The ’thinking framework’ is relevant for all children’s services organisations. It can be used by staff at all levels, irrespective of their professional training or agency background. For 12 years we have applied the framework successfully in different English and Welsh local authorities. The framework builds on the Matching Needs and Services planning tool, designed originally by the Dartington Social Research Unit and which we helped develop, test and promote when working there.
The framework is based on four concepts that are used in sequence:
Need is a familiar concept to children’s services practitioners. The needs-led, outcome-focused framework helps practitioners to use the concept in a very particular way. It moves them away from describing need:
Instead, needs are described in more specific terms, as in:
This precision in describing need increases the chances of developing interventions that will address the specific needs of each child and of relevant family members.
For the commissioner, this specific approach to describing need makes it possible to use aggregated information from individual assessments to map the broad range of needs (or Need Groups) that will inform decisions about the local services that should be in place. The aggregation process, a key feature of the methodology, is described later.
It is important to reach an understanding about the seriousness of needs identified because the nature, extent and timing of an intervention should be based on a judgement about that seriousness. This judgement is made by predicting the consequences for the child of not meeting the needs that have been identified.
Determining the likely consequences of not addressing specific needs – including taking account of both positive and negative factors in the child’s life – makes it much easier to explain to families the concerns that professionals have, to apply this approach to listening to what families are concerned about now and for the future, and then devise plans that are understood by everyone.
The concept of seriousness supports a better understanding of the cumulative impact of a range of possibly low-level needs on a child or parent and the consequent need for targeted early intervention. Equally, it helps ensure that those children for whom predicted outcomes are likely to be extremely poor can receive help that is sufficiently intense or sufficiently long. Thinking in this way also enables commissioners and service providers to have informed discussions about thresholds for intervention, to help ensure that families do not fall through the net of local services. Likewise, practitioners and service planners have found the concept of seriousness more useful in determining thresholds than the more traditional tabulations of levels of need.
Desired outcomes have to be realistic, based on what we judge it might be possible to achieve, given the nature of a child’s needs and the seriousness of those needs. Outcomes must also be clear and specific, and they must relate directly to decisions about the stages of work needed for addressing the particular needs identified.
Only when there is clarity about need, seriousness of need and desired outcomes is it possible to spell out the work that is most likely to address those needs and achieve those outcomes. At this stage, decisions can be made about which professional is likely to be most effective in working with this particular child and family.
We have seen how the framework can change the way practitioners and their managers think and behave.
A Locality Team Manager put it like this:
“The work we did with RyanTunnardBrown has led to a real culture change in the team.
We’re constantly saying ‘let’s look at this using the Framework for Thinking’. The framework is the basis for all the work we do and, as a result, I think that our plans really are needs-led. Families are much clearer about what we are trying to achieve, and everyone knows what the worries are and what will happen if we can’t bring about the changes we want. I’ve noticed, too, that workers now come to supervision ready to discuss the story and hypothesise about what the child’s needs might be. I’m proud of the assessments we do and, most important of all, we are much more effective. Here’s a recent concrete example.
We were asked by colleagues from another agency to refer a mother to a parenting course about managing adolescent behaviour. Her teenage son was being aggressive at home and refusing to go to school. Instead of making that referral we listened to the family’s story and concluded that the mother needed to understand:
We worked with the mother on these specific needs, setting clear outcomes and doing the work to get to those outcomes. She gained the insight and confidence needed to put her back in control as a parent so that her son felt safe. He is back in school now and their relationship is on a more even keel.
I am certain that had we gone down the service-led route of a parenting course it would have been money misspent. We wouldn’t have made a difference, and the situation would have just got worse.”
The needs-led, outcome-focused framework for thinking has been used to enable children’s services practitioners and managers to move away from service-led, process-driven responses and move towards needs-led, outcome-focused approaches, more consistent with a learning organisation.
The concepts that form the framework are not complex – used in sequence, and in an informed and reflective manner, they can help services gain clarity about the complex circumstances of many children’s lives. They can express complex and difficult ideas in ways that are more easily understood, by children and families, and by colleagues from other disciplines. As part of the framework, the concepts can help improve the planning, delivery and review of service responses by ensuring that these are practical in focus and, at every stage, draw on the right skills or combination of skills to achieve the change that is needed.
As a result of the work undertaken, practitioners and managers have been enabled:
As a result of the work undertaken, service managers and commissioners have been enabled to see the value of the framework in their work.
The framework can be used to conduct an audit of current or past cases, to provide evidence to support planning and commissioning. Professionals taking part in such an audit identify the needs of the children and families in the sample of cases. They also make a note of the services provided in each case. This information is recorded on a simple A4 audit form. The audit group then work together, reading and discussing the completed audit forms and reaching consensus about the common themes and patterns of pressing need. At the end of the exercise the forms have been sorted, or ‘shuffled’, into Need Groups for the sample as a whole. These are the Need Groups that can inform the development of future services.
‘We’ve made huge progress in this authority and we’re so proud Ofsted have said our assessment practice is good. I’m sure we would never have made this progress without using the thinking framework.’ [Practice development officer]
‘I just want every practitioner to experience the aggregation exercise. It’s fantastic in helping people feel confident in their analytical skills and in showing how possible and enriching it is to share our analyses across agencies and disciplines.’ [Workforce development officer]
‘We’ve invested a lot in pattern-changing programmes for women who find it hard to separate from their violent partner. The audit has helped us to understand that the pressing issue is not separating from a violent partner but dealing with the aftermath once the man has left.’ [Commissioner]
‘We were shocked by the extent of parental mental health issues in our sample of cases. We are working with adult services to address this.’ [Service manager]
"This approach is so innovative. I used it in my previous authority where it made a real difference. Now I’m using it here to enhance joint working, improve our engagement with children and their families, and ultimately, deliver a more positive life experience for children." Head of Service, Metropolitan Borough Council