The purpose of the What Works Centre’s outcomes framework is to make sure that we focus our work on the issues that really matter. We will only carry out new research and draw out learning from existing research when it is focused on these outcomes. This framework is a first, high-level overview. We will keep seeking feedback as we go on developing the framework in consultation with our stakeholders.
The framework was developed in consultation with children and young people, parents and carers, social work practitioners and researchers. We referred to other frameworks, including the priority outcomes identified through the Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme evaluations and the work in development by Barnard et al funded by the Nuffield Foundation.
We plan to keep developing the framework with input from additional stakeholders including other agencies that work with children and young people (eg, health, education and youth services). We will also consult professional groups that work particularly closely with children and young people involved with social care, including foster carers and residential workers.
An outcome is the consequence of an action. Typically the ‘actions’ we’re interested in are particular services or ways of working. Outcomes are important for understanding the difference that services make: they tell us what works – and what doesn’t work. In setting out our approach to outcomes we’re also outlining our understanding of the purpose of Children’s Social Care.
Outcomes are challenging to define in Children’s Social Care because a service’s contact with a family might range from a phone call following a referral through to most of a childhood spent in care. The focus of work might be any element of a child’s welfare or wellbeing. Children’s Social Care is a rights-based service and this work often involves balancing the different rights and duties owed to children, their carers and others.
With these complexities in mind and after speaking with our stakeholders, we propose three main areas of outcomes in Children’s Social Care.
1. The rights of children, parents, carers and families
The work of Children’s Social Care is fundamentally about rights – not simply improving outcomes. The right of children to be protected from serious harm and to have their needs met is fundamental. But the right to family life and the right to have a say in key decisions about your own life and many other rights are also crucial.
The duties and responsibilities of Children’s Social Care are set out in primary legislation such as the 1989 Children Act. These exist in the context of fundamental rights set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (in force in the UK since 1992) and the Human Rights Act 1998. Statutory guidance provides further detail on how these rights should be operationalised.
The complex balancing exercises involved in delivering rights-based services provide a challenge to a simplistic outcomes-based approach. Involvement of Children’s Social Care in family life needs to be respectful of the rights of everyone involved, and that’s not just a matter of maximising outcomes. Some of the key factors in this area that we want to measure include whether services are:
• Proportionate: Are the right children being worked with? Are services correctly identifying those at risk or in need? Is this happening while minimising unwarranted involvement in family life, for example by safely preventing the need for a child to enter care?
• Respectful and humane: Are services respectful and humane to all parties involved? This is always important, but is of the utmost importance in a service that the state sanctions for non-voluntary involvement with children and their families.
• Rights-based: Are there effective complaints procedures and quality assurance? Are the complex balancing exercises needed for such work being carried out and evidenced? Are parents and children made aware of their legal and human rights and empowered to exercise them?
2. Children’s and young people’s outcomes
The primary purpose of Children’s Social Care is to protect children from serious harm and meet their needs to support their health and development. This includes meeting the needs of children with disabilities.
A key issue here is that the views of service providers and the views of children might differ in important ways. To capture this we will use measures that focus on:
• Objective outcomes measures: behaviour measures or validated instruments to identify the presence and/or extent of a problem and therefore whether it changes as a result of a service. We will also measure the extent to which children are protected from maltreatment.
• Child-defined outcome measures: the views of children and young people on their progress, lived experience and experience of Children's Social Care are also important. Various approaches to logging the success of Children's Social Care in meeting their needs will be used.
3. Parent, carer and family outcomes
Achieving positive outcomes for other family members is also a legitimate outcome for Children’s Social Care. While children’s outcomes are the primary focus of the service, treating parents or other family members as merely a means to that end would be unethical. Achieving positive outcomes for other family members is therefore important in its own right – as well as usually being how positive outcomes for children are achieved.
Outcomes for children’s family members include:
• Objective: measures of parent or carer welfare or family functioning
• Parent/carer/other service user-defined: measures of goal achievement or satisfaction with services
Some outcomes for parents, carers and other family members will also play a role in improving outcomes for children and young people. For example if a parent is supported to improve their mental health, which then means they can provide better care for their child. Or if a foster carer increases their confidence and sensitivity to the needs of the child they care for, it’s likely to support improvements to the child’s outcomes.
We know that organisational factors are crucial in helping Children’s Social Care to achieve outcomes in the areas outlined above. However, these are important as means to achieving these outcomes, not in their own right. So we call them ‘intermediate outcomes’.
There are many elements of the organisation of Children’s Social Care that are likely to be important in promoting the welfare and safety of children. These include but are not limited to:
• Are services cost effective? Often services are only sustainable if new ways of delivering an intervention can be shown to generate cost savings.
• Is there a stable, motivated and well-supported workforce? We know that changes of social worker can be disruptive for children and families – and that high turnover can be damaging for a service as a whole. Making sure the workforce is looked after appropriately is likely to be important for improving services.
• Do workers have the right skills, knowledge and experience? Also, are the ways workers are selected, trained and supported producing a workforce able to carry out this complex work?
Over time the What Works Centre will develop theories of change detailing how organisational outcomes can support improvements in the primary outcomes, and we will carry out research to test these theories.
The diagram below sets out the three primary outcome domains, supported by the intermediate organisational outcomes.
In 2019 we will hold a series of engagement events and ask a range of stakeholders to help us develop more detailed outcome indicators to sit in each outcome area. We will also identify example measures that are suitable for using in evaluations to tell us whether specific outcome indicators have been achieved. We will seek to prioritise the use of outcome measures that are reliable, valid, usable and sensitive to change.
This work will be developed in tandem with the evaluations we will be carrying out to generate learning about innovations in Children’s Social Care and their success in achieving these outcomes.