What social workers need to know about Ofsted inspection changes

Eleanor Schooling, Ofsted's national director of social care, outlines key proposals to change the way services are inspected from 2018

Eleanor Schooling, Ofsted's director of social care
Eleanor Schooling, Ofsted's director of social care

By Eleanor Schooling, national director of social care, Ofsted

Children who come to the attention of social care are the most vulnerable in our society. They deserve the highest standards. Ofsted’s inspections over the past year have shown that there is much good practice out there, and some of that practice is now outstanding.

Today Ofsted launched its third social care annual report. This provides a ‘state of the nation’ picture of provision for vulnerable children. The findings show children can be well-served, and that when councils do this work effectively, children and families benefit from their help.

Of course, there is still too much provision that is inadequate. Children’s needs must be assessed properly and when help is needed, it must be swift. As the report highlights, when this does not happen, children are exposed to harm.

Despite this, I’m heartened by a lot of what we have seen in the last year. While some local authorities continue to underperform, it is clear that improvement is possible.

A majority of areas require improvement to be rated good, but we should be clear that none of these local authorities were judged to be failing. These are local authorities that are not yet good because of the variability in the quality of their work. Twenty-five of the 43 local authorities rated ‘requires improvement’ were judged to be good in at least one aspect of their provision – most commonly this reflected the high quality of their adoption services.

Inspectors also saw many social workers doing excellent work for children. However, as the report makes clear, social workers must have the support they need and the right conditions to enable them to do their jobs well. This is not happening in all places.

The variation between local authorities in terms of the numbers of children in need per social worker is very wide, ranging from seven in some areas, to as high as 34 in others. This year, inspectors found 14 local authorities where social workers’ caseloads were too high.

Future of inspection

As the remainder of local authorities receive their Single Inspection Framework (SIF) inspection over the next 18 months, we are also looking to the future.

Today Ofsted also launches a consultation asking the sector for its views on what lies ahead for the future of social care inspection. This includes local authority children’s services, children’s homes, adoption agencies, independent fostering agencies, and many more.

I’m clear that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t always the answer. Our most recent programme of inspection for local authorities has given Ofsted the broadest, deepest look to date at the performance of a whole range of statutory services for children in need of help and protection, looked-after children, adoption performance and care leavers.

This is really valuable, but now is the time for a more proportionate, tailored approach.

Local authorities

For local authorities, we are proposing a universal inspection.

This would take place once every three years for all local authorities – except those that are inadequate. The inspection should be a single event, where a judgement is given about the impact of the local authority’s work on children.

Good and outstanding authorities will receive a short inspection, in recognition of their good practice in delivering help, protection and care to children, and evidence that they know and understand their service well.

For authorities that require improvement to be good, inspections will be delivered over a longer period, but one which we anticipate will be shorter than the four-week single inspection.

However, we also want to work with local authorities to avoid a drift downwards – ‘to catch people before they fall’ – and to help where improvement is needed. For this reason we also suggest a programme of short ‘modular’ visits for the scrutiny of identified areas of practice, followed by a letter outlining what needs to happen in order to remain or become good.

An inadequate judgement is challenging for a local authority and we will be clear with those areas about the systemic change that is needed to improve work with children.

We have already started our new monitoring system for inadequate authorities. It will continue as a strong building block for our new approach. The monitoring gives detailed information about practice, what is happening to children and how well a local authority is progressing. In turn, this helps the authority to know what to tackle next and what to work on with any partners who are helping alongside. It also helps to determine the timing of the next inspection.

Regulated provision and other services

For our regulated (and other) social care services, we propose a new, common inspection framework for a wide range of settings. This will include children’s homes; voluntary adoption agencies; independent fostering agencies; residential holiday schemes for disabled children; boarding schools; residential special schools; and residential provision in further education colleges.

The aim of this work is to set a clear standard for children wherever they may be living or receiving help. This will mean we provide comparable and consistent reports across a wide range of settings. Our guidance for inspectors and those we inspect will be streamlined and simplified so we are more consistent in our expectations of providers. Inspections will continue to have a strong focus on the progress and experiences of children.

In addition, we also intend to return more quickly to inspect independent fostering agencies that are less than good, which means we will be able to better target our resources on those services most in need of improvement.

Taking part

My experience is that inspection can and does drive improvement if we get the right approach. While it is necessary to identify what is not good enough, we now need to turn our significant expertise to increasing the number of agencies, establishments and local authorities where systems, social workers, other professionals and carers do what matters most to help children.

Social workers and frontline professionals working directly with children and families have a vital contribution to make to the inspection debate. Their experience of frontline social work, as well as of inspection, is essential in helping us decide what the future will look like.

Across the next 10 weeks, we want to hear social workers’ views on our proposals. We will be holding a number of face-to-face events up and down the country to gather their views.

I would also urge anyone that works in the sector to contribute to the online consultation, so we can hear from as many professionals as possible.

Ofsted’s Future of Social Care Inspection consultation is available online, and runs for 10 weeks from 28th June, closing on 9th September. Stakeholder discussion groups will be held up and down the country to gather views from frontline practitioners. For more detail about taking part, please contact socialcare@ofsted.gov.uk.

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