Is Ofsted’s expansion unwieldy?

When plans to turn Ofsted into a super-inspectorate for children’s services were announced two years ago, many in the social care sector quickly expressed concerns.

For them, the merger of the schools’ inspectorate with parts of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, the Adult Learning Inspectorate, and inspectors of the family courts service Cafcass might see social care slip down the agenda.

But the government has gone ahead as planned and, from 1 April, the new inspectorate, staffed with 1,380 inspectors, will have the task of overseeing the safety of the 11 million children engaged with children’s services, and the quality of the services they receive.

The new regime will build on Ofsted’s current remit to register and inspect schools and early years settings. Children’s homes, residential special schools, boarding schools, secure training centres and secure children’s homes, fostering and adoption services, residential family centres and learning providers for over-16s will all now come within the new Ofsted’s remit.

The move, announced by Gordon Brown in his March 2005 budget speech, is generally perceived to be cost-driven. A product of the Treasury’s so-called bonfire of the quangos, it is one of several mergers designed to move away from an over-regulatory approach towards “lighter touch” inspections. The theory is that those services performing well will have fewer inspections, allowing more resources to be directed at the poorly performing ones.

Soon after the announcement, CSCI and some children’s charities warned that the new inspectorate would be stretching itself too thinly across children’s services. Ofsted’s workforce would almost double, they pointed out, and it would be responsible for inspecting more than half an average council’s services.

CSCI chair Dame Denise Platt called the plan to merge inspectorates – announced just 11 months after the CSCI’s inception – “a farce” and said she feared social care would be marginalised.

Response to consultation

The NSPCC, in its response to the consultation on the merger, said it was concerned that Ofsted, with its “prescriptive” approach to inspection, was unlikely to be able to adopt CSCI’s “user focus outcomes”.

But the government was not about to change course. In December 2005 it confirmed the formation of the body: the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills – still to be known as Ofsted. The details deviated little from the original plans. And last year, legislation scrapping the existing inspectorates was passed in the form of the Education and Inspections Act.

“They didn’t listen and our concerns remain,” says Emily Arkell, the NSPCC’s lead on safeguarding. “It is being heralded as a single inspectorate for children’s services, but there are key services, such as health and most of the youth justice system, that fall beyond it.”

Opponents to the plan did secure one victory: to retain a children’s rights director. “We needed to ensure that CSCI’s focus on children’s views remained,” Arkell says. In one of its last surveys of children’s views, CSCI found 80 per cent of children questioned believed it should be compulsory for inspectors to ask them about the quality of services before passing judgement. One thing they did not ask for was “lighter touch” inspections.

But not everyone in the sector is pessimistic about the merger. Some major players – the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), Cafcass, Baaf Adoption and Fostering, and the Association of Professionals in Education and Children’s Trusts (Aspect) – approve of the plan, citing the logic of creating an integrated inspectorate for integrated children’s services.

However, they are aware of the challenge ahead. As Aspect’s chief executive John Chowcatt admits, there is no escaping the fact that Ofsted’s new chief inspector, Christine Gilbert, has a “mammoth management task”. Alongside her duty to ensure a smooth transfer of staff and functions, Ofsted’s strategic plan for 2006-7 also sets out its goal of reducing its expenditure by 20 per cent by 2008.

Can she do it? According to Baaf chief executive David Holmes, the signs so far are good. “The indication that we have had from both the CSCI and Ofsted is that the two agencies are working very closely together,” he says, describing criticisms that the government rushed through the transfer date as ill-judged. “Once such an announcement is made, it is really important to get on and do it.”

Unresolved issues remain, however, for the hundreds of inspectors affected by the merger. According to Unison, which represents more than 900 – or over two-thirds – of inspectors, uncertainties over pay are having a profound impact on the workforce. National officer for local government Helga Pile explains that, although all inspectors were guaranteed jobs in the new regime, pay inequalities between different inspectors could bring friction and affect morale (see Levelling out).

But ADCS inspection lead David Hawker remains convinced there is a good chance that once these issues are ironed out we will see improvements under the new Ofsted. Another senior social care figure, who did not want to be named, agrees, pointing out that there has been criticism of the quality of CSCI’s inspections.

Crucial first year

The coming year will be telling in terms of whether the inspectorate will simply be too big to operate with any success. One person already convinced Ofsted has bitten off more than it can chew is Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons.

Ramsbotham warns against the plan, arguing that it risks putting costs before safeguarding children. “Nowhere does this worry me more than in secure accommodation” he says, accusing the government of passing the legislation “surreptitiously”. “We never had a debate,” he complains.

Roy Walker, co-chair of the Secure Accommodation Network, which represents 23 of the 26 secure children’s homes in England and Wales, said this month that he was concerned that Ofsted had still not provided any guidance on how the new system would operate. Also a manager of a local authority secure children’s home in Hull, Walker added: “Come the transfer, if I had a child protection issue, an incident involving the police, or even a death, who should I contact? I have heard nothing from Ofsted and am concerned that they have not got their act together.”

Walker says questions remain over whether the specialist teams who currently inspect both secure children’s homes and privately run secure training centres, which accommodate 270 children either on remand or serving custodial sentences, will move to Ofsted but disband after a year. Should this happen, he warns, “standards of inspection would slip”. Ofsted denies that it will.

Lighter touch inspections are expected to be a key feature of the new methodology. Although broadly in favour of the merger, Aspect’s John Chowcatt warns the lighter touch system has already been shown to miss specific incidents and trends in schools. “It basically means hardly any time at all for the inspection,” he says. “In most successful schools, that is not a problem. But, of course, schools don’t always stay the same way forever.”

Ofsted will come before the Education and Skills Select Committee within the next two months. Its chair, Barry Sheerman, is loath to knock its work before it has begun, but says the committee will be keeping a close eye on the transition. 

Inspectors count
The new inspectorate will have 1,380 inspectors from the four different arms. The original Ofsted had 247 school inspectors and 763 child care inspectors. A further 250 will come from CSCI, 116 from Adult Learning Inspectorate and four from the unit of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Court Administration that inspects family court services.

Levelling out (back)
Public sector union Unison says it will be fighting to address the new pay discrepancies the merger brings.

It says CSCI inspectors are on “very different pay structures” to their Ofsted counterparts, with the former getting annual increments while the latter have broad progression.

The protected salary levels of CSCI inspectors mean they will transfer into a higher salary band than the early years inspectors who will work alongside them in the new children’s division. The union is planning to seek a comprehensive pay review to address these issues as part of forthcoming annual pay talks.

Related articles 
Single children’s inspectorate confirmed

Inspection shake-up heralds greater focus on children in care in schools

Ofsted will only get better, by chief inspector Christine Gilbert

Discussion Forum
Visit our Discussion Forum to have your say on Will the new inspection body marginalise social care

This article appeared in the 29 March issue under the headline “Onwards and upwards”

This weeks other feature articles
Keith Brown reveals how Learn to Care’s study undermines Skills for Care’s claim on training funding

Daisy Bogg on how social care can avoid being marginalised in multidisciplinary teams

Change agents: councils’ critical friends

Independant advocates and the Mental Capacity Act


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