High caseloads are a problem in almost all below-par authorities, says Ofsted

Evaluation of its children's services inspections identifies traits of good and poor councils but also finds inconsistency in Ofsted judgments

Inspection report
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Manageable caseloads and low turnover of social workers play a central role in whether local authorities achieve good ratings from Ofsted under its new inspection regime, the inspectorate has found.

Ofsted’s evaluation of the first 11 authorities inspected under its new single inspections of children’s services says that the weakest councils “almost always” have high caseloads that make it impossible for social workers to do their jobs effectively.

The evaluation also says poor-performing authorities also have high turnover of social workers and tend to withdraw help from families too early.

It also found that authorities that get “requires improvement” ratings are incorrectly using Section 20 of the 1989 Children Act when children exceed the threshold of significant harm when they should instead be using Section 31 care orders.

Councils that received good ratings had clear and consistent frameworks for professional practice, close monitoring of workloads and social workers who had stable relationships with the families they work with.

The evaluation follows last November’s introduction of single inspections of children’s services, which replaced the formerly separate inspections of child protection, local safeguarding children boards, care, and adoption and fostering.

It found that while councils supported the aims of the single inspections, councils and inspectors felt overwhelmed by the demands of the new process.

Inspectors had struggled with the volume of data they now had to examine, while councils found it hard to accommodate the larger inspection teams.

These concerns were echoed in an additional review of the new inspections by Professor Eileen Munro, whose 2011 review of the child protection system helped prompt the changes to the inspection regime.

Munro also said there was “widespread concern” about the reliability and validity of the judgments inspectors were reaching under the new approach.

“The new inspection framework is widely endorsed as looking at the right aspects of practice and it is doing so by using a wide range of appropriate data collection methods,” said Munro in her review, which Ofsted published alongside its own evaluation.

“There is emerging evidence that it is having a beneficial influence on priorities for reform in the sector. However, there is dissatisfaction with the inspection process itself.

“It makes heavy demands on inspectors and on local authorities. There is also widespread concern about the reliability and validity of the judgments reached.”

She found that councils were concerned about inconsistencies in how inspectors arrived at their judgements and a lack of clarity in how the final overall rating was calculated.

Munro said Ofsted needs to make its moderation process more transparent and create a consistency panel charged with ensuring that judgments are more consistent.

In addition Ofsted needs to be more realistic about what can be achieved.

“Ofsted should develop more realistic language and clearer recommendations about risk management that avoids the impression that risk can be eliminated by professionals or that they can predict the future with absolute accuracy,” Munro concluded.

Ofsted has agreed to take action on the points raised in both its own and in Munro’s reviews.

Debbie Jones, national director for social care at Ofsted, said: “We are committed to being ever more transparent in the evidence supporting the judgments that we make, and agree with Professor Munro’s suggestion that this will increase confidence in inspections.

“I am very pleased with the extent of the strong support for the framework. We will continue to ensure that it is well and consistently delivered.”

Munro’s findings were welcomed by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).

“A disproportionate amount of social work professional time is required to prepare for and respond to the new single inspection framework,” said ADCS president Alan Wood.

“We are pleased therefore that Ofsted has indicated its preparedness to look at ways of reducing this burden and thereby improving the inspection process.

“We agree with the concerns raised about the impact of the four-point graded judgment of inspection.

“Too much focus is being placed on the grade achieved and this does not help to clarify the key question as to whether children are being effectively protected.

“It is interesting to note that Professor Munro has found that a judgment of ‘requires Improvement’ can be equally as pernicious as an ‘inadequate’ judgment, she also recognises the counter-productive nature of the blame game, that ADCS has long warned against.

“The broad judgements could potentially become more contentious if attempts are made to sub-categorise the judgements even further.

“Care needs to be taken that the confidence the public have in the safety of a local system is secure and the local authority is aided by clear commentary of precisely what they need to do to continue improvement.”

Ofsted and Munro’s review was based on the experiences of the first 11 councils to be inspected under the new framework: Bolton; Coventry; Derbyshire; East Sussex; Essex; Hartlepool; Hillingdon; Hounslow; Sheffield; Slough; and Staffordshire.

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