The Common Assessment Framework (CAF) and Lead Professional (LP) work are key elements in the Every Child Matters: Change for Children programme. This evaluation of authorities trialling the new approach will be of interest to SENCOs who will become increasingly engaged as the national roll-out continues for these processes for multi-agency working.

The CAF and LP work are attempting to transform services for children with what a new survey describes as ‘additional needs’ with an emphasis on multi-agency cooperation and collaboration based on a holistic understanding of children’s needs. This study offers a ‘snapshot’ of activity in 12 English areas chosen by the DfES to trial these new processes ahead of the national roll-out. The key research question was ‘What helps or hinders practitioners in implementing common assessment and lead professional work?’

The researchers report ‘considerable enthusiasm at both grass roots and management level’ and over half the practitioners and managers interviewed felt that even at this early stage agencies were coming together faster and enabling more rigorous follow-through in delivering services. It was also clear from respondents that CAF and LP working ‘posed many challenges’. The new processes were adding to workload and not all sectors readily grasped the changes required for holistic assessments and partnership working with families. Lack of clarity about how the work was to be done, lack of support and lack of ‘join up’ between agencies and sectors with different ‘thresholds’ for intervention generated anxiety and frustration.

In the pilot areas, the bulk of CAF work was undertaken by practitioners from health and education sectors although a variety of other sectors were also involved.

Holistic assessment required different skills and new ways of thinking beyond traditional sector boundaries so that, for example, education workers had to bear in mind the way in which children’s experiences at home affect their behaviour in the classroom.

Most practitioners felt that the primary role of the lead professional was coordinating services. A reluctance to share the responsibility for LP working among agencies and a lack of communication about the role caused some practitioners to caution that ‘if you appear too confident in doing LP work’ other practitioners will opt out ‘leaving you over-burdened’.
Factors identified in enabling easier implementation were:

  • clear strategy with good local guidance
  • awareness raising across whole area, repeated regularly
  • phased roll-out, rather than ‘big bang’ requiring everything in place at once
  • multi-agency training; good IT system in place.

The study also identified factors that caused problems:

  • focusing exclusively on local issues rather than learning from other areas
  • delayed strategy based in theory on ‘learning on the ground first’ with no clear guidance
  • too much individual discretion (not in itself a bad thing) can lead to confusion
  • over-reliance on DfES training materials which have not been adapted to meet local needs or use local examples.

Recommendations

Based on experience in 12 pilot areas, the research makes a number of recommendations for effective practice:

More prescription
Firmer national guidance about CAF and LP roles could help check any tendencies towards bickering and professional mistrust. The most requested change was for a single, nationally approved CAF form together with clearer national statements about IT, information sharing and line management accountability.

Impact on workload
The increase in workload was a recurring theme and allowances for practitioners should include reconfigured work time and workload.

Better join up
At times a CAF is being received and another assessment undertaken. Sectors appear to be reluctant to accept a common assessment and seem to cling on to their individual priorities and preoccupations. The will to put children at the centre of thinking, planning and service delivery needs to happen at top, middle and bottom levels of management so that a continuum of services is provided from early needs through to serious child protection risks.

Support
The study identified concerns about gaps in skills and confidence amongst the new children’s workforce and where CAF and LP are positioned within it.

A tension may exist in empowering staff who know families best but may not yet have the necessary skills and knowledge to recognise, understand and assess need for extra help. Operating in a friendly informal manner was often successful but could go badly awry when guidelines were not followed – consent was not properly gained, parents not involved or not given key information (like the CAF form).

The researchers urge the importance of clear processes, good support and training, and a quality assurance system to check that all practitioners are capable of doing the work.

Families
Practitioners reported that families were on the whole very positive about both CAF and LP work. However, the researchers stress that it is crucial to have early comments from the families themselves about the features that make common assessment successful and what attributes are valued in a lead professional.

Evaluating The Common Assessment Framework and Lead Professional Guidance and Implementation in 2005-06 Authors: Marian Brandon, Amanda Howe, Valerie Dagley, Charlotte Sadler, Catherine Warren and Jane Black

Research report (RR740) priced £4.95 available online at www.dfes.gov.uk/research

 

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