Project Dates: Sept 2011 – 2014

Research Team: Dr Piers Fleming, Dr Chris Beckett, Dr Laura Biggart, Peter Jordan

Funder: UEA


When the Munro review of child protection in England identified ‘unmanaged anxiety about being blamed . . . as a significant factor in encouraging a process-driven compliance culture’ (2011, p. 107), it was expressing a concern that already had a long pedigree in the social work literature.  Much of the literature on this topic, however, is open to the charge that the social work profession is an interested party: of course social workers would say that it was unproductive to blame social workers. This project, which has generated one publication but is still ongoing, is an attempt to use the techniques of experimental psychology to explore the impact of blame anxiety under controlled experimental conditions.


The initial phase of the study compared social work students and social work practitioners, inviting them to comment on the risks present in a hypothetical case scenario. 

One difficulty with this area of research is that, while risk ratings can be compared between different groups, it is impossible to say what the ‘real’ risk is, and therefore impossible to determine which group has judged the case more accurately.  For a second phase of the study, undertaken with newly qualified social workers, a different measure was used.  Participants were asked to read a fairly complex case scenario and then answer a questionnaire which measured accuracy of recall. Two different kinds of information were included: firstly information about the children and their families, secondly information about procedures. Participants were asked at the outset to answer questions which provided a measure of their level of preoccupation with personal blame. We hypothesised that those preoccupied with blame might have focused on the procedural issues, at the expense of child-related issues. No conclusive support was found for this hypothesis.  However the data suggested that recall type could be useful in understanding subsequent judgements.

A subsequent iteration of this second experiment would introduce, first, a standard general anxiety measure, in order to differentiate blame preoccupation with general anxiety, and second, a measure that invites participants to assess courses of action after reading a case study. These courses of action again can be divided into those that are directly related to the child and family, and those which are procedural.


The initial study found that the largest variation in risk judgements between practitioners and students was for emotional aspects of risk, where student scores were significantly higher. However for practicing social workers, the perceived likelihood of being blamed was significantly positively correlated with risk judgements (that is to say: the greater chance of blame, the higher the risk rating). No such correlation was found for students. 


What are the optimum environmental conditions for social workers to make judgements about children in conditions of uncertainty? Practitioners, policy-makers and politicians have different views on this but there is little in the way of “hard” data. This project aims to use the techniques of experimental psychology to explore factors that affect decision-making. It has the potential to have a significant impact in the field because it does not rely on the intuitions of practitioners, valuable as these are, but tests the effect of different factors in controlled conditions.


Fleming, P., Biggart, L. and Beckett, C. (2014: advance access) Effects of Professional Experience on Child Maltreatment Risk Assessments: A Comparison of Students and Qualified Social Workers.  British Journal of Social Work doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcu090