CH EVR 002

21st century social work with children and young people with disabilities: Evidence Review (2018)

Published: 25/04/2018

Author: Research in Practice



Helen Wheatley

The purpose of this evidence review is to examine the latest practice, policy and evidence – social work in the 21st century – in the context of reforms to support families with disabled children and young people. The authors are experts, from a range of backgrounds and professions, who share a passion and abiding commitment to working with and for disabled children, young people and their families.

This evidence review is timely in that it gives us a point to pause and consider how all of the current change to the social work role, the drive towards innovation, ‘doing more for less’ and the focus on special educational needs and disability (SEND) will work to improve outcomes. The issues covered here are not new. Nor are they easy to solve with one Act of Parliament, one way of working or one local programme. They require a considered, flexible and collaborative approach. Underpinning this are some essential elements, which are not exclusive to social work or to supporting disabled children and young people. They are common themes that seem to be needed to support any degree of change to make it work and make it stick.

  • Leadership and a skilled workforce with capacity
  • Co-production and shared decision-making
  • Partnership both inside and beyond organisations.


Leaders who are confident, willing to champion change and actively seek and work with partners are essential in pushing forward practice in local areas. Leadership is a recurring theme in many documents about social work and in this publication also. In particular, leaders are needed who can take advantage of the reform process, support teams to work with families to identify issues and take the time to design and test different and creative approaches. The move to the Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan and partnership-working model to review and improve support brings an opportunity to do this. This of course means leadership across organisations too. The requirements for health, education and social care to work with each other and with a much wider set of partners – and, of course, with children, young people and their families – has never been clearer. This includes adult social care and other adult services taking a proactive approach to providing assessment and support. This is welcome if somewhat daunting to local teams.

Chapter 1 examines the mammoth project of social work innovation and looks in particular at innovative working with children and young people with SEND and their families. It describes the work and early findings, which centre on the importance of the workforce, leadership, working together and the participation of families.


Each of the following chapters includes comments on participation and gives us evidence of the slow but sure shift towards the genuine participation, if not full co-production, of disabled young people and families in service planning. The wider reform of social work and the focus on improving support for disabled children, young people and their families presents an opportunity to move to a social model of support that is needs-led and person-centred and to test out these approaches in an open and solution-focused way.

As the authors describe, it is widely thought that embracing the participation of children, young people and families and co-producing support with them can make these tasks both easier (in the long run) and more effective.

The voice of children, young people and families is at the heart of SEND reform led by the requirements of the Children and Families Act 2014. It is seen as essential both to the planning and provision of support to individuals and to strategic planning also, so that the views of those experiencing services and support inform future service design.

In practice, achieving sustainable and meaningful input on any level from children, young people and families who use social care remains the exception rather than the rule in local areas. Chapter 2 looks at the many reasons for this and sets out how local areas, and young people themselves, think this can change.


All social work teams have a role to play in the support of families with disabled children. Chapter 4 examines the safeguarding context for disabled children and young people and sets out how the shift towards children and young people being heard within services, and the move to provide a more holistic and family- centred approach to social work support, means we can start to see how things might change for the better over the coming years. The authors writing here strive, from their different points of focus, to look at how we can collectively use the reforms to push these entrenched issues forward and find ways locally, through partnership working, co-production, leadership and staff development, to take a more effective approach.

In Chapter 5 we have a detailed account from a large local authority of how they went from an entrenched problem, which was having a hugely negative impact on the children and families affected, to finding a way to work across a wide range of agencies and identify a workable and sustainable solution. This example brings together the elements of good leadership and management, willingness of staff to try new approaches, and an understanding of the need to record progress and evidence impact.

Alongside the need for leadership, co-production and partnerships is a need for well-constructed research and evidence to inform planning and practice. This remains a challenge. Practice-based evidence is building but remains scarce and reliant on a few sources. The authors here make the most of available research and the emerging findings from the local work on testing innovative approaches, developing a Local Offer and working with families and partners on EHC plans.

The notion that we live in a world of too much information does not hold true here. Historically, with a few notable exceptions, research, government programmes, local initiatives, the testing of social work reform in children and family services have all, at best, included disabled children and young people as a separate project, or an add-on at some stage in the process. This means many key studies that provide useful information and learning for practice fall short of considering the needs and outcomes for these families.

An area with some of the best evidence to date on what can work to improve local services and support is the point of ‘transition’ for disabled young people as they grow up and make plans for their future. The changes to support they receive can be significant. This often becomes the main focus of their time and efforts rather than their aspirations. This process of transition also brings together all the key issues – personalisation, multi-agency working, leadership, and innovation – into one period of a young person’s life. For young people, their families and the staff supporting them, it can be overwhelming to navigate and coordinate plans and actions. Chapter 3 examines the latest work in local areas to embed decent support for young people planning their futures.

The authors all agree that time and effort is required to make and sustain change. The wide-reaching social work reforms and the current focus on disabled children (and on all children and young people) being well supported to live their lives could offer us the opportunity to make the time to work with others to change practice for the better.

About the editor

Helen worked for a number of years in local and national voluntary organisations deciphering national policy and making it work in local practice to support children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities and their families.

She founded the Transition Information Network and has a particular interest in support for young people growing up into adulthood and reaching their potential.

Professional Standards

PQS:KSS - Relationships and effective direct work | Communication | Child development | Abuse and neglect of children | Child and family assessment | Analysis, decision-making, planning and review | Developing excellent practitioners | Confident analysis and decision-making | Purposeful and effective social work

PCF - Diversity and equality | Knowledge | Intervention and skills | Professional leadership