Ofsted’s takeover of the inspection of services for vulnerable children was announced in 2005’s Budget and took place this year.
Between times, significant worries were expressed by the Commission for Social Care Inspection, which was to lose responsibility for children’s social care inspection, and some charities over whether vulnerable children would receive sufficient priority.
After all, as Ofsted’s strategic plan for 2007-10 said in April, the services it now inspects cater for 15 million people, just 300,000 of whom are children receiving social care.
The man charged with allaying these fears is Michael Hart, Ofsted’s director for children, who took responsibility for all the functions that transferred from CSCI. These include regulated children’s social care services, such as open and secure children’s homes, fostering and adoption services and residential special schools, and secure training centres. He also manages social care inspectors, who contribute to the joint area review process, assess councils’ and their partners’ overall children’s services performance. And his team inspect the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, a role previously held by the courts inspectorate.
His message is one of continuity for social care: “We’ve tried to make sure that all the inspection programmes have continued much as they were previously.”
He says 240 people transferred from CSCI and most are doing the same roles as before.
In terms of social care priorities, Ofsted’s strategic plan reflects government policy, proposing targets for the organisation on improving placement stability for looked-after children and reducing turnover among care staff.
Hart says: “We need to ensure our inspection process is contributing to those targets. One of the most important areas of policy is looked-after children so we need to make sure we can influence that agenda.”
He also puts to rest rumours about Ofsted scrapping the specialist inspection team for secure settings, which is responsible for Laschs and STCs, replacing them with generic inspectors and prompting fears of a loss of expertise.
He says: “The specialist inspectors who go into the secure estate have continued that function and our intention at the moment is that they will continue to do so.”
In fact, Ofsted is increasing the number of secure settings inspectors by 11, by training staff working in other areas.
The inquests this year into the deaths of Adam Rickwood, who committed suicide at Hassockfield STC after being restrained, and Gareth Myatt, who died while being restrained at Rainsbrook STC, sparked a heated debate on the use of restraint in secure training centres.
The Myatt case jury found inadequate monitoring of restraint by the Youth Justice Board contributed to his death, while the government announced an independent review on the issue in July.
Hart stresses that Ofsted’s role is to ensure the use of restraint conforms to STC rules – themselves a source of controversy after the government amended them this summer to permit restraint for reasons of “good order and discipline”, as well as to prevent escape or harm.
But he adds: “What we hope is that the [government] review will highlight how the safety of children can be assured on those instances where children are restrained.”
On Cafcass, he says one of Ofsted’s priorities will be ensuring greater consistency in frontline practice to address problems highlighted in previous reports by the courts inspectorate.
Hart’s grounding for his current role is a career in teaching and local government education and children’s services departments, which he said has had a focus on disadvantaged and disabled children.
This included working to integrate children previously in special schools into mainstream education. He also led on developing extended schools and children’s centres at Harrow Council, west London.
A key challenge for Hart and his fellow Ofsted directors will be managing a declining budget – an object hazard for all inspectorates, given the government’s emphases on public sector efficiency and lighter touch regulation.
Ofsted’s budget is expected to fall by over 20% from 2007-8 to 2008-9 to £186m. This constitutes a decline of over one-third since 2003-4, when the functions currently exercised by the inspectorate cost £266m.
Hart says spending proposals for 2008-9 are being examined by government and insists: “A priority for us is protecting children, particularly the most vulnerable children, and we would want to make sure they are not affected.”
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This article appeared in the 18 October issue under the headline “Business as usual”