Quarter of councils ‘inadequate’ under new Ofsted inspection regime

Judy Cooper finds out how councils are responding to Ofsted's 'tougher' inspections, as Community Care reveals a quarter have failed under the new regime

It’s been just over a year since Ofsted implemented its new safeguarding children inspection framework – designed to meet Munro’s recommendation that inspections focus on outcomes and children’s experiences, rather than processes.

The watchdog was clear that inspection criteria would be tougher, and authorities would have to work harder to achieve the top rating: outstanding.

So, how have councils fared under Ofsted’s new framework? Research by Community Care reveals a quarter (25%) of the 79 councils inspected under the new regime have failed. And, surprisingly, that quarter – all rated ‘inadequate’ – includes councils considered to be best practice leaders, like Devon and Kingston Upon Thames.

Sector concerned Ofsted has ‘significantly raised the bar’

Some in the sector are concerned by the high number of councils being rated ‘inadequate’, seeing it as a sign that Ofsted has significantly raised the bar for inspections.

What’s more, even with the new framework, many senior local authority figures believe Ofsted inspectors are still focusing on processes, rather than outcomes. Record keeping, for example, was blamed for Devon’s poor rating.

Concerns over the varying quality of inspectors still consumes councillors and managers, with many calling for working directors of children’s services to be on inspection teams, or for inspectors to have had recent experience of frontline practice. Ofsted refuses to comment until it releases its own evaluation of the new framework, expected before the end of the year.

Inspectors ‘very knowledgeable and informed’

Jack Cordery, head of service in Cornwall’s children’s services – rated ‘adequate’ under the new framework after being judged ‘inadequate’ in 2009 – says it’s tough for councils, but “good for children”. He says inspectors were really focused on quality, observing practice directly and talking to whichever social workers were in. “I had no control over who they spoke to or when,” he says.

“The feedback I had from the social workers was that they also found it tough, but thought the inspectors were very knowledgeable and informed. They asked the right questions, listened and were fair. That’s not to say they didn’t have disagreements with social workers over cases, but it was a healthy and robust discussion about what best practice looks like and I think that’s good.”

But Ofsted has definitely shifted the goal-posts, he says. “It is a massive switch. Ofsted used to love focus groups and now they revile them. Just when you thought you knew what to expect from an inspection, now you find the opposite is true.”

‘A serious wake-up call for all of us’

He is concerned the political nature of Ofsted inspections and ratings will see many talented senior managers dismissed over the course of this year, which is unfair considering the massive change in emphasis from Ofsted. “You can feel that you are prepared; but only the harsh reality of an actual inspection really drives home the differences. I think it’s a serious wake-up call for all of us,” he says.

Margaret Whellans, strategic director for learning and children at Gateshead – rated ‘good’ – agreed the recent inspection seemed driven by assessing practice, rather than strategy or documentation.

“We found it was far more focused on the child’s journey,” she says. “Inspectors were assessing work alongside practitioners without prior arrangement, which gave them a real-time picture of cases. Greater emphasis was also placed on discussion with practitioners rather than managers.”

Support for single, unannounced inspections

Whellans is looking forward to the new single unannounced inspection of both looked-after children’s services and child protection arrangements, which she hopes will lead to clearer benchmarking of a child’s journey through services.

Cordery backs the single inspection too, although he points out Ofsted will have to find a way around the difficulties of speaking to children and families when inspections are unannounced. Like many within councils, he’s also eager for Ofsted to press ahead with multi-agency inspections, postponed due to concerns about the pilots.

“I appreciate the reasons for postponing it, but the sooner child protection is judged on a partnership level, the better it will be for children,” he says.

‘Inspections not set against context’

Although inspections are more robust under the new criteria, says Nushra Mansuri, policy officer with the British Association of Social Workers, they are still not set against context. “They need to take into account the environmental, capacity and resource issues that social workers are working against before they can make these judgements. It is still not clear to me how much of that is happening in these inspections,” Mansuri says.

As a result, it’s difficult to see whether councils are failing inspections because of the change in the rules, or the fact that cuts have hit at the same time as rising referrals to teams, she adds.

Regime could increase social workers’ confidence

Lucie Heyes, a spokeswoman for The College of Social Work, says the changes in the inspection process will force social workers to become more confident. “If they are to have an inspector shadowing them then they need to get into the habit of having their practice observed,” she says.

“They also need to be able to articulate their practices and reasoning to inspectors. Human nature is to try and avoid this kind of thing, but I think it’s a really important change because it will help social workers become more autonomousand professional in the long run.”

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