Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching

The nature of assessment: The different timeframes of assessment

Timeframes, that is, duration of focus, on assessment may vary with the service, setting or nature of the problem or issue. Timeframes may also vary according to factors already described, including the definition and purpose of assessment and the underpinning theory that informs it.

In some instances assessment begins at first contact, sometimes in response to a crisis, and is relatively short. Assessment may precede intervention or represent a service in its own right, for instance, for a court or where the social work role is solely to assess for separately commissioned services. In other cases, there may be several assessment-focused contacts with service users and carers over an extended period (Crisp et al, 2003). The ongoing approach acknowledges that the needs of clients change over time, especially following critical events (Crisp et al, 2005, p 47). The Salford CSWR study found both time-limited, briefer models and longer-term assessment models (Shardlow et al, 2005, p 47).

An analysis of the textbook summaries provided by Crisp and colleagues (2005) suggests that there are four chief types of assessment timescale:

There is a fifth position in the textbook summaries that sees assessment as inseparable from intervention and service delivery (Crisp et al, 2005, pp 157–8).

Some authors clearly advocate one or other of the four types outlined above, some describe what they have observed, while others advocate one model, typically the ongoing kind, but comment that it is often not achieved because of a range of constraints (Crisp et al, 2005, pp 90, 153).

Three of the four assessment frameworks were found to view assessment as an ongoing process rather than taking place at a fixed point in time (Crisp et al, 2005, p 47). However, particular timeframes may be differentiated within the overall process. Hence one of the three, the children’s framework, distinguishes ‘initial assessment’ – 7 days – and ‘core assessment’ – which must be completed within a maximum of 35 working days (Department of Health, Department for Education and Employment and the Home Office, 2000, para 3.11). The document also refers to ‘specialist’ commissioned assessment.

It should be noted that timeframes and targets for assessment set by government and agencies vary over time and between service user groups and are subject to review. This variation means that practitioners need to know the prevailing requirements of their agency. There may be tensions between some agency target times and some professional timeframes or between either of these and the staff time available.

Questions for educators

  • What types of assessment timeframes are taught and are there opportunities for applying or evaluating the main types?
  • Are students alert to the possible variation in assessment timeframes as set by government, agency or professional criteria and of possible tensions between them?

Next: Assessment processes