Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching

The context of assessment: Language, communication and assessment

Communications are fundamental to social work practice and to assessment in particular, and their importance was recognised by the educational institutes consulted in the Salford CSWR study (Shardlow et al, 2005, p 23). The teaching and learning of communication skills is the subject of a separate SCIE Guide (Diggins, 2004). The three commissioned sources for this guide paid special attention to language and assessment, from which four issues emerged:

The Salford study heard from service users and carers about the importance of using plain English and avoiding professional and organisational jargon. Plain English does not in itself assure effective communication since English is not the first language of some service users and carers. Furthermore, some service users will seek to be provided with a service in their first language. The All Wales Framework for Assessment in a Social Work Degree expects understanding and promotion of assessment in the national language of the service users and carers (Welsh Assembly Government CCS and SSIW, 2005, App 1).

Some service users with hearing impairment require assessment to be conducted in a non-verbal language. For assessment with this group the social worker needs appropriate signing skills or an interpreter, and interpreters are also needed for assessments being undertaken between parties with different languages. The service user and carer respondents in the Salford CSWR study commented on the importance of trained, independent interpreters and the need for social workers to be skilled in their use.

There are other communications issues. A service user’s understanding of assessment or participation in the process may be affected, for example, by learning disability, mental illness or impaired memory. In addition, some methods of assessment use written forms, sometimes involving completion by the service user or carer. Plain language, multi-lingual versions and intelligible expression will help to make forms accessible but levels of literacy or cognition may vary and require sensitive handling. Furthermore, it is important that provision exists for people whose vision is too poor to read forms or written information.

Given the fundamental importance of communication in effective assessment, it is remarkable that only two of the books reviewed by Crisp and colleagues discussed assessment in relation to service users whose first language is not English. And only one book, from the USA, referred to using interpreters in assessment, including mention of signing interpreters for hearing impaired clients (Crisp et al, 2005, pp 25–6).

The frameworks for assessment of children and families and for older people refer to the needs of service users or carers whose language is not English and to communication with people with sensory disability. The fact that the two others do not is a reminder of the significant gaps that can occur in what otherwise may be taken as authoritative guidance. Clearly, these particular frameworks do not individually offer a comprehensive blueprint for teaching and learning in assessment. With the exception of those mentioned, the textbooks and assessment frameworks provided a poor basis for teaching to meet the expectations of the NOS that social workers should ‘recognise and facilitate each person’s use of language and form of communication of their choice’ (Key role 1, 3c, p 20).

Electronic forms of communication, using computers, the internet and other text-based or voice-based media continue to expand and feature increasingly in assessment. Social workers have growing access to online sources of information relevant to assessment and some users and carers communicate with agencies by email. Furthermore, websites offering online self-assessment of eligibility for social care services are appearing (Kent County Council, 2006). These new methods seek to offer choice, independence and flexibility in assessment for services. To achieve these goals without adding to social exclusion, the designers and operators of the systems have to contend with similar issues of language and communication to those raised above, along with questions of service user access to the technology and skills in its use.

Question for educators

  • What learning materials and opportunities are available to students to ensure that they understand and can act upon the multiple issues of language and communication in assessment?