Writing Analytical Assessments in Social Work

Writing Analytical Assessments in Social Work

by Chris Dyke

Paperback(Second Edition)

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You write something in order that it can be read, not in order that it can be written - write reports that achieve and illuminate.

The best-selling Writing Analytical Assessments in Social Work guides you through the principles of good writing and methodically shows you:

  • how to analyse
  • how to structure the process of writing an assessment (researching, chronologising, informed data-gathering, putting it all together), and
  • how to get this done under time constraints.

The new edition goes further than just teaching writing skills by exploring the practical and psychological barriers to good practice. It also looks at how you turn good analysis into useful recommendations - making it something useful for the family - by applying the same analytical, critical thinking.

Written in an accessible way and packed with examples and case studies, this book is both practically-minded and constantly returning to first principles: reminding you what it is you are trying to achieve and teaching you how to write reports that can be read by families and judges alike. You will learn how to write high quality, useful and timely assessments without becoming mechanistic or managerial. This book kills the myth of a trade-off between efficiency and quality of work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781912508327
Publisher: Critical Publishing
Publication date: 03/25/2019
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 6.15(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Chris is a Lecturer in Social Work at Goldsmith’s University, studying the decision-making process around violent offenders. He has also researched the outcomes of court proceedings, the construction of autism, and the sociology of values, religion and immigration. Chris worked as a local authority social worker for nine years and as an independent social worker for three years. He writes regularly on social work practice and social issues.

Chris believes in the necessity of challenging pervasive views, especially his own.

Read an Excerpt

Writing Analytical Assessments in Social Work

By Chris Dyke

Critical Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Chris Dyke
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-911106-08-1


Chronologies: The start and heart of a good assessment


• How chronologies fit into assessments.

• Advantages to writing a chronology first.

• How chronologies help you build relationships.

• How chronologies help avoid 'start-again syndrome'.

• How to put a chronology together.

• Why it can't be automated.

• How chronologies help you analyse.

• Why (and how) to focus a chronology on the person.

• The differences between chronologies and case notes.

• Chronologies for the Family Court.

• Examples of chronologies for different stages of your work.


Assessments are an exercise in professional judgement. They can't be produced by a computer, or 'pulled through' from case notes and other documents. They require a social worker to use their knowledge, their skills and their professional discretion to fashion raw information into a useful piece of work.

Chronologies are also exercises in professional judgement. They don't require the same depth of analysis as the assessment, but they are an indispensable part of it. Just like an assessment, a chronology requires professional knowledge, skill and discretion. And just like an assessment, they can't be produced by a computer. They too require a social worker's skill.

So why, in many teams, are chronologies treated as an administrative task, a tiresome bureaucratic exercise to be done as an afterthought? Why are so many teams prepared to delegate chronologies to unqualified staff, who would never be expected to write an assessment? Why do so many workers say 'I've done the assessment, now I've got to do the chronology' when the one is impossible without the other?

Part of this is a misunderstanding about what a chronology is for and what case notes are for. In this chapter I hope to put this confusion to bed.

I've included this chapter first because a chronology is the first thing I ever write when I'm writing an assessment. While there's much more to an assessment than just the facts, without the facts you don't have much.

A chronology tells the story. It should tell the reader what's happened to a child, what's happened to an adult, what's happened to a family. It doesn't analyse in itself, but it gives you the raw materials for analysis. If you haven't done a chronology, you haven't done an assessment.

I have used 'fragments' of chronologies in this chapter, to make one specific point at a time. At the end of the chapter, I have included some examples of 'full' chronologies for fictional cases.


Different teams will use chronologies differently, and many adults' services teams don't use them at all. You may always find a use for a chronology, or you may find it unnecessary (when your role is entirely around meeting a physical disability need, for example). However, I would strongly recommend a chronology for any case involving an element of investigation or establishing a history.


Over the next few sections I'll argue for why writing the chronology first is essential. In Chapter 3, I'll show how this is not only realistic (even when faced with a high caseload) but an important part of managing your workload.

For clarity: 'doing the chronology first', doesn't mean the finished article. Usually this means a rough copy, sometimes a scribbled set of notes, always a 'working document' that you'll update before you complete a report.

You may work on duty desks where you have to head out in response to a new emergency. You'll have a matter of minutes between hearing the family name for the first time, and leaving the office. It would be understandable to claim 'I've got no time for a chronology, I've got an emergency to deal with/a child to protect/a vulnerable adult to accommodate'. But remember that when you get 'out there', you have a decision to a make. A decision that needs to be based on as much useful information as possible. While it may sound daunting to spend time working on a chronology when an emergency is unfolding, it's not as daunting as making a major decision based on incomplete information.

In that situation, it helps to spend some time reading the referral, scanning any previous records on the service users involved, noting down some key dates and pieces of information (and creating a genogram - see Chapter 2), and contacting other professionals (where possible) to ask any crucial questions about gaps in my knowledge. Your 'chronology' might be little more than a scrawled set of points on a notepad, but it will still be invaluable, and it gives you a start towards producing a 'formal' chronology later on.

Where you're not so pressed for time, you can spend longer on a typed chronology – time you would otherwise have spent later on anyway.

Whatever the situation, I'd always recommend starting a chronology before leaving the office.


A lot of your work can go more smoothly because you've done a chronology. One of the most common complaints I've heard is: 'I hate having a new social worker, it's always the same – I've got to tell my whole story to another person, start again from scratch.'

When you work with a family, usually you won't be the first professional to do so. You might be the latest in a long line of professionals, and by no means the last. There will always be some information that is lost to you – sitting only in the head of the social worker who heard it. However, if you're a local authority social worker (or working for a similarly large organisation), you will often have a wealth of old files, reports and chronologies at your disposal.

This is about much more than efficiency or thoroughness. It's about showing the person in front of you the basic respect of bothering to read about them before you visit. You're not meeting them in your personal capacity, you're meeting as the representative of an organisation. If your organisation knows something, you should know it.

Social workers frequently complain of the lack of time to meet service users. This makes it even more vital to make the most of every minute with someone. The time should be spent either learning about someone or helping them (hopefully both). Sometimes this will be indirect, sometimes achieved in a roundabout way. But a visit should never be happening just to say you've done a visit. You certainly shouldn't be wasting someone's time, and showing them a lack of basic consideration, by asking them things that you could have learned from your own files.

This is also about something more fundamental – how social workers come across to their service users and to the public at large. Aldridge (2002) catalogues a range of slurs used against social workers in the press: 'naïve', 'bumbling' and 'incompetent' come up frequently.

The British tabloids have a distinctive style, and social workers are not the only professionals to incur their wrath. But the 'meme' of the social worker as an incompetent professional persists. Other professionals might be slandered as 'arrogant', or 'greedy' but an attack on the competence of the profession is much more damaging – it undermines the trust that wider society (and individual families) have in the social worker's ability to come to a wise decision. This continual demeaning of the profession reached the point where it was necessary for the president of the Family Division of the High Court to spell out that social workers should be treated as experts in their field (BASW 2014), in an effort to encourage public and professionals alike to regard a social worker's word as valuable.

Every social worker has a part to play in reversing this damaging portrayal. Every social worker has the responsibility to show genuine competence: to their service users, to their colleagues and to society at large. This starts with the first contact a social worker makes.

Consider these two scenarios:

Scenario 1

You are working in an adults' substance misuse team. Mr Smith comes to see a duty worker, feeling very depressed because he has just relapsed and been arrested for a public order offence while drunk.

Mr Smith is angrily asking to see someone, so you rush downstairs. You ask him his address and phone number. He replies angrily, saying he gave these details to your colleague earlier that day. You ask him if he's relapsed before. He says yes, he's been battling alcoholism for 20 years and since he first stopped drinking five years ago, he's relapsed three times. He says that you should know this since he's been in this office each time. He says he's fed up telling the same story to different people. He agrees to come back for an appointment but he shakes his head as he leaves. He doesn't turn up to see a counsellor the next week.

Scenario 2

You're a duty worker in a children's safeguarding team. Your manager asks you to go to a school to interview 12-year-old Eric who said his father hit him with a belt. Your manager tells you to get a move on as the police are already on their way.

However, you still make sure you check the system and quickly scan the last few assessments. This takes you 20 minutes. You note down the dates of three previous occasions Eric has said his father beats them, and one previous occasion where his older brother Darren said their father beats them. In each case, the investigation was ended after the children said they'd made it up and the teacher was exaggerating what they'd said.

When you get to the school, Eric says it didn't really happen, the teacher had made it up, and there was no problem at home. The police (who don't know about two of the previous allegations) are content to leave it at that. You ask Eric about the other times he's said this. Eric says that Darren told him that when he told the school, dad beat him even harder. He says Darren told him never to let a social worker know what happened, or he'd hit him too – he doesn't want the family broken up.

It's not a case of 'I don't have the time to read the files and start a chronology'; it's a case of 'I don't have time not to'. Having to do the same work later, after a problem has got worse, wastes a lot more time than the minutes spent developing a basic understanding of the family history.

Imagine an exchange like this:

'... and then he punched me, and walked out shouting names at me from outside. So I started having a drink after that, and I guess I got very drunk and angry. I know I shouldn't but it just happened that way.'

'I'm sorry to hear about that. It sounds like what happened three years ago, with Andrew.'

'Yeah, yeah it does. I hadn't thought about it like that.'

Immediately, on a first visit, this service user knows you've at least done your homework. She knows that you care enough to save her the discomfort of telling you her life story all over again. She knows you're thinking about patterns in her life, maybe trying to find ways to break a cycle (the above exchange leads naturally into a conversation about this). She also knows that you know something about her.

Showing you've prepared for a visit doesn't prove to a service user that you know everything about them, but it does show that you know something.

This matters where a service user isn't telling the truth.


While there are many reasons someone would avoid telling the truth to a social worker, two (non-exhaustive) categories stand out:

1. Because they don't trust the social worker to make good use of their personal information.

2. Because they have caused someone else harm.

In the first case, showing an understanding of the family history is one of many ways a social worker can demonstrate their competence and integrity.

In the second case, while the interviewee may still try to mislead the social worker, the knowledge that the social worker will at least check their facts may play on their mind. Someone is less likely to tell the social worker 'I've always been a law-abiding citizen, I don't believe in violence' when they have a long history of violent offences and they know the social worker is in the habit of checking information.

Some readers might find it implausible that someone would try and deceive a social worker so brazenly. But it happens a lot.

When you write basic chronologies, based on reading the case file, you'll often be left with something like this:


Nov 2014
Mr Jones hit Mrs Jones in front of James and

Rhona. No further action taken.

Feb 2015
Mr Jones hit Mrs Jones in front of James and Rhona. Social

Services concluded no further action, but that a child protection
conference would take place if it happened again.

Aug 2015
Mr Jones hit Mrs Jones during a drunken argument.

Social Services warned him that they would hold a child
protection conference if this happened again.

Dec 2015
Mr Jones strangled Mrs Jones in front of James and Rhona. Social

Services completed an investigation and warned the couple that they
would hold a child protection conference if this happened again.

(this referral) Mr Jones hit Mrs Jones ...

On your first visit, unless you're telling Mr and Mrs Jones about arranging a child protection conference, you lose a lot of credibility. In this (basic) example, it's highly unlikely that the previous social workers in August and December have read the files.

Similarly, chronologies can guard against 'start-again syndrome'. Marion Brandon and colleagues (2008) coined this term for neglect cases where social workers are satisfied by positive changes without realising that this is the same small change that has happened before.

Writing this chronology, two things leap out:

1. A support service may have little long-term effect, judging from the three previous periods of neglect followed by short-term improvement followed by deterioration.

2. The periods of time between improvement and deterioration are shortening (13 months; eight months; four months ...), suggesting that the family may be finding it even harder to cope.

We can experience a cognitive bias called an 'Availability Heuristic' where we place more emphasis on the information most available to us, and find information more accessible if it is 'vivid' and emotionally charged (Tversky and Kahneman 1973). In social work, this means we are more likely to form a view based on what we have recently seen and heard ourselves (e.g., on a home visit, talking to the family, or the most recent referral) than from information that is 'dry' and detached (e.g., written in professional jargon in an old file), even when the latter may better represent the service user's experience. This is linked to the 'Picture Superiority Effect' (Nelson et al. 1976), where we are more likely to hold a notion in our mind if we have experienced it as an image rather than as written words. A social worker may go on a visit to a beautiful, clean home, talk to polite, articulate parents and a child who says that 'everything's fine', and come back with a positive impression of the family. Even when they later consider the long list of violent incidents at the home, the 'vividness' of their own experience is stronger.

But isn't this just an argument for reading the old case files, not for doing a chronology? Not quite:

• A chronology 'nudges' you towards a comprehensive review of the history. When you start writing a chronology, and find an important gap, your curiosity leads you to ask questions about what happened during that gap. When you find a reference to another part of the country, you naturally want to check their records (and make the relevant requests). When you find a partial but important reference (e.g., a long time admitted to hospital; a period in care) you want to find out why this happened and what came of it. It doesn't give you all the answers, but it encourages you to start asking the questions.

• The lining-up of information so you can see what has happened before/after particular events. This doesn't prove causation but it suggests possibilities for you to explore.


Even before you've started your assessment in earnest, you can include:

Dates of birth. The most important things that ever happen in someone's life are their own birth, death and the start/end of major relationships, and the same events for those closest to them. Including the dates of birth has an interesting 'nudge' effect as well: it encourages you to consider the time between that date and now. For example, including parents' dates of birth starts you asking: what's happened since? If they were born in 1980, their child was born in 2008 and the first referral is 2010, then what happened between 1980 and 2010? As ever, a chronology doesn't give you the answers, but it encourages you to ask the questions.

• Whose dates of birth to include is a matter of judgement. You might start with both parents' dates of birth, by default. However, if you're also considering the roles of the grandparents, and their own lifestyles, then you'd probably include grandparents' dates of birth too. I once saw a chronology starting in 1900 with the birth of the great-great-great-grandparents. It made sense for that case: a family with an ingrained and complex pattern of sexual abuse down the generations. It's important to know where an adult has come from, what their experience has been, and whether current problems are new or 'one-off's or whether they represent something persistent going back decades.


Excerpted from Writing Analytical Assessments in Social Work by Chris Dyke. Copyright © 2016 Chris Dyke. Excerpted by permission of Critical Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Help us to help you!, vii,
Meet the author, ix,
Introduction, 1,
1. Chronologies: The start and heart of a good assessment, 7,
2. Genograms and ecomaps: Knowing the networks, 36,
3. How to get it done: Planning your report in the real world, 44,
4. Writing, 67,
5. Analysis, 85,
6. Summary, 114,
Appendix: Writing for child care proceedings, 121,
Index, 131,

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