Of the many policies and processes created to safeguard children and young people, the Common Assessment Framework is one of the most widely debated.  Created to be a key part of delivering frontline services that are integrated and focused around the needs of children and young people, it is a standardised approach used by practitioners to assess children’s additional needs and decide how these should be met.

Brought into play through The Children Act 2004 it was designed to be used as an early intervention tool to identify and address the needs not met through engagement with universal services.  The “CAF” as it is commonly known, was intended to enable practitioners whose work brings them into contact with children, young people and their families to intervene much earlier to help them.

Research shows that ‘low level’ needs, which do not meet the criteria for statutory intervention, often remain unaddressed, as no-one takes responsibility for identifying and co-ordinating services. The needs of the babies, children and young people in this situation often escalate. The CAF was intended to contribute towards developing services in order to improve the five Every Child Matters outcomes for children and young people and was the vehicle for improving inter-agency working between practitioners and organisations.

The CAF process was met with a degree of concern by some practitioners and organisations who felt they would not have the time to undertake the additional work generated by CAF assessments, Team Around the Child Meetings and Lead Professional responsibilities.   Professionals may be concerned about additional work involved in undertaking CAF assessments. Some practitioners felt that the CAF was even duplicating work already being done with babies, children, young people and their families in assessing, planning and offering services.

However, the third report by The Local Authority Research Consortium’s (LARC) has found that during 2010, 21 councils involved in their study had saved between £5,000 to over £150,000 as a result of using the CAF.  The report states that the use of CAF as an early intervention tool is improving outcomes for children, reducing costs and helping to overcome barriers to learning.

They discovered that using CAF lead to better outcomes across a range of circumstances where children and young people have unmet needs, from low-level support to large-scale multi-agency interventions.

The case studies used in their research also found that the CAF process helped schools to engage with learners who were at risk of under-achievement or exclusion.

Claire Easton, of research group NFER, which compiled the report, said: “LARC3 shows that the CAF can be a cost-effective tool in supporting better outcomes for individual children and young people but also their wider family members.  More research is needed to look at a representative sample of CAF episodes but this work provides a useful starting point to inform service planning.”

In the foreword to the report, John Harris, director children’s services at Hertfordshire County Council and chair of the LARC steering committee, said: “The coalition government has set a new policy and financial context. Continuing to improve outcomes for all children and young people (particularly those from the poorest families) is to be achieved with a significantly reduced funding base across the public sector.”

Having trained many individual practitioners, organisations and inter-agency staff on the use of the Common Assessment Framework we are pleased to be able to report the signs of its success.  Use of the CAF is leading to better outcomes at lower cost in response to a whole range of needs.  These needs range from circumstances where children and young people need early preventative support though to circumstances where substantial multi-agency interventions are required at a level falling just short of the threshold for specialist services.  It is clear from this latest research that the CAF process gives a systematic framework for early intervention programmes and practice with clear evidence of payback.

Early days, but it may be time to celebrate this idea of a holistic and standard assessment for all that empowers families to focus on their strengths as well as needs and is carried out as a partnership between children, young people, families and services.

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The Athena Programme is a team of experienced professionals specialising in safeguarding with care and creativity.  Our goal is to help people protect children, young people and vulnerable adults and to make organisations, staff and working environments safer by providing training and consultancy that is dynamic, inclusive and relevant.

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