Social Workers in Schools (SWIS) is a school-based intervention in which social workers are embedded within schools to undertake statutory social work with children and families, with the aim of safely reducing the need for children to receive children’s social care (CSC) services. Schools are one of the highest referring agencies to CSC and play a central role in keeping children safe.
The key elements of the intervention were:
- Drop-in services for parents or staff
- Informal work with young people and families, advice and signposting to services etc.
- Advice and discussions with staff
Following three pilot studies of SWIS in 2019, the Department for Education commissioned a scale-up. To build on the findings of these studies, WWEICSC worked with the Children’s Social Care Research and Development Centre (CASCADE) to carry out a randomised controlled trial (RCT) of the intervention. The SWIS trial is one of the largest RCTs ever undertaken in CSC in the UK, involving around 280,000 students across 291 schools in 21 local authorities (LAs) in England. The trial was set up to evaluate the effectiveness of SWIS in reducing the need for CSC services.
SWIS also had the potential to improve responses to domestic abuse (DA), something which affects approximately one in five UK children. Social workers could provide support to designated safeguarding leads (DSLs), increasing their confidence and understanding of safeguarding management in relation to DA. To further explore this hypothesis, a small study that was nested within the larger RCT was conducted and presented in a second report.
The SWIS trial was made up of three components:
- An implementation and process evaluation (IPE) that looked at how the intervention operated and how it was perceived by those involved, including children and young people
- An impact evaluation that compared schools with SWIS to those without SWIS in terms of various CSC outcomes, such as rates of child protection and being taken into care, to assess if the intervention reduced the need for services
- An economic evaluation that measured the value for money of the SWIS intervention
The IPE aimed to answer the following research questions:
- Was SWIS implemented as intended?
- What evidence is there for the mechanisms of change identified in the logic model?
- How did SWIS impact the wider social care system?
The impact evaluation aimed to answer the following research questions:
- What was the impact of SWIS in reducing rates of section 47 enquiries compared to usual practice?
- What was the impact of SWIS on rates of referral to CSC, section 17 assessments and children entering care?
- What was the impact of SWIS on the number of days children spend in care*?
- What was the impact of SWIS on educational attendance* and attainment*?
The economic evaluation aimed to answer the following research question:
- What was the cost and cost-effectiveness associated with SWIS per section 47 enquiries prevented?
* Analysis relating to these outcomes will be reported separately in March 2024.
The SWIS trial was a pragmatic cluster randomised controlled trial (RCT) that compared the effectiveness of having a social worker present in a school (intervention) versus usual child safeguarding services (control) in 291 secondary schools across 21 LAs in England. The study excluded non-mainstream schools and included all students in year 7 and upwards. Outcomes were reported independently by LAs using standardised protocols. For the IPE, the study collected data through surveys for students and professionals, and interviews with social workers and team managers from LAs. The economic evaluation replicated the study design of the impact analysis to estimate the cost effectiveness and cost consequences of SWIS.
- The SWIS intervention was implemented relatively well, despite challenges due to the recruitment crisis and COVID-19 pandemic
- Social workers faced challenges in balancing different aspects of their role, but most schools received a “gold” rating for successful implementation
- There was variation between schools and LAs in the balance between statutory social work, lower-level preventative work, and other activities, with enthusiasm from social workers and school staff for lower-level preventative work and non-statutory work
- SWIS had an influence on other parts of the CSC system, particularly ‘front door’ processes in LAs
- The pathways and mechanisms identified in the pilot logic model were generally supported, and when SWIS was implemented successfully, it was in schools with a combination of compatibility between social worker and school, physical presence, and limited caseloads
- There was no evidence of benefit from the SWIS intervention on the rate of section 47 enquiries. The rate was estimated to be 5.5% higher in the SWIS arm than in the control arm, but this effect was not statistically significant
- All effects of SWIS on the secondary outcomes were small and not statistically significant
- There is a low probability of SWIS being considered cost-effective based on the primary cost-effectiveness analysis., with average total costs per school being higher in the SWIS intervention arm than the control arm and more section 47 enquiries being accrued in the former than the latter
- There were no statistically significant differences for any estimates of cost, cost-consequences, or cost-effectiveness between the intervention and control arms
Domestic abuse in schools
The domestic abuse study aimed to explore how school staff identified and addressed students who were exposed to DA and whether SWIS played a role in schools’ response to this issue.
The study aimed to answer the following questions:
- What impact, if any, did SWIS have on DSL knowledge, attitudes, and practice of domestic abuse safeguarding?
- How confident and well-equipped do schools feel about recognising and responding to domestic abuse affecting students?
- What are the similarities and differences in working with domestic abuse, compared to other types of abuse?
The DA report was based on the data collected for the IPE of the main evaluation. Additionally, the researchers used a newly adapted survey to measure the knowledge, attitudes, and practice (KAP) of DSLs at both intervention and control schools in respect to DA safeguarding.
- Although most SWIS school DSLs reported improved confidence in identifying the signs and symptoms of DA, there were no statistically significant differences between them and control schools on questions relating to identifying and managing DA.
- All LAs reported a considerable increase in DA concerns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown periods, with no perceived differences between SWIS and control schools.
- Most school staff (92.5%) had received some training in DA, but only 16.8% had received training in teenage relationship abuse and only half felt they had sufficient training in addressing situations of DA.
- Most staff felt prepared to document student experiences of DA, share appropriate information, and make appropriate referrals, but fewer felt prepared to manage disclosures of teenage relationship abuse (72.0%) or recognize when a student had been exposed to DA by their behavior or presentation (58.9%).
- The capacity for SWIS to operate at the preventative level was particularly valued by schools because students affected by DA were often not involved with CSC.
The SWIS trial found no evidence of positive impact on the measured CSC outcomes and was not considered cost-effective, due to the additional costs associated with the intervention. The study also found no evidence that SWIS improved DA safeguarding knowledge, attitudes, and practices in comparison with the control schools. Despite positive experiences reported by staff and students, the study recommends that SWIS should not be continued or scaled-up further.
SWIS and particularly the non-statutory work were well received by social workers, school staff, and students in this study. They 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 which are supported by a strong theory of change. This could provide important learning to support work to develop effective services locally as well as inform current government priorities
The second SWIS report that will be published in March 2024 will examine longer-term impact and explore effects on educational attendance and attainment.