Bill Goler examines how the Common Assessment Framework is working in practice and how SENCOs can and should be involved in its implementation

Following the Children’s Act 2004 every local authority should now have reorganised its services for children and young people, merging elements of social care with education and promoting closer links to health and other relevant services. The risk of any child failing to achieve one or more of the five Every Child Matters outcomes should now be a key indicator of vulnerability that all services, including education, will use to determine the need for specialist intervention. Most local authorities will now be promoting the use of the Common Assessment Framework and its associated tools and processes as the mechanism for an effective early response to additional needs. This framework for integrated working will be more secure in some areas than others but it is very likely that SENCOs will have had the opportunity to undertake training in the use of the Common Assessment and the tools that will support access to specialist services. For those who have undertaken training this may be very familiar as it appears in a range of government-sponsored training materials. The Common Assessment Framework (CAF) is the assessment tool used by practitioners to identify needs and provide a robust and evidence-based assessment to support multi-agency working. All agencies should be looking at their own assessment tools to determine where they fit following the introduction of the CAF and whether they need amending. How this relates to SENCOs and the SEN process is a key issue for schools and LAs. Contact Point is the national database on which will be held a limited amount of information on every child. This will be accessed by professionals who have an appropriate authorisation to use it. This is promised by the end of 2008. The information held on Contact Point is likely to include what universal services the child is receiving and also whether they have had a Common Assessment carried out and, if so, who is the named lead professional. Any multi-agency plan developed from the Common Assessment must have a lead professional. S/he has the responsibility of ensuring that the plan is advanced, that services deliver what they promise and also to keep all relevant parties informed of how things are progressing. Earlier concerns that this would be ‘the job that nobody wanted’ is not supported by experience. In my own LA those occupying this position speak of the additional weight having this clearly identified role gives them, particularly when in dialogue with other professionals. They feel that being a lead professional enables them to make a significant contribution to supporting children and young people through promoting and coordinating service delivery and monitoring the impact of interventions. It is important that everyone is clear that the lead professional is not responsible for the quantity or quality of services delivered by other agencies. The interim lead professional is the person who completes the initial Common Assessment and calls the first multi-agency meeting. At this first meeting the longer-term lead professional is identified. Having identified needs through the CAF assessment the practitioner should be able to access a comprehensive local authority service directory which will help them find who might be in a position to offer support to the child or young person. Most LAs will have a local website that will carry information on the range of services they offer but few have a comprehensive single directory that can respond to key word searching. However, most will have this in mind for the future.

Local circumstances

The way that each LA has chosen to organise the tools and processes is likely to depend on local circumstances, which is likely to reflect how it has delivered services in the past. Many LAs will have had multi-agency teams in place before the Common Assessment Framework such as the Sure Start children’s centres and, for some LAs, the challenge has been to reorganise within the new framework without impacting negatively on interagency practices already in place. It is not yet clear how the CAF will be used in relation to the SEN process, where long-established practice, based on the guidance within the Code of Practice, usually provides a pathway to the most common agencies identified at School Action Plus.

Bureaucracy

Many SENCOs already view the SEN framework as over bureaucratic and a major difficulty in introducing the Common Assessment in schools will be the view that it is an addition to what is already happening. In trying to visualise how it might work one needs to look ahead a few years when the CAF will not be an addition to existing practice but will provide the first assessment for an early identification of and attention to need. In many cases it is hoped that this will reduce the complexity of individual cases that can occur when support is either slow in response or even refused on the basis of the needs not being sufficient to meet service thresholds for intervention. The other reality is that, in future, many pupils at School Action Plus and those with statements of special needs will already be receiving services under the Common Assessment Framework. Any additional assessments then being made will be specialist assessments that look at specific needs in greater depth. The Common Assessment discussion with parents and/or young people should take place when a school feels that a pupil is at risk of not achieving one or more of the five outcomes and the reasons are unclear or that the school itself may not able to address them adequately.

Evidenced-based referrals

Although there is much good practice in this area referrals to other agencies have not always been based on a sound assessment of need. Frequently children go on to long waiting lists for specialist assessments which may still conclude that the pupil does not meet the service threshold. A Common Assessment is a powerful evidence based document which should assist agencies in determining whether a specialist assessment is required or whether a lower level intervention might be appropriate. One can envisage a case for instance where speech therapy thresholds are not met but the speech therapist uses his/her specialist knowledge to direct the school to a specialist language programme it could run itself. Although the CAF is well under way, LAs are still adapting existing practice and adopting new frameworks and much of this is being driven by the actual CAF training. In many cases CAF training is being delivered to groups of people drawn from different agencies. This enables a much better understanding between people of their different roles and responsibilities. The best training is also consultative where participants have the opportunity to discuss and record through good evaluation processes how inter-agency work can be promoted throughout their LA. SENCOs should access the training currently on offer and should expect to see an increasing number of children with SEN already having had a Common Assessment. However, SENCOs must also be prepared to carry out a Common Assessment themselves when Contact Point indicates that one has not been done.   Although there will be concerns about workload, the evidence-based referral and more focused  multi-agency plans should prevent a lot of professionals attending meetings where their input is minimal and should also prevent duplication of effort where practitioners from different agencies have overlapping roles. The new lead professional role will provide for a single point of contact for parents/carers and other professionals making for a more effective use of what will still be, for the foreseeable future, the relatively scarce resources of support agencies. Integrated working is a reality and SENCOs have a key role to play.

Further information can be found at: www.everychildmatters.gov.uk

Bill Goler is a local authority adviser on SEN and disability and has been the lead trainer in rolling out the Common Assessment Framework in his local authority.