Kath O’Dwyer, is something of a rescue specialist having been hired to help her last three authorities – Warrington, Stoke and Halton – recover from low inspection ratings and as chair of an improvement board helping Blackpool council.
From tomorrow, O’Dwyer, outgoing director of families and wellbeing at Warrington, will be bringing her knowledge of how to improve children’s services to Ofsted. As national director of improvement in social care, she will head up the inspectorate’s new improvement service for children’s social services. Previously the inspectorate only provided such services for schools.
The biggest thing [in struggling authorities] was that people lost sight of the child.” Kath O’Dwyer
For those deemed to require improvement, there will be regional programmes of seminars based on the themes emerging from the inspections, with a view to getting them up to a ‘good’ rating.
“They have been piloted and were successful,” O’Dwyer says of both services. She hopes the seminars for requires improvement authorities will start soon after she joins while the service for inadequate authorities will take a bit longer to get started.
“The aim of the exercise is not just to get as many authorities as possible to good or better but also to make sure improvement is sustained improvement and not just a quick fix. Through monthly monitoring we should be able to feed back to them whether what they are doing is hitting the mark,” she says.
Councils can choose whether to use the service and will not have to pay for it.
Potential conflict of interest
At the time the service was first mooted, some asked whether there was a conflict of interest if the inspectorate both sat in judgement and told councils how to improve their ratings.
“I debated that with myself when I decided to apply,” says O’Dwyer. “But actually the improvement offer from Ofsted is through monitoring rather than telling them how to do it. If Ofsted were saying ‘you should do this and do it like this’, and then inspected and the improvement had not been delivered then there would be a massive conflict. But they are offering clarification and reporting on
“I debated that with myself when I decided to apply,” says O’Dwyer. “But actually the improvement offer from Ofsted is through monitoring rather than telling them how to do it. If Ofsted were saying ‘you should do this and do it like this’ and then inspected and the improvement had not been delivered then there would be a massive conflict. But they are offering clarification and reporting on effectiveness of effort rather than ‘you should be doing this’. That way I don’t think there is a conflict.”
There’s no shortage of organisations to help councils improve – there are several sector-led organisations, teams from the Local Government Association, the Department for Education improvement team and a plethora of consultancies – so what else does Ofsted think it can offer?
“Ofsted can offer knowledge of who does it well and how they do it well,” she says. “There is nobody other than Ofsted that goes into everywhere.” It can also give clarification of its findings and recommendations, she says.
“Previously the only role Ofsted had was inspection,” she says. “They would inspect, give a set of recommendations and authorities were left to get on with it. They would then go back, re-inspect and find it had not been achieved. Monthly monitoring will help see if progress is being made.” There are still roles for the other improvement organisations, particularly in helping councils create and implement an improvement plan, she adds.
One sector-led body that now has less money is the Children’s Improvement Board (CIB), which lost its £8.5m government funding for 2013-14 in April 2013. The DfE pointed out that the funding was always intended to be time-limited and that the money that once went to CIB has not gone to Ofsted and is within the DfE’s budget. The CIB will still be able to set up peer challenges and review, in which councils are reviewed by practitioners, managers and councillors from other authorities, a service Ofsted will not provide.
Common problems faced by struggling authorities
After her work to improve Halton, Stoke, Blackpool and Warrington, she has thoughts on the most common problems faced by troubled authorities. She says a lack of support for staff is a common issue for councils in difficulties, either as a result of the structure of the organisation, a lack of training, procedural guidance or equipment problems.
Partner organisations observing rather than contributing and ineffective support, monitoring and governance arrangements in the organisation are other themes common to these authorities. She sums up these failings like this: “The biggest thing in the four [authorities] was that people lost sight of the child. If you are passionate about delivering better outcomes for children you should be able to finish your working day every day and think what difference we made to children. In all four authorities they had stopped asking themselves that.”
Consequently one of her tasks was to put in place the training and environment needed to enable staff to focus on the needs of the children. “It [frontline child protection work] is relentless and it is so easy to get tired and lose focus,” she says. “It is the job of the leaders in the system to lead staff and managers to constantly come back to outcomes for children.”
Kath O’Dwyer on…
A social worker must be… Passionate about ensuring best possible outcomes for kids.
If I wasn’t a social work director I would be… There’s nothing I would rather be.
I am most inspired by… My first team manager back in 1987 when worked for Lancashire. She was amazing and taught me passion for kids.
My staff describe me as… Very determined and driven. I have high standards for myself and I expect it of others.
What keeps me awake at night… nothing because I am clear that we cannot prevent all tragedies; what we can do is highly reduce the risk.
The government could make my job easier by… If the government would allow councils to keep their income from business rates Warrington would be £73m a year better off. Other authorities might not benefit from that as much as Warrington.
I’m proudest of… my staff who deliver with passion and my husband and four children