Practice Guides: supporting evidence-based practice in children’s social care

Practice Guides: supporting evidence-based practice in children’s social care

The commitment to developing new national Practice Guides in line with the “Stable Homes, Built on Love” vision marks a significant policy shift by the Department for Education (DfE).  

A new Children’s Social Care National Framework (CSCNF) is being created to provide clarity about the outcomes Children’s Social Care should achieve. This will be supported by new Practice Guides which will distil the strongest evidence from the UK and abroad, setting out what is known about how best to achieve the objectives in the CSCNF. The guides will provide practical recommendations for those leading work to design and commission services at local level, and will also have implications for national policy makers as they design policy and programmes.  

Achieving the right balance between local autonomy and central direction has been an ongoing debate, with compelling arguments on both sides. Through planned reforms, DfE is seeking to provide central clarity and direction on those services shown to be effective with the aim of improving outcomes for children and families across the country. 

Our view is that this is an important step: we know that interventions shown to be effective are not always available or offered in local areas for a variety of reasons. For example, our recent work on Family Group Conferences (FGCs) has shown that when used at pre-proceedings stage, FGCs can keep children with their families and out of care, but we know that they are not always offered. Local leaders need to design services that meet local needs, and to do this effectively they need high-quality evidence about what works, for whom and in what context; this is often missing in children’s social care.  

There are also examples of widely used and popular approaches which have not been shown to improve outcomes. For example, Trauma Informed Care is widely used in children’s social care social care yet our previous work has found there is currently no empirical basis to suggest that trauma-informed practice on its own, could directly result in demonstrable improvements in young people’s longer-term life chances.  

Practice Guides will support leaders in planning and delivering effective help and support for children and families by providing clarity about the support and interventions shown to improve outcomes. Foundations will  lead this important and timely work in partnership with DfE and collaborate with the Children’s Social Care National Practice Group overseeing the guideline development. 

In early scoping work, we heard concerns expressed by many in the sector who feel they already have too much guidance.  The busy landscape of guidance, ‘best practice’ and sometimes conflicting advice means that children’s social care urgently needs definitive guidelines. The fact that Practice Guides will be based on high quality robust impact evaluation summarised via comprehensive and rigorous systematic review will mean they are different to much of the existing guidance. Ensuring they are  reinforced by national systems such as  funding, workforce training and inspection regimes will also be important in ensuring they are used.   

Practice Guides will also draw on other forms of evidence and expert insights to ensure recommendations are useful to the intended audience, recommend how effective interventions can be successfully implemented and will be sensitive to lived experience of vulnerable and diverse children and families.  

Our vision is to create something akin to NICE guidelines for Children’s Social Care, where support for vulnerable children receives the same rigorous underpinning as seen in fields like healthcare or teaching. This isn’t about adopting a medical model for working with families, rather it is about applying the same rigour and systemic implementation to social care interventions that we expect in health services.  

We are aware of the challenges in trying to achieve this. The limitations of the existing evidence base in particular means there are many areas where we’ve heard that guidance would be helpful (such as supporting families affected by domestic abuse or extra familial harm) but the strong evidence needed to develop guidance is lacking.  In many areas of practice, the evidence base is in its infancy and while excellent work is happening to better understand the problems children and families face, we believe only certain types of research tells us conclusively what works and we can only base Practice Guides on this evidence.    

This endeavour will only succeed if it is linked to a robust long-term programme of evidence generation.  We hope the sector will take learnings from the health sector, where NICE identify evidence gaps which trigger National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR)-funded studies and NICE guidelines become embedded into systems and practice. Foundations will play a central role in conducting and funding studies to generate the evidence needed for future practice guides, and this will need to be a significant programme of work with other research organisations involved as well. This also requires working with policy makers to put in place high quality evaluation and avoid short term initiatives which are not robustly evaluated for impact.   

We also know that producing and disseminating guidance alone will not lead to change in services or practice. Improving or developing local services requires time, capacity and resources, all of which are in short supply.  It can be difficult to identify the right interventions which meet the needs of families and also fits with the skills and capacity of the local workforce. In addition, even when there is good evidence that an intervention can work, how it is delivered plays an important part in whether or not it produces the intended results.  It’s crucial that local authorities have the support they need for delivery and implementation if we want to see improved outcomes. Overcoming these issues will require long-term commitment to create the conditions for success including sufficient capacity and resource at local level.  This also requires aligning national levers such as funding and inspection to make the guidelines part of the mechanisms that regulate local services and practice.  

We are pleased to be embarking on this journey by publishing two funding calls today which we feel represent a first step in an ambitious, long-term endeavour with potential to improve outcomes for vulnerable children. Information is below. Through the application of evidence-based programmes and interventions, embraced by senior leaders and commissioners, we can create a stronger future in Children’s Social Care. 

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