but there has also been a huge amount of frustration as hopes and expectations have not been fulfilled. And it is clear from recurring stories coming out of the experience of the NHS that the IT-related frustrations in social care are not unique.
Particularly significant is the finding that the system is still failing to monitor the progress of looked-after children, because this was one of the fundamental thrusts of the assessment and action records that preceded the ICS.
Overall, the book charts the evidence up until 2005 of how implementation was proceeding in the four local authorities, chosen because they were seen as being “ahead of the game”. There are pictures of partial success and numerous obstacles in the road. At one level this is a remarkable story of a sustained partnership between academic researchers, national and local policymakers, childcare practitioners, IT specialists and council administrative staff. It is one of the inevitable features of published research that there is a significant time lag between the completion of a study and when its results appear in the public domain.
An obvious question has to be: what has happened to ICS since the roll-out to the rest of the local authorities in 2007? Certainly there is evidence of a great deal of activity, but so far there is very little evidence of what this is achieving.
There is a basic irony here in my view. This is a project whose roots are grounded in a commitment to improve outcomes yet it seems to provide such equivocal evidence about its own success. Given the scale of the programme, it is too early for any definitive assessment but it would be more reassuring if the ECM website had evaluation data that were more up to date.
An article by Margaret Bell earlier this year in Community Care (5 June), summarising an evaluation by the University of York, confirms some of these misgivings:
“The social workers and managers in our 14 focus groups and survey praised the potential of ICS. Most saw it as an improvement that would in time lead to significant progress. They liked the increased use of computers and saw potential benefits in efficiency, security, the readability of records and management information. They accepted the need for some structured recording that treated children as individuals as well as family members. Yet despite this optimism it was also clear that ICS has serious difficulties.”
A continuing concern is that the system deflects professional attention away from effectively meeting the needs of the client family and child, while the other gnawing question is whether advocates of ICS – academic, political and technical – can offer an objective appraisal of its success. The integrity of those who have invested so much in this project cannot be doubted, but faith in its efficacy is not the same as evidence.
Links and Resources
● Read Margaret Bell’s analysis of the pilot evaluation of ICS
● The Every Child Matters website is the official source of information on the ICS programme
● Looking After Children: assessing outcomes in child care, London, HMSO, Department of Health, 1991, ISBN 0113214596.
Key points from The Integrated Children’s System: Enhancing Social Work and Inter-Agency Practice
● The Integrated Children’s System has made little impact on the endemic failure to monitor routinely the progress of looked-after children (p86).
● Practitioners’ and managers’ views on how the Integrated Children’s System had impacted on the quality of recording were mixed. A similar proportion thought the quality had improved as thought it had deteriorated (p99).
● Most of the professionals thought that the introduction of the Integrated Children’s System had not affected inter-agency work. However, when changes were reported, in the majority of cases professionals saw these as improvements in inter-agency collaboration (p118).
● Although looked-after children are more likely to be involved in plans and decisions that affect them, the introduction of the Integrated Children’s System has had little impact (p147).
● All the IT systems provided the means of recording and printing case notes, but the facility to relate them to other records held in the system, such as the chronology or core assessment, had not been fully developed (p168).
John Randall is a post-adoption social worker with Families for Children, a voluntary adoption agency. He writes monthly reviews of recently published research articles for the Research in Practice Research and Policy Update
This article is published in the 13 November 2008 edition of Community Care under the headline “Evaluating the Integrated Children’s System”