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Child Social Work Policy and Practice.

Child Social Work Policy and Practice Derek Kirton Sage 2009 224 pages 21.99 [pounds sterling]

If I were new to working in children's services this is the kind of book I would find invaluable. It provides an overview of policy and practice in the UK across a range of subject areas, including assessment, family support, disabled children, residential and foster care and services for children leaving care.

Everything is placed in its recent historical context, covering the period from the passing of the Children Act 1989 to the New Labour years, with their emphasis on the welfare as investment--manifested in, for example, Sure Start, the Children's Fund and Connexions. While some of these initiatives seem a distant memory in these times of austerity, the issues they tackled are ever with us.

Each chapter offers a thoughtful and straightforward treatment of the subject, with plenty of pointers for further investigation and useful summaries and questions for discussion. Kirton also draws attention to critiques of some of the thornier issues in the field. The result is that issues are simplified but, on the whole, not overly so.

In the chapter on assessment, for example, he outlines key policy documents and approaches from recent years--the Assessment Framework, Integrated Children's System, and so on--and their underpinning theoretical framework, but also rehearses the critique that they have ushered in a surveillance society by extending the reach of assessment and information sharing.

On family support, he outlines different levels of prevention and early intervention and acknowledges that evidence of impact and cost-effectiveness of such provision in the UK is, or at least has been until recently, equivocal. At the same time he notes the limitations of structured programmes--parenting support, for instance--in the face of structural inequality and argues that effectiveness can be viewed through a broader lens 'as a means of promoting social cohesion and valuing marginalised groups' (p 49).

Regarding child maltreatment, he elaborates on the causes and consequences of physical and sexual abuse and neglect, but also airs the critique of risk factors and prediction, which centres on the danger of self-fulfilling prophecy and the tendency to generate 'narrow, individualised ways of understanding maltreatment' (p 95).

The final chapter provides a useful and succinct summary of several crosscutting issues for the delivery and governance of children's services. One is managerialism and the emphasis in recent years on setting standards and targets and then collecting data to monitor compliance. The critique is that this has added to bureaucracy and, as far as some commentators are concerned, 'exerted an unhealthy influence over practice' (p 177).

Another cross-cutting theme is workforce development, which has included efforts to harmonise training and foster a better understanding between professions. Kirton contrasts the Scottish Executive, with its recognition of the 'importance of professional autonomy for social workers and therapeutic relationships with service users' (p 183), with policy-makers south of the border, who, he claims, have been slower to address 'the widely recognised problems of proceduralisation, risk aversion and administrative burdens' (p 183). (The attempt to indicate the flavour of policy and practice in each of the four countries of the UK is a feature of the book.)

Kirton ends by urging those who work with children and families, or are training to do so, to remember that 'delivering improved outcomes for children will almost certainly depend significantly on "people issues" within social care' (p186). Such statements are common in our field, and always in danger of becoming cliches, so it is welcome that the book has a good amount to say about what practitioners can and should actually do in the context of their relationships with service users. Those of us who seek to shape children's services would do well to remind ourselves of this when we cannot understand why no one appears to be listening to us.

Inevitably, as an introductory text, the book misses out or skirts over issues that add complexity or that arguably deserve greater attention.

Much more could be said about effective intervention--both the nature of evidence to deem it so but also the substance of discrete programmes and policies. There is little, for example, about how to prevent or address maltreatment, despite several very robust reviews of the evidence being available. Similarly, the challenge of serving so-called 'hard-to-reach' families is discussed, including the reasons for their apparent failure to engage in services--being too busy, resenting intrusion, not trusting professionals, and so on. But this needs turning on its head and elaborating--why are services so often hard to access, and what tangible strategies can be used to recruit and retain families? This is a critical 'people issue' and one on which there is now a reasonably good body of evidence.

A longer or slightly more advanced text would also want to explore the tensions inherent in children's services. Kirton rightly points out, for instance, that Family Group Conferences 'involve a shift in decision-making power from the state and professionals to the family' (p 56). He is suitably cautious about their impact and could have noted that at least two experimental evaluations cast doubt on whether they improve child outcomes. Whether this matters depends on how we balance the value placed on users' rights and partnership with that placed on outcomes and value for money.

Similarly, the anxiety about overloading practitioners with data collection tasks is well placed, but this needs to be set against the desire of most practitioners to know whether what they do is effective and the fact that some kind of continuous feedback system is likely to be one of the better ways of telling them this.

Given these observations I would suggest that this book be read alongside or at least be followed rapidly by something more substantial, such as Sheldon and Macdonald's (2009) A Textbook of Social Work, which goes into greater depth on theory and evidence. Readers should also be aware of the important developments since Kirton's book was published, not least the government-sponsored reviews by Eileen Munro, Frank Field, Clare Tickell and Graham Allen. A useful reminder, if we needed one, of how fleeting so many initiatives are and the value of raising our eyes to focus on perennial issues.


Sheldon B and Macdonald G, A Textbook of Social Work, London: Routledge, 2009

Nick Axford is a Senior Researcher, The Social Research Unit at Dartington, UK
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Author:Axford, Nick
Publication:Adoption & Fostering
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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