Inspection plans split professionals

    Consultation on plans for a new integrated inspection framework for
    children’s social services and local education authorities, led by
    schools inspectorate Ofsted, ended last week. Although many major
    players expressed support, no one can be in any doubt that there
    are massive challenges ahead and serious reservations remain.

    For the first time social services directors and lead members will
    be vulnerable to “regime change” by politicians, should their
    performance be found wanting.

    Previously, the Social Services Inspectorate moved performance
    improvement teams into failing social services departments. But
    education departments have long been vulnerable to intervention by
    Whitehall or even the private sector at the direction of
    ministers.

    “It would mean not just directors going but local politicians would
    also lose control of services,” says Andrew Cozens, president of
    the Association of Directors of Social Services. “It’s a logical
    extension of being accountable for performance. I hope there won’t
    be any evidence of systemic failure but, if there were, the
    judgement would have to be carefully made.”

    The Ofsted plan calls on children’s authorities to form an annual
    hypothesis about their performance and then test this with evidence
    from routine inspections of schools and specialist services. Joint
    area reviews, published as single reports, will feed into local
    authorities’ comprehensive performance assessments.

    Contributing to the reviews will be samples of case files and
    consultations with children and young people.

    Cozens says much of this approach is familiar to that taken in
    social services departments’ annual reviews. “We have the
    experience of safeguarding inspections that were done around the
    time of the Laming inquiry to build on, plus we have a lot of
    experience of joint inspections with the NHS.

    “What is new is the focus on an overall judgement of the children’s
    authority,” he says. “It will take some adjustment to bring the two
    together.”

    But some key organisations are not happy with this approach. “There
    is a risk of too heavy a reliance on self-assessment,” says the
    Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service. “This approach
    will lead to a focus on the poor performers and reduces the
    opportunity for learning from excellence. Experience shows [it] can
    be flawed.”

    Local authorities disagree. “Rigorous self-evaluation is a force
    for good if the structures are sound, judgements are objectively
    made and the relationship between the fieldwork stage and
    self-evaluation is sound,” says Cynthia Welbourne, president of the
    Confederation of Education Service Managers.

    “If it is well used, it can transform inspection from a one-off set
    piece event into activity that’s part of a cycle of
    improvement.

    “But we don’t underestimate the difficulty of translating into
    inspection practice something that will strike the right balance
    between getting clarity across the whole children’s canvas with
    rigour in all the individual parts.”

    Cafcass is also worried that plans to draw on the work of other
    inspectorates in annual reviews “runs the risk of being
    piecemeal”.

    It warns: “There is a real risk that key areas will not be covered,
    particularly in case sampling the work done with vulnerable
    children outside of universal services.”

    Surrey Council’s submission says there is not enough detail in the
    proposals yet to make a judgement, but adds: “Our experience
    demonstrates that Ofsted and the Social Services Inspectorate have
    worked with very different methodologies.”

    This British Association of Social Workers goes one step further.
    “There are still fundamental and arguably irreconcilable
    differences between the professional grounds providing children’s
    services,” says professional officer Nushra Mapstone.

    “One example of this is competing priorities between education
    services and children’s social services, often driven by government
    performance targets.”

    Clearly there is still some way to go to bridge the divide.
    Communication and an open mind will be key.

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