Social Workers in Schools: why we are not recommending investment

Donna Molloy, Director of Policy & Practice, WWEICSC

30 March 2023

Read the Implications for Policy and Practice

As the name suggests, “Social Workers in Schools” (SWIS) embeds social workers in schools, bringing social work closer to children and their families. The intervention has received positive feedback from the teachers and social workers involved, however, our randomised control trial (RCT), published today, found no evidence that it achieves its key aim – of safely reducing the need for children to receive children’s social care (CSC) services. Whilst we know some will be disappointed with the findings, our report is an important reminder of the need for evidence when making decisions about where funding is used to protect children and families.  

Although embedding social workers in schools is not a new concept, there has been limited evaluation of the impact of this type of intervention in the UK. Based on the promising findings of three pilot studies carried out in the 2018/19 academic year, the Department for Education commissioned a scale up of SWIS. We funded CASCADE, who collaborated with the Centre for Trials Research at Cardiff University and the Health Economics and Policy Evaluation Group at Oxford, to run a randomised controlled trial (RCT). The trial ran over almost two years, including nearly 300 secondary schools, and involving around 280,000 students across 21 local authorities in England. 

RCTs are generally accepted as the best way of showing whether or not an intervention affects specific outcomes. By controlling for external factors and using a large enough sample size, we can be confident that any changes are the result of the intervention – and that a lack of changes means a lack of impact. That is what we found in this RCT, which was the largest ever in CSC. And whilst there were some differences in the implementation of SWIS, these were not significant enough to affect the findings. 

We looked at whether SWIS leads to a reduction in a range of children’s social care outcomes, including rates of section 47 enquiries, and the number of children entering care. We focused on these outcomes because the aim of SWIS was to reduce the need for children to receive CSC services, by allowing social workers to intervene in issues earlier on. Whilst there was plenty of qualitative evidence suggesting that those involved – teachers, social workers and students – felt positive about social workers in schools, the RCT found no evidence of an impact on children’s outcomes.  

It is important to make sure money is invested in the places where it will have the most significant positive impact on children and families. In this case, because of the cost of SWIS and the lack of evidence of its impact, our conclusion is that the SWIS model tested in the trial should not be continued or further rolled out by the DfE or schools. We recognise that these findings will be disappointing for many people – not least those involved in the intervention, who viewed it positively and felt that it led to good conversations and relationships.

It is important to remember that these findings are not a comment on the value of non-statutory school-based family support: the SWIS model focused primarily on statutory intervention. Professionals and families clearly felt the need for additional support below the statutory threshold to address unmet need in schools and so a valuable next step could be to evaluate models of delivering school-based family support. This will be particularly important as the Department for Education takes forward the commitments made in their recently published children’s social care implementation strategy.

This study serves as an important reminder of the importance of early testing before rolling out interventions so that policy is informed by good evidence about how best to improve outcomes. We are glad that Department for Education were willing to test the intervention before further funding decisions were made: the focus of policy must be on improving outcomes for children and this is an example of where a programme might have been rolled out at huge cost with no impact on outcomes for children. 

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