Ever since the Munro review raised questions about the inspection process for child protection, Ofsted has played a fast-moving game of change.
It was swift to toughen up its unannounced inspections of child protection and make them more child focused. The result has been more councils rated “inadequate” than many were expecting which has sent ripples of fear around local authorities.
But it has been equally swift to back down in some areas.
Last week the watchdog’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw announced that Ofsted was no longer going to have separate inspections of looked after children and child protection services. Instead they would consult on a new single, combined framework.
Wilshaw admitted it made sense that if social workers and professionals were expected to focus on the child’s overall journey into and out-of-care, then inspection needed to follow suit.
But Wilshaw also announced Ofsted would defer the proposed multi-inspectorate child protection inspections (that were to be launched in June) following serious concerns about the pilots from chief executives and directors of children’s services.
Alan Wood, vice-president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, says their concerns were in a range of areas including the fact recommendations for local authorities were often in areas over which they had very little control.
Secondly, inspectors were going through files and interviewing staff and then telling the local authority “this is what the police say about you” or “this is what health thinks of this”.
“It should not be what the other agencies think of the council. It should be about whether each agency is doing everything they can to make the service better. If there is a concern, what are their processes for escalating that concern to make sure it gets resolved?”
In addition, he says, it was unclear how concerns would be balanced out in an overall judgement.
“If safeguarding was considered good at the front door but there was an issue with probation, how much weight does that carry overall?
“Also I think everybody who is being inspected is always sensitive to perceived deficits in the knowledge and skills of the person inspecting them. We would be keen to promote a serving senior local authority officer to be involved in some way in the inspection. As long as it was done with due propriety, I think it would help.”
Wood also sees no reason why the current separate inspections of different agencies could not simply be adapted to give a sharper focus to multi-agency working. Concerns would be referred to the host inspectorate in the context of a framework that considers how multi-agency working is achieved.
“But I have to say, Ofsted has gone out of its way in the last few weeks to listen to what we’ve been saying…and shown willingness to adapt their ideas.”
There are some in the sector who feel Ofsted may have listened to those concerns a little too closely.
Sue Kent, professional officer with the British Association of Social Workers, has called on Ofsted to publish their findings from the pilots “as we are only hearing the voice of local authorities in this statement, not the voice of the children they serve”.
She also points out there has been no timeframe on when to resolve the matter.
“It does raise the issue that if the inspection processes cannot work co-operatively together with this one aim, how can we ensure successful “working together” in all other services relating to vulnerable children.”
Jo Cleary, chair of the College of Social Work is more measured. The learning from serious case reviews, she says, confirms that an approach including all partners involved in child protection reduces risk.
But she also points out that there is a difficult balance to strike between ensuring accountability is divided up and the fact that local authorities have the statutory duty for ensuring safeguarding is effective.
Sue White, professor of social work at Birmingham University, says she has heard anecdotally that multi-agency inspections were hampered because inspectorates often had contradictory opinions about processes. “Processes which were deemed good before are suddenly not good in the eyes of a different inspectorate”.
While White agrees there has been an attempt to make Ofsted’s inspections more outcomes focused she says inspectors are still using proxies, like number of common assessment frameworks completed.
“But what exactly is an optimal number and who decides that? They are forced to use measurable proxies because they are taking a snapshot. In my opinion the inspectorial paradigm creates fear, discourages honesty and dialogue and rarely adds value.”
It is clear Ofsted does not have the easiest task in the world but given its key influence over frontline social care practice, it is vital it gets it right.
April 2013– Ofsted will continue with its separate child protection and Looked After Children (LAC) inspections
June 2013– Ofsted will put out to consultation a draft framework merging child protection and LAC inspections
September 2013– The new framework will be put in place. Any council not yet inspected under the previous new child protection framework will now be inspected under the joint arrangement
To be decided– Eventually the single framework will be replaced by multi-agency inspections of the child’s journey into care and leaving care. There is no current date on when this will be decided or finalised.