Learning from History : Lesson 1 : Good Standard Practice

In the August edition of the Webmag, we explained that a study of social work files covering the last three or four decades had suggested that there were lessons for today’s practitioners. For the purpose of this series, six topics have been chosen, and in each case, David Lane describes what he has found out from the files, and Chris Durkin comments from the viewpoint of current practice and teaching about social work. It should be emphasised that the Lessons will all focus on general issues, and will not disclose any confidential information.

David Lane :

It may sound boringly obvious, but the first lesson from the old records is that where standard practice was followed, it was not only much easier for me to follow what had happened in reading the files, but the quality of work appeared to be better.

Let us use record-keeping as an example. The main purpose of the records at the time was no doubt to keep colleagues informed about the progress of children and to build up a picture for use in the ongoing care of the children or in their social work case management and supervision.

Does it matter whether other people can follow the records at a later date? I suggest that it does matter, for several reasons :

  • As a general principle, it is through records that social workers are held accountable; it is a key element in their professional practice.
  • When staff come and go, it is the records which provide the continuity and collective agency memory of the case. Inspectors may need to check the quality of work undertaken by the agency.
  • The children themselves – perhaps as adults – may want to see their records, in order to understand what happened to them.
  • In court action, the records are vital in justifying the decisions taken by the agency, or in exposing the agency’s failures in practice.

In the case of residential establishments, good practice meant :

  • maintenance of full log books for the establishment as a whole,
  • detailed records on each individual child,
  • staff completing and signing records at the time, so that the next shift were briefed at handover,
  • decisions being actioned and followed up,
  • field social workers being kept informed.

Interestingly, the records suggest that there has not been linear progress over the last four decades. High standards were set in some residential establishments many years ago, and yet there are recent examples of poor practice.

For field social workers, case files have been the main working tool. These records, as noted above, form the collective memory of the agency, so that information and ideas can be passed on between a team of people who change over the years. Families’ records sometimes continued over two or three decades, and it was only by reading up the past records that new social workers could get the picture.

In many cases there was excellent ongoing recording over many years, providing a full picture which enabled the social worker to be accountable then and the local authority to argue its case now.

Failures which created problems included :

  • lack of signatures, so that it is unclear who contributed the records,
  • failure on the part of seniors to read and/or initial the records (perhaps a symptom of failure to supervise properly),
  • the complete absence of records,
  • the use of quarterly summaries, which relied on memory and general impressions and lost the vitality of immediate contemporary recording, instead of ongoing case records,
  • a lack of transfer summaries when handing over to a different social worker,
  • failure to read old records and consequent lack of awareness of key issues,
  • the use of other sorts of memo, tick-boxes or phone-call records (especially in more recent cases), which detracted from the holistic overview obtained by maintaining a single record.

Of much greater importance in my view was the failure to fulfil statutory requirements, for example when :

  • children were not visited frequently enough when in the care of / looked after by the local authority,
  • child protection processes were not followed properly,
  • statutory reviews were not held at the required intervals.

In these cases, poor practice left the authorities open to claims of negligence, and the children and young people were rendered more vulnerable, though fortunately they did not always come to harm as a result. In the cases examined, these processes provided the statutory backbone to give structure and support to other aspects of casework, and it was sometimes an indicator of wider problems when they were neglected.

In all these cases, responsibility lay not only with the front-line social workers, but also with their immediate supervisors, who sometimes clearly failed to hold social workers to account, or to ask more fundamental questions.

Chris Durkin:

I was reminded when reading David’s piece about a column I used to read in the now obsolete New Society, it was entitled Tailgunner Parkinson and was written by a Probation Officer. On one occasion he was reputed to have written a piece admitting with some pride about his lack of recording. Although many people had a sneaking admiration for his anarchic view, it did not allow colleagues to see his case plans nor for his clients to see how they were perceived to be doing and, in my view, did not allow him to evaluate progress.

The 70s and 80s was a period where questions were being asked about the effectiveness of social work, and one of the reasons for this was that too often social work could not answer the fundamental question: Is social work effective? Combine this with the scandals of the time both in field work and residential work, and people rightly questioned professional practice.

The arrival of the Children Act 1989 affected all professionals working with children, in particular, Volume 4 of the Children Act 1989 Regulations and Guidance meant that residential practitioners had to keep “… a different set of records from their fieldwork colleagues.”1 Although this led to many improvements, what is worth noting is the clear distinction made between residential and field workers, an issue I shall return to later.

When the Human Rights Act 1998 came into being there was a great deal of concern expressed about the full implications for both individual and agency practice. At the time I remember going along to a training event put on by a very eloquent barrister who made a very important point with regards to the issue of recording. She stressed not only the importance of writing down casework plans but that those plans needed to be recorded as soon as possible after the event. The reason for this, the barrister stressed, was that if the plans are ‘sound’ undertaken in good faith, and if you were unfortunate to end up in court you would not have breached the Human Rights. However, if you had recorded your ideas a few days later you might not be able to remember precisely why you took a particular course of action and could then be in difficulty with the court. In summary you were leaving yourself open to criticism.

I remind students that recording is like mathematics: you need to show your workings and not just the answer. However, in this context we must be clear in our recording, be clear about why we are doing something and differentiating between fact, opinion or hypothesis. Our recording has to also be mindful of Data Protection legislation.

As I have stated in previous articles the introduction of the Assessment Framework in 2000 stressed the importance of the ecological approach and began to show the importance of ‘connectedness’ in social work and to see the child as being part of a wider environment. If this is to be followed to its logical conclusion (in the context of recording) we cannot separate looked after children from their wider context, and recognise that in the role of the ‘corporate parent’ both residential and field workers have a ‘duty to care’ for children, and children in turn have ‘rights’ – rights to access their records and rights to complain.

To try and break down barriers between residential and field work Every Child Matters has taken a more holistic approach and in the arena of recording is introducing the Integrated Children’s System (ICS)  which “… builds upon previous developments, such as the Looking After Children materials (1995) and the Assessment Framework (2000), and offers a single approach to undertaking the key processes of assessment, planning, intervention and review, based on an understanding of children’s developmental needs and their parents’ capacities to respond to these needs in the context of their families and communities”2. The ICS is an information technology recording system which is seen by the Government as “a framework for working with children in need and their families”3. When fully operational this is intended to provide an integrated system for all professionals working with children.

In essence, recording should be about accountability to both agency and more importantly to children and families. To see it merely as an agency requirement misses the point and fails to take account of the fact that it is also a  professional tool.

Over recent years I have begun to realise that, although recording can be seen as a burden, it can also be a creative research tool for practitioners. Action research is proving a very important approach for practitioners; it is both a reflective and participatory approach that at its most simple has certain stages:

  • Identify a problem or issue;
  • Identify a possible plan or solution;
  • Implement the plan, and
  • Evaluate success.

Once your intervention has been evaluated the process can start again as you modify your next intervention (the original creator, Lewin, saw it as an “action research spiral”4). Such an approach allows us to evaluate our interventions and also enables us to be clear as to why we are doing something. In sum, our practice should be informed by evidence.

1 Steve Walker, David Shemmings and Hedy Cleaver (2003) Write Enough – Recording in Residential Care http://www.writeenough.org.uk/residential_care.htm (accessed (9/8/2007)

2 Integrated Children’s System Fact Sheet http://www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/ (accessed (9/8/2007)

3 Integrated Children’s System http://www.everychildmatters.gov.uk (accessed (9/8/2007)

4 Known by many other names, including:

  • collaborative inquiry,
  • participatory action research,
  • emancipatory research, and
  • contextual action research,

see Smith, M. K. (1996; 2001, 2007) ‘Action research’, the encyclopedia of informal education, www.infed.org/research/b-actres.htm. (accessed (9/8/2007). See also: Web Links To Participatory Action Research Sites http://www.goshen.edu/soan/soan96p.html (accessed (9/8/2007)

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.