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What makes a good assessment?

Publication date June 2024
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Good quality assessments help us understand the lives of the children and families we work with. They play a vital role in identifying a family's existing or potential needs, strengths, risks and protective factors. Assessments are central to planning, deciding and reviewing what actions, if any, are needed to support or safeguard children.

Case reviews, research and reports repeatedly highlight the challenges faced by social workers conducting increasingly complex assessments in an environment of rising demand and tightening budgets. They also highlight key elements of good practice.

That’s why we’ve pulled together common themes from case reviews and research into ten practice points, designed to help social workers reflect on what makes a good quality assessment.

Practice points for assessments

Professional judgement is central to good assessments. Use intuitive and analytical thinking to help sort through the complex and often incomplete information gathered during assessments.   

'Professional curiosity' and critical thinking should underpin all work with children and families. Make use of supervision to take a step back and think reflectively. Identify personal decision-making processes and biases which might influence the assessment process, and constructively question your initial and intuitive judgements.

Ask yourself:

  • What are the implications of the information I have gathered?
  • What further information do I need?
  • Have I made any assumptions about this family?
  • What evidence, if any, backs up or contradicts these assumptions?

The child’s voice must be central to assessments and decision making.  All children have the right to be heard and taken seriously in matters which affect them, and their views must be taken into account when determining their best interests. 

Try to see all children, including the siblings of children you are working with, separately from their parents or carers if possible. If you can't see a child by themselves, make a record of why. Give the child the time and space to express their experiences, views and wishes in a way that works for their age, developmental stage and communication needs.

Consider, and clearly record, both spoken and non-spoken communication. This should include the child's behaviour and interactions with caregivers, siblings and other significant adults and children in the child's life.

Ask yourself:

  • Have I been given appropriate access to all the children in the family?
    • If not, have I made arrangements to see them as soon as possible?
  • Have I gathered the child's account of what is happening to them? 
  • If the child speaks a different language, is pre-verbal or does not use spoken language, have I found alternative ways to communicate with them?
  • Have I allowed enough time and space for the child to feel comfortable sharing their experiences with me?
  • Have I considered what the child's behaviour and interactions can tell me about them?

There can be significant stigma attached to receiving support from children’s services. Parents may also have negative experiences of working with agencies in the past. Consider how these factors might impact a parent's reaction to the assessment process. A negative response from parents or carers to the assessment process should not influence the conclusions you come to. 

Fathers and male partners are often overlooked by assessments but can play a central role in their child's life. So, assess, support and challenge male carers along with mothers.

Listen to parents or carers' points of view and explore their strengths and abilities alongside any risks or concerns. Be clear and honest about the assessment process and share findings with families in a way they can understand.

Ask yourself:

  • Have I kept parents and carers informed throughout the process, in a way that is accessible to them?
  • Have I checked with parents and carers that they understand what is happening and why?

> Listen to our podcast about engaging parents in pre-birth assessments

Try to gain an understanding of who's who in a family's support network, what roles they play in the child's life and the relationships between them. Genograms (family trees) can help clarify family relationships.

The family's wider social network can provide important insights into what a child's day-to-day life is like (their lived experiences). Consider the dynamics between the family and their wider network, how they get on with, support and influence each other. 

Explain to the parents and child the benefits of involving family members, friends and neighbours in assessments, and where possible gain their consent to do so. Take any concerns shared with you by this wider network seriously and thoroughly investigate. 

Ask yourself: 

  • Have I spoken to all the key people in the child's life?
  • Would I treat the information they provided differently if it had come from a different source?
  • If I can't find evidence to back up an account, could it still be a sign that a family needs more support?

Look beyond individual safeguarding incidents or concerns to understand the family’s lived experience and history. This should include the parent’s or carer’s own childhood experiences. Use a family chronology to help identify any patterns of concerns, potential risk factors, or support needs.

Move beyond descriptions of the family’s circumstances to consider their potential implications for the child in the short, medium and long term.

Ask yourself: 

  • What is my biggest concern, and would I still be worried about the welfare of the child if this concern was removed?
  • Is this incident a one off, or part of a wider pattern of concerns? 

The context a family is living in can have a significant impact on their capacity to provide the care their child needs. 

Factors such as poverty, poor housing, deprived communities, economic or social inequality, disability, poor health, language or literacy barriers and racial discrimination can all increase the stress placed on families and communities.  

Identify how environmental and societal factors interact with each other, and with other potential risk or protective factors, in the family's life. This can help you build up a more accurate picture of a family's circumstances and support needs.

Ask yourself:

  • Does my assessment consider the potential impact of environmental and societal factors on the family?

> Listen to our podcast on intersectionality in social work practice

Update your assessment whenever there is a significant change or new information about a family's circumstances. Updated assessments should build on previous findings, rather than starting again from scratch.

When assessing whether there has been a change to the level of risk, look for evidence of positive changes sustained over time, rather than an absence of previously identified risk factors. 

Ask yourself:

  • Have there been any significant changes in the family's life?
  • If so, do I need to reassess their strengths, protective factors, risks or support needs?

If possible, tell parents and children what information you wish to share. Explain why, how and with whom you will do so and seek their consent.  If you have concerns for a child's safety, and the parents or child do not give consent, safeguarding a child is a clear and legitimate reason for sharing information. Data protection law does not prevent you from doing this. If information is shared without consent, keep a record of what has been shared and with whom.

Triangulate evidence collected from a family with other sources of information to help build up a more accurate picture of their circumstances.

Invite all professionals and agencies who hold relevant information on the child or their family, including adult services, to contribute to assessments. Similarly, promptly share findings from your assessments with relevant agencies. 

Make a record each time a referral is made or information is shared, especially when no further action is taken following a referral.

Record the information you gather during an assessment using clear and precise language, avoiding jargon, acronyms or euphemisms. Seek clarification if any information provided by others as part of the assessment is unclear.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I have all the information I need to complete my assessment?
    • If not, is anyone able to fill in some of the gaps?
  • Is any of the information I’ve been provided with contradictory?
    • If so, can I cross-check with other sources? Or do I need to make a note, and consider the implications, of these contradictions? 
  • What information do I need to share with others so they can effectively safeguard and support the family?

Relevant research, when used in combination with professional judgement and experience, can make an important contribution to effective assessments. When needed, draw on insight from research around:

  • the signs of abuse and neglect
  • the impact of different environmental, societal and risk factors on parenting
  • sources of resilience
  • protective factors
  • effective interventions. 

Take advantage of the experience, expertise and specialist knowledge of colleagues and professionals across agencies to help develop a deeper understanding of the family's situation.

Where appropriate, consider using evidence-based assessment tools to help ensure all relevant information is collected in a systematic way. Tools can also help parents understand why they are being asked particular questions, encouraging greater transparency and partnership working. Tools should help inform professional decision making, rather than be used to make decisions.

Ask yourself:

  • Is my assessment backed up by the evidence base? 
  • Would my assessment benefit from others' expertise or reference to research resources?

> Find out how our Library and Information Service can help you find research and resources

Present assessments in a way which can be understood and responded to appropriately by all professionals and agencies. Include clear steps on:

  • what, if any, action needs to be taken
  • the order actions should be taken
  • who is responsible
  • what changes need to happen
  • the timescales.

Explain to families why certain actions need to be taken, and who is responsible for what.

Where actions have been identified for multiple agencies, check everyone has a shared understanding of their roles and responsibilities. 

Consider what forms of support the family might need to prevent concerns from emerging or escalating. This might include helping the family access early help services or it might involve a safeguarding intervention.

Ask yourself:

  • What are the family's support needs?
  • Do my notes set out what action I have taken, or will take, and what action all other relevant people need to take?

> Read more about early help and early intervention

Methodology

These practice points are compiled from our:

  • learning from case reviews briefing that looked at reports published between 2018 and 2023 where practice issues around assessments were a key factor
  • an evidence snapshot which provides a top-level summary of findings from research published between 2010 and 2022 about assessment practice in children’s social work.

References

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