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Referrals to social workers ‘less likely to progress if made on weekend’

Posted on 12/07/2016 by

Child Protection1

Analysis of social work decision-making identifies potential factors in whether children will receive further support

Referrals to children’s services at the weekend are less likely to progress to further action than those made on weekdays, new analysis has suggested.

Those made via email are also less likely to progress than those made in person or on the phone, according to a report published by the Department for Education.

Researchers from the Behavioural Insights Team looked at referrals and care involving approximately 49,000 children from 2010 to 2014 in three local authorities.

They also identified that:

  • Referrals involving black, Asian or mixed-race children are also “significantly more likely” to progress to further action than those involving white children, and are more likely to become a serious case.
  • In two local authorities an increase in average team caseload was associated with a lower proportion of referrals progressing. In the other, the reverse was true.
  • Referrals from internal sources are most likely to progress to further action, and develop into a serious case.
  • There was no difference between the decision-making patterns made by agency and permanent social workers in the one local authority for which there was data, “despite what might be perceived as different incentive and motivation structures”.


The report stressed how contextual information would need to be taken into account in further research, and that because the information was only taken from three local authorities, it was “not possible to know whether the findings would hold more broadly”.

“The staff who work at the weekend might behave in a systematically different way from those who work in the week. Without knowing the characteristics of staff making each decision we would not be able to ‘disentangle’ this from the effect of a referral coming in on a weekend day,” the research said.

It added: “The lower referral rate for written referrals could have at least two possible explanations. The effect could be on social worker decision-making at the point of referral, with written referrals carrying less weight or capturing less attention from busy frontline staff. Equally, they could be artefacts of the decisions made by referrers themselves – with referrers picking up the phone when they have serious concerns, and saving email referrals for cases they are less immediately concerned about.”

Influences on decision-making

However, the report said the findings showed it should be possible “to develop stronger, evidence-based feedback mechanisms to social work practitioners to support their decision making”.

The report sets out 10 key “areas in which variables were observed to influence decision-making by social work practitioners”.

Researcher said some of these were intuitive, “while others hint at less obvious influences that might be at play in decision-making”.

The areas were:

  • Day of the week
  • Social worker caseload
  • Referral source
  • Referral method
  • Ethnicity and language
  • Other presenting child characteristics
  • Deprivation
  • Social worker experience
  • Social worker employment type
  • Time and system changes

The length of social worker’s submissions to local authority data systems, and particular words used in the analysis, were also seen as indicators of a referral progressing to further action. The research analysed ‘free text’ used by social workers when submitting their actions in local authority data systems. It found ‘Betting’, ‘genital mutilation’ and ‘poverty’ were words, when included by social workers in their analysis of the case, linked with progressing to further action in a “statistically significant way”. The longer the submissions, the more likely it was the case would progress to further action, the study suggested.

Standardised aids

The report said the data raised questions about social work practice and decision making. These included whether social workers are influenced by unconscious bias, whether shift patterns affect decision making, and if the effort an individual goes through when making a referral affected the outcome of it.

It added: “The analysis shows that there is also potential for the introduction of standardised decision-making aids (informed by the data and experienced professionals) that can better structure and enable professional judgment, helping to guard against some of the behavioural factors that may cloud decision making.”

Source: Community Care