by Eleanor Schooling
From January next year, Ofsted is going to be taking a new and very different approach to inspecting local authority children’s services.
Today we’ve published a new framework for the Inspection of Local Authority Children Services (ILACS). Acronyms aside (these do seem to come with the territory), I hope that our partners across the children’s social care sector will recognise that this is a significant step forward for children’s services inspection.
ILACS has children’s experiences at its core. Added to that, I believe it offers an even greater opportunity for Ofsted to support local authorities to improve.
One of the main changes will be the frequency of contact with local authorities. Ofsted will be carrying out more regular, but shorter, graded inspections, punctuated by ‘focused’ and monitoring visits. After each focused visit we’ll publish a narrative outcome letter, making clear what improvements are needed (where relevant). But of course this isn’t all about identifying services could be better. Focused visits are an opportunity for us to showcase good practice too.
In practice this means that Ofsted will have more frequent opportunities to identify any issues of concern, allowing areas to take swifter action to address them. Quite simply, we don’t want to wait until the next inspection to find out that practice has deteriorated, we want to be able to ‘catch’ areas before they fall.
ILACS is also a ‘system’ of inspection that is proportionate, flexible, and truly bespoke to each and every local area we inspect. Each feature of the system informs how the rest of it works. So a local authority’s current Ofsted grade will determine the kind of inspection it has next time, and the contact and support it receives in-between visits.
In short the new approach means:
- Local authorities previously judged to be good or better will get a one week short inspection every three years
- Those that required improvement to be good will get a two week standard inspection every three years
- Both standard and short inspections will result in judgements on the established four point scale
- Focused visits will identify good practice or catch local authorities before they fall
- An annual conversation between Ofsted and local authorities
- An annual self-evaluation of social work practice by local authorities
- Our approach to authorities judged to be inadequate will remain the same as now – quarterly monitoring followed by an inspection under the single inspection framework (SIF).
I want to be clear that the system will be no less rigorous than the Single Inspection Framework (SIF). However, the SIF was intentionally a one-size-fits-all inspection. And while it has given us a good baseline to move forward from, now is the time for a more risk-based, proportionate way of looking at how children’s services departments are performing.
We will also be asking local authorities to have a ‘yearly conversation’ with us. This formal discussion, alongside annual self-evaluation, will help local authorities to critically evaluate their own performance and articulate what they think is working well for children in their area.
This will also form part of the intelligence Ofsted uses to decide where and when to inspect. One of the big benefits of the new approach is that will enable us to prioritise our resources where they are most needed.
To be clear though, where self-evaluation identifies weaknesses in practice and the local authority has credible plans to take clear, appropriate and effective action in response, we will treat this as effective leadership rather than an automatic trigger for an inspection or focused visit. Any issues raised through self-evaluation will be discussed with the local authority at their annual engagement meeting.
As ever, children and their experiences are at heart of this new approach. However, we also hope the ILACS system helps – even in a small way – to lessen the ‘cliff-edge’ associated with inspection and the implications for social work staff on the ground. Of course being inspected is never going to be a completely relaxing experience. But these changes are also aimed at supporting local authorities on their improvement journey.
We had an excellent response rate to our consultation, as well as constructive discussions, debates and feedback with stakeholders from across the sector. Their views have been instrumental in shaping the way forward.
It has been extremely rewarding to oversee the development of a new system of inspection and to watch it come to fruition. I’m truly grateful to everyone who has taken part in the development process, and look forward to the official launch in January.
Eleanor Schooling is national director for social care at Ofsted.