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The statistics that say social work makes a difference

Social work interventions have cut child deaths and improved the life chances for vulnerable young people, the BASW England conference heard last week.

In a presentation centred on “the essential question” of “what have you done for your client today”, Professor Colin Pritchard used two empirical research studies to support his claim that social work makes a provable and statistical difference to people’s lives.

“If we can’t measure it [social work interventions] in some form of numbers, we won’t be heard,” Professor Pritchard of Bournemouth University told the event in Birmingham.

He highlighted his own research showing a 38% decline in violent child deaths in England and Wales between 1974 and 2006 and a separate study which showed how outcomes for former looked after children (LAC), aged between 16 an 24, compare favourably to those permanently excluded from school – another typically disadvantaged group,.

The violent death research, published in the British Journal of Social Work earlier this year, indicated that violent and unexplained deaths plummeted from an average of 136 a year between 1974 and 1976, to 84 each year between 2004 and 2006. The results compare positively with the US, which saw a 2% rise over the period and Germany where the rate of deaths was higher than for England and Wales.

The comparison between looked after children and those excluded from school was undertaken on the basis that it enabled the fortunes of children in care to be considered against another generally disadvantaged group rather than unfairly comparing them to wider societal outcomes. The research revealed that young adults who came into contact with social services through the care system did much better between 16 and 24 than those permanently excluded from school and who did not have social work input into their lives. Former looked after children showed a reduced instance of theft, fighting and drug misuse, saving the state a minimum of £185,000 each through reduced crimes and court appearances alone.

“At last we have a study to compare like with like – we are looking at young men at peak of criminality and we find that looked after children did so much better, even though they came from worse backgrounds, and started from a worse background – because they had social worker support. Other socially disadvantaged children – permanently excluded young people – did worse. It shows that if you treat a problem it gets better, if you don’t it gets worse.”

Reflecting on the reduction in violent child deaths Professor Pritchard suggested the biggest reason for the decline was the Working Together strategy, published in 1979 and requiring closer working between the police and social services. He said this was one reason why violent child deaths had fallen far more markedly than numbers of child deaths more generally.