Local government leaders have called on Ofsted’s inspections and judgments to take much more account of the financial context in which children’s services are delivered.
David Simmonds, chair of the Local Government Association improvement and innovation board, said that when councillors have received an Ofsted report, they “can’t go in to a council meeting and divorce that from the wider financial position”.
Introducing a session at the National Children and Adult Services Conference on the future of inspection, he pointed out that there had been an average reduction in funding for children’s services of about 40%, and a further cut of 40% was anticipated following the spending review.
Councillor Simmonds also said it was a concern that senior officials and local government leaders were saying that, in the context of spending on children’s services, they were “not sure it’s worth it to be anything other than [a] ‘requires improvement’ [judgment].”
He said the way in which the sector looked at improvement needed to “take into account the means we have at our disposal”.
Alison O’Sullivan, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, told delegates at the session that she had a feeling of “depression” about the way in which the performance of children’s services was described in inspection judgments.
“It can’t be right that everything appears to be worse than it was when actually it’s getting better,” she said.
Defensive inspection as dangerous as defensive practise
In her opening address to the conference earlier in the day, she said Ofsted and the government were “determined to complete the cycle of this dysfunctional process which will inevitably carry on generating the kind of headlines over the next 18 months that we have already seen: that two thirds of local authorities are failing in their responsibilities towards children.
“This is not only irresponsible, it’s plain wrong,” she said. “Why is it that we’ve arrived at a point where the overall findings from these inspections are weighted too heavily towards a negative? Ofsted is worried that later someone will say that they got it wrong and therefore default to defensive inspection. Defensive inspection is just as dangerous as defensive frontline practise.”
She also pointed out that, “despite inspection judgments, despite media coverage to the contrary, England remains one of the safest countries in the world for children”, with the five-year average rate of child deaths due to assault and undetermined intent falling by 60% over the past 30 years according to the NSPCC’s latest How Safe Are Our Children research.
Consistent and realistic narrative
In the afternoon session on inspections, O’Sullivan said the language used to describe performance was “powerful and important”, and there was a “responsibility to have a consistent and realistic narrative about what’s going on”.
“It’s not about sugar coating things if they’re not good enough but it’s also that subtleties in language are of huge importance.”
In her contribution to the afternoon panel, Ofsted’s interim national director for social care, Eleanor Schooling, defended the wording of inspection judgments.
“Under the current framework there’s a lot of talk that 70% of the country is not doing well enough,” she said. “But at Ofsted we never said that ‘requires improvement’ is below the bar. It’s something that needs further work to become good. If you look at inspection outcomes in that way, three-quarters or more are places that are at least satisfactory or better.”
Schooling said feedback from the sector on the Single Inspection Framework for children’s services suggested it should be more proportionate, complemented by targeted inspections, and that inspections should focus on services for looked-after children and care leavers. There had also been calls for self-assessment to have an “important role”.
Debate with the sector
Based on this, she said a potential model was being discussed where every local authority would be inspected – “maybe every two years but it’s up for discussion” – based on a study of case files from the ‘front end’ as well as looked-after children and care leavers.
Where issues with partner agencies were identified, this could lead to a joint targeted area inspection, she said.
“At the moment we are still looking at having graded judgments,” she said. “We’ll continue to have that debate with the sector but I think there will always be a point where we say something is inadequate.”
Schooling also outlined plans for the first wave of joint targeted area inspections to be carried out by Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission, HMI Constabulary and HMI Probation.
She said a first pilot of the arrangements would happen soon and four inspections focused on child sexual exploitation would take place between Christmas and the end of the 2015/16 financial year.
Feedback would not be in the form of a one-word judgment but would be presented in a narrative, she added.