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

“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

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

“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

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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