A misguided form of torture
Troubled children and families often require considerable support. Not just from schools but from a range of agencies, and this can include social services, the police, the educational psychology service, behaviour advisers and medical services. There will eventually be a "team around the child" meeting, where everyone, parents included, sits round a table and discusses the difficulties the child is experiencing. Notes will be compared, each agency will be listened to, and then decisions will be taken about possible ways forward. In reality, of course, some people won't be able to attend the meeting, others won't have received the notes from the previous meeting, a few will have forgotten to write up their notes, and the meeting itself will ramble around in circles because people don't have enough information to make effective decisions. A new date is made and the cycle repeats itself.
Then, a while ago, somebody had a good idea. It was called a CAF, or common assessment form, which in one variety or another most local authorities use. The CAF would be available, confidentially, to everyone involved with the case. They would be able to access the form online, put their notes on it, get up to speed with everything everybody else had written, and be fully up to date by the time a team meeting was called. The original CAF was commendably brief, and didn't take long to complete.
But whoever invented the form must be weeping into their beer by now. The CAF has changed. It has grown longer. And a colleague was recently showing me ... wait for it ... version 15. It starts with a page of notes telling you what it's for, who can fill it in and what it can't be used for. All fair enough. Then we get to page two, where there are 20 boxes to be completed about the child and the unlucky soul having to fill it in, ranging from their immigration status to whether they've been checked by the Criminal Records Bureau. Next, a page asking for family composition, with 15 questions and a note asking whether an interpreter will be required, followed by a long section requesting details of all the agencies involved with the child and what they have done thus far.
By the time you hit page five, you realise it's a good thing you took GCSE English because there are large boxes needing vast amounts of information. Then back to the tick boxes and the endless demands for personal information: is the child a traveller of Gypsy, Roma or Irish heritage? Are they white, black, white and black Caribbean, black and white African, black African? And so on, through another 20 permutations. Thankfully, it doesn't hit the level of the last government survey I saw, which questioned whether my teachers were male, female or gender unknown.
By page 18, I was wondering if this was all a plot. Make the form complicated enough and no one will bother to fill it in. If no one fills it in, children won't be referred. If children aren't referred, everybody can pretend there isn't a problem.
At my school, the Senco always completed the CAFs, and I recently talked to her about version 15. She was scathing, saying it had grown out of all proportion and if she wasn't careful, all her time could easily be used up doing paperwork. Even when she completes a CAF, no one else seems to, and it has become another useless bureaucratic exercise.
What a shame that such a sensible idea has ultimately gone so adrift.
Mike Kent is a retired primary school head (firstname.lastname@example.org).