What do Ofsted really want?

Is it right that Ofsted reports criticise local authorities for national issues such as rising levels of need and staff shortages, asks Jean Seel

Trying to learn from inspection reports is confusing. Photo: WestEnd/REX

By Jean Seel, consultant and trainer, Thompson Seel Associates

Social work manager meetings across the land can sometimes have an odd echo of the Spice Girls: “Ofsted – tell us what you want, what you really, really want!”

Clarity or confusion?

In one sense, the answers are very plainly laid out in Ofsted’s framework and evaluation schedule. In this booklet and the inspection handbook, Ofsted sets out the statistics it will need, what inspectors will do – for example sitting with social workers and attending case conferences – and the criteria for ‘outstanding’, ‘good’, ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ judgements.

Yet despite this seeming clarity, and the clear desire of local authorities to ‘get it right’, across the country there are ‘inadequate’ gradings, even in authorities which for many years had excellent ratings under previous inspection regimes.

What can reports from ‘inadequate’ inspections tell us?

Looking at a sample of ‘inadequate’ reports is revealing. Of course each includes a list of the qualities that were not found in the authority’s practice. But equally, there is often a list of positives and these positives can seem to outweigh the failings. It isn’t just about numbers – there are subtler, perhaps (dare I say it) political things going on in these judgements.

Staff turnover

In Ofsted terms, Knowsley in Merseyside was a high-performing authority for many years. In 2014 it was rated ‘inadequate’.

It is interesting to consider some of Ofsted’s judgements about Knowsley against the national picture and ask if there are aspects which might be considered the ‘normal’ position in most local authorities. To give an example from the report:

“A high turnover of social workers in the assessment and safeguarding teams has resulted in too many children being unable to develop effective relationships with their social workers.”

The national context is given by a recent report into the future of the workforce, which acknowledged that across the country there were high vacancy rates, long term supply shortages and high turnover rates in the social work workforce. It suggested an average working life of a social worker of 7.7 years for females, 8 for males.

‘A rapidly expanding and changing population and reduced resources’

The London borough of Barking and Dagenham, previously ‘good‘, was rated ‘requires improvement’ in July 2014. There were 12 ‘strengths’ and 15 points of criticism. One of these was:

“Agencies working with families in the area struggle in responding to the fast and significantly changing demands of the population and the rapid growth in the number of young children in the borough. This is leading to high pressure and workloads across the key agencies.”

That would seem more a statement of reality than a point of criticism for many local authorities, particularly those who have, as this borough is acknowledged to have:

“… seen a large and continuing increase in children and families population in recent years. Those newly arriving are from a wide range of ethnicities, cultures and religions, with many children and families whose first language is not English.”

Why should local authorities be criticised for this?

Studying the inspection reports, I could list the ‘strengths’ and, looking at the national picture identify what might help a local authority get a ‘good’ rating.

However, many constraints on performance such as the shortage of stable social work management or a population dramatically affected by European and global economic trends and policies are also part of a national picture and beyond the control of the local authority. We could question why they can be criticised for those constraints.

The Ofsted inspection regime can be a great force for good and a champion of children’s rights. However, it perhaps needs to be more realistic in its assessments and not fall into the trap so much of the media does in thinking social work can solve all ills with a demoralised and undervalued workforce and a shrinking budget.

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One Response to What do Ofsted really want?

  1. David Phipps April 15, 2015 at 1:39 pm #

    Local authorities should be criticised for not fostering a stable supported workforce. To do so they need to consider proportionate pay and not just for those at the top; case loads and conditions. They need to remember child protection social work is recognised by the Local Government Association as the most difficult to recruit and retain and one of, if not the most stressful local authority jobs. This is not beyond local authority control.