Cafcass has been rated ‘outstanding’ after Ofsted inspectors found effective leadership, highly skilled staff and investment in technology and tools that help promote a child-centred approach to practice.
In its latest inspection of the family court advisory service Ofsted praised practice focussed on “listening to children, understanding their world and acting on their views” while leadership was branded “exceptional [and] aspirational”.
The judgment is a step up from the ‘good’ rating in its last inspection in 2014. It marks a journey of continuous improvement spanning almost ten years, during which the organisation found itself deemed ‘inadequate’ in 2009, with the Public Affairs Committee stating Cafcass not fit for purpose a year later.
Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said the transformation was no quick fix. “There was no big bang, it was relentless hard work, and progressively, just dispensing with sideshows and getting on with the core business.”
Ofsted agreed, stating that since the last inspection the leadership team “have worked diligently to develop and support a culture of continuous learning and improvement”.
‘Closer to the action’
Douglas told Community Care that Cafcass had “reframed most of what we do in terms of impact upon children.
“We’ve tried to understand that more and therefore to understand value and our value propositions within different functions, that’s the prism of the lens we’re applying.”
Ofsted said there were “many” outstanding examples of private law practice which Douglas attributed to the transition “from writing reports with recommendations to court to getting those recommendations owned more by parents as their [own] making them more likely to be implemented.
“I think we’ve got slightly closer to the action and closer to a more active role, rather than stand back and passively comment.”
Direct communication with technology and data
Ofsted inspectors noted the organisation’s “innovations in technology and use of direct work tools increase the time that practitioners have for seeing children and understanding their views”.
Examples include tablets that children can use to directly tell their stories, with their writings and drawings uploaded into case files.
“You can see children’s words and drawings embedded in our reports, and that’s what I think Ofsted were impressed by and felt had made big changes since 2014, and we want to carry that on,” said Douglas. He added that Cafcass was releasing an app for children to communicate directly with practitioners later this year.
“We have tight systems, good supervision, good flexible working and good technology so practitioners picking up new cases feel well supported and the risk is shared and that we’re giving them the tools to do that work. We’ve certainly invested a lot in that.”
This investment has also been ploughed in the effective development and use of data and analytics.
“Because of the scale of our numbers the analytics and metrics become crucial to understand the groupings we have. Our intention is to develop stronger and deeper metrics. We’re trying to educate a whole organisation into the use of data that’s relevant for your professional task.”
Rise in case numbers
The inspection acknowledged the sharp year-on-year increase in the cases Cafcass handles, with almost 41,000 new private law cases received in 2016-17 – over 3,100 more (8.4%) than the prior year. The number of public law cases was up 11.6% in the year 2016-17 compared to the previous year.
Douglas said: “We have a strong culture about all work has to be allocated straight away, and indeed the national frameworks mean that we have to pick up cases very quickly and come to a view very quickly, otherwise there’s a big negative system-wide knock on.”
Individual practitioner caseloads are “pretty stable” at around 20, he said, in part due to new staff coming in. “We have increased our capacity over the last year but there are more cases coming in than finishing in family courts which is a worrying figure because that could mean our capacity becomes exhausted down the line. It’s a risk.”
Investment in leadership
Both national and local leadership were deemed ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted with the latter improving from ‘good’ four years ago. Douglas said that at the local level leadership was more “distributed”.
“Our model is every member of staff is a leader and we’ve spent a lot of time deepening leadership so it’s not simply senior managers, it’s through the organisation.
Cafcass has put in seven heads of practice around the country and placed more focus on practice supervisors, gearing the organisation “towards assisting frontline practice.” In addition, its national improvement service comprises internal staff who audit, train and coach practitioners.
Leadership at the national level is centred on getting on with the “day job” said Douglas, adding that all the leadership team spend time every day on casework, developing practice and time with local teams.
‘Devoid of blame’
Ofsted observed a “a strong culture of continuous learning, devoid of blame” and in a staff survey as part of the inspection, 97% of employees agreed Cafcass continually strives to improve.
Douglas said Cafcass’ auditing framework was a big change made years ago. “Our system was more wooden and over the years it’s got more collaborative. I think the best learning comes when you are talking to practitioners about their work in an atmosphere that is quite positive and educative.”
He stressed the ambition to achieve ‘outstanding’ in every aspect but this latest result has given Cafcass confidence to “keep going to the next level without needing to make massive changes.”
“While we’ve spent a lot of time not slipping back we have managed to improve. We will try to reproduce that, make sure we keep at the level we’ve got to, to possibly absorb even more work and find ways of doing that.”
The four years to ‘outstanding’: Cafcass between 2014-2018
|Area of service||Ofsted inspection findings 2014||Ofsted inspection findings 2018|
|Private law practice||Good: In the large majority of work after first hearing Cafcass analysis, reporting and recommendations to the court are at least fit for purpose and in many cases strong||Good: Children’s experiences are constantly central to the proceedings. Family court advisors advocate well on their behalf to produce high quality reports that tell the child’s story|
|Public law practice||Good: Reports provide succinct and helpful summaries of complex information and key issues. A small number would benefit from being more succinct||Good: Timely allocation and sharing early analysis with the courts assist in preventing delay for children.|
|Leadership and governance of national organisation||Outstanding: Since making the necessary changes, Cafcass has become a more mature organisation taking a sophisticated approach to improvement||Outstanding: Strong governance arrangements are firmly in place, augmented by a culture of professional accountability and respectful challenge at every level of the organisation|
|Leadership and management of local services||Good: Quality assurance is effective in most cases. Cafcass managers are consistently evaluating the quality of practice in line with the quality of inspectors||Outstanding: Highly accomplished local senior leaders and managers in Cafcass provide consistently good or outstanding services for children and their families|
|Overall judgement||Good: Cafcass has very effective leaders and managers who have been very successful in improving the quality of Cafcass’ work||Outstanding: Cafcass practitioners’ effective and authoritative practice adds value and leads to better outcomes for the majority of children|