‘Little known’ about which practice models work best amid ‘huge variation’ in approach – evidence body

Evaluating social work models and tackling 'major weaknesses' in domestic abuse evidence base will be key priorities for newly merged what works body Foundations

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“Little is known” about which social work practice models work best amid “huge variation” in approaches across England’s 153 local authorities.

That was among the messages from Foundations, the new evidence body created from the merger of What Works for Children Social Care (WWCSC) and the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF), which formally started work yesterday.

Evaluating the effectiveness of service and practice models was among five priorities set by Foundations for its work over the next five years, which it said would be dedicated to ensuring “vulnerable children have the foundational relationships they need to thrive in life”.

Assessing practice models

The organisation said it would “run high-quality evaluations of multi-agency and multi-disciplinary services to understand what should be promoted and scaled up”.

This will include continuing WWCSC’s evaluations of the family safeguarding model, pioneered by Hertfordshire Council, family valued, initiated by Leeds, and No Wrong Door, created by North Yorkshire council, with findings due in 2026-27.

All three models were positively appraised by the Department for Education’s innovation programme as safely reducing the number of children entering care, leading the DfE to support their wider rollout, and further evaluation, across 17 councils.

Models being evaluated

  1. Family safeguarding – this involves teams of children’s social workers and specialist adults’ practitioners working in a structured way with parents, using techniques such as motivational interviewing to tackle the root causes of adult behaviours that increase concerns about children, particularly domestic abuse, substance misuse and mental health difficulties. The innovation programme evaluation of the model’s implementation in Hertfordshire, Bracknell Forest, Luton, Peterborough and West Berkshire, found, in 2020, that family safeguarding was effective at preventing children from being looked after and reducing the number on child protection plans.
  2. Family valued – under this model, families are offered family group conferences (FGCs) prior to statutory intervention, to enable them to develop their own solutions to problems, with services commissioned to act on the outcomes of FGCs. Practitioners are also trained in the restorative practice approach underpinning the model. The innovation programme evaluation of the scheme in Leeds, published in 2017, found statistically significant reductions in numbers of looked-after children, children in need and child protection plans, 16 months into the programme.
  3. No wrong door (NWD) – this approach involves multi-disciplinary teams supporting young people in, or on the edge of, care, through residential and outreach provision and an allocated key worker, with a view to reducing numbers going into care or supporting permanence, reunification or independence. The innovation programme evaluation of the approach in North Yorkshire, published in 2017, found that more NWD young people have ceased to be looked after, compared to a matched cohort during the first two years of the scheme.

Strengthening the evidence base

While the innovation programme appraisals of the three models were positive, NWD and family valued were only evaluated in relation to their council of origin, and at a relatively early stage of their development.

Family safeguarding had been in place for longer and was studied in relation to five councils, however, there was no control group against which to compare outcomes in the innovation programme study.

By contrast, the WWCSC evaluations being taken forward by Foundations are using a form of randomised controlled trial (RCT) – considered the gold standard for testing the impact of an intervention. Under this approach, authorities have been given different start dates for implementation, with children and families in councils yet to implement acting as control groups for those that already have done so.

WWCSC also took part in a DfE-commissioned evaluation of the strengths-based Signs of Safety model, published in 2021, when the approach was used in some form by two-thirds of English councils. This found “little evidence” that the model lead to better social work practice or reduced risks to children.

Lack of evidence on domestic abuse

Tackling “major weaknesses” in the evidence base for supporting children and families affected by domestic abuse is another of Foundations’ five priorities.

A 2021 EIF report found that, of more than 100 identified programmes designed to support children affected by domestic abuse, less than a third had been evaluated. Of those that had, many studies had methodological weaknesses, including poor study design and small sample sizes, while it also identified an over-reliance on qualitative evidence.

It also found no consensus around the most relevant and appropriate way to measure outcomes, significantly hampering efforts to compare different interventions in terms of their effectiveness.

Foundation said it would seek to identify relevant preventive, perpetrator and victim-survivor programmes to evaluate, and also to build consensus on how best to appraise domestic abuse programmes.

Prioritising support for parents and family networks

Its other priorities are:

  • Supporting parenting – with a focus on filling evidence gaps concerning interventions to support parenting in higher risk families and in a child protection context.
  • Strengthening family networks – tackling the lack of evidence on how to support family networks to improve outcomes for children, with a focus on family group decision making, kinship care, reunification and contact for children in care.
  • Relationships for care-experienced children – addressing the shortage of evidence-based programmes that support relationships for care experienced
    children, given the importance of this for their mental health.

As well as the state of the existing evidence, Foundations said its priorities were selected based on the scale of the problem, the potential to make an impact and the level of policy interest.

Link to DfE reform programme

On the latter point, they align with the DfE’s reform programme for children’s social care, which includes plans to enhance family support, family networks and kinship care and relationships for care-experienced people.

The programme is largely based on last year’s final report from the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, led by Josh MacAlister, who was subsequently appointed executive chair of what would become Foundations.

Launching the organisation yesterday, he said: “Family – in all its forms – is one of the most powerful influencers of children’s outcomes. But there are major gaps in evidence about which approaches and interventions work. That’s why this new organisation will focus on generating high quality and actionable evidence to improve services that support foundational relationships around children.”

Foundations’ five priorities will make up 80% of its work over the next five years and will involve existing studies, as well as new work funded through its core grant from government, which it can use unrestrictedly.

It may also be commissioned to carry out further studies in these areas – such as with the current trials of family safeguarding, family valued and no wrong door – for which it will receive additional project-based funding.

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