Greater management oversight of Ofsted’s new inspection regime is needed to ensure councils are treated consistently and children’s voices are heard, a report has found.
Ofsted’s review of its inspection of local authority children’s services (ILACS) system, which was updated last year, concluded that its aim of creating a nimbler and more efficient regime had largely succeeded, but acknowledged some teething troubles needed to be addressed.
In response to the review, Ofsted said it would make a series of changes to how ILACS inspections were conducted in future, including:
- Inspecting large councils with teams of five inspectors rather than four, and some smaller ones with teams of three.
- Developing a process of increased management oversight during inspection, including providing more support for inexperienced inspection staff, with a view to instilling greater consistency. Three examples of this related to investigation of councils’ practice observation, how case files are sampled, and how collaboratively inspection teams work.
- Working with inspectors to ensure that “thorough insight” into children’s views is gained via a range of methods.
- Liasing better with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) to avoid pileups of children’s services and special educational needs and disability (SEND) inspections, which the review admitted could place great strain on authorities.
- Working towards better standardisation of letters sent to councils summarising the findings of focused visits.
Broader suggestions of change dismissed
Many of the agreed changes mirrored recommendations contained within an appendix to the report written by Birmingham university academics, who shadowed inspections of councils as part of the review. But the report stopped short of endorsing several other, more sweeping suggestions made by the group.
The academics concluded that ILACS remained too focused on paperwork and procedure rather than practice – mirroring many social workers’ complaints about their job – and that the voices of children, particularly those in need of help and protection, and parents were largely absent. They suggested families be more deeply involved, as well as other measures, such as observing direct practice and supervisions first-hand.
More on the ILACS framework
They also questioned the ongoing value of ‘one-word’ inspection grades, arguing that they were insufficiently nuanced and could be unacceptably “damaging and destabilising” to children’s services departments, and suggested inspectors should consider the effects of austerity when grading children’s services.
But Ofsted pushed back against several of the recommendations, citing ethical concerns, time constraints and worries about tokenism as reasons why direct testimony by families, and observations of practice and supervisions should not be expanded. The review said that DCSs generally felt inspectors were speaking to sufficient numbers of children.
“Ofsted’s grading system… provides an objective view of the quality of care that is comparable across different LAs, and enables the public and government to easily understand the quality of children’s services,” the regulator’s response said.
“It is for others to comment on this wider context [of austerity],” it added. “We can only speak from the evidence that we find.”
‘Improvement on previous inspection frameworks’
The ILACS review was built on an array of information-gathering methods ranging from focus groups with and surveys of inspectors to interviews with directors of children’s services (DCSs) as well as the inspection shadowing by the Birmingham university academics.
“DCSs were positive, reporting to us that social workers and frontline staff are enjoying the opportunity to engage with and showcase their work to inspectors,” the review said. “Similarly, in interviews completed by the University of Birmingham, managers and frontline staff in LAs reported that it was an improvement on previous inspection frameworks.”
Compared with the outgoing single inspection framework (SIF) system, the ILACS model enabled inspections to shift away from a default focus on negatives, inspectors and DCSs agreed. The ability under ILACS to focus on specific lines of enquiry also meant councils were less able to to manage the inspection process to “show their best face”, the review found.
The new short inspections drew some mixed reviews from directors, who found them taxing and noted that the concentrated process made it harder to set out their stalls and to take time with inspectors. Ofsted staff also said they found them more stressful, especially when trying to accurately evaluate authorities where services seemed to have declined.
Overall though, judgments from both shortened and standard inspections under ILACS were found to be solid and reliable when peer-reviewed. DCSs also welcomed the new, shorter and more succinct reports, the review said – although some social workers commented that the more condensed style meant they were less able to recognise their contributions to inspections.
‘Don’t self-evaluate just for Ofsted’
Under ILACS, eight regional Ofsted teams generate risk assessments of councils, which are used to inform the scheduling of full inspections and the brief focused visits that are made in between.
The review found the systems feeding into these should be made more uniform in order to ensure consistent assessment of risks and application of thresholds.
In particular, the report noted that the quality of self-assessments by councils, which are an optional part of the process, was too variable.
“DCSs in regions with strong peer-review systems report the value of producing self-evaluations,” the report said. “Regional teams in these areas also note the quality of self-evaluations in comparison to other regions. However, this perceived quality does not necessarily lead to greater or more honest reporting that would help us identify risks earlier.”
Rather than producing self-evaluations purely for the benefit of Ofsted, councils would be better served by delivering them as part of ongoing monitoring to inform directors’ perspective of practice and progress, the review found. It said ongoing discussions would be had with councils around this, following meetings with representatives of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).
Inspection regime tweaks
Responding to the review, Steve Crocker, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ standards, performance and inspection policy committee, said: “While we’re still working through much of the detail of these evaluations of the implementation of the ILACS, we will continue our constructive discussions with Ofsted about their own recommendations and those of the University of Birmingham’s independent team.”
Crocker noted that ADCS had previously flagged issues around single-worded judgments, inspection quality assurance and how best to evaluate the impact of leadership and practice, as well as the scheduling of inspections.
“The immediate changes to be made to the framework as a result of this exercise, such as a better match between the size of authority and the number of inspectors involved in site visits, are welcome, and we are already in discussion with the inspectorate about sharing some self-evaluation exemplars going forward,” Crocker said.
“Some more significant changes have also been suggested by the independent evaluators,” he added. “We have previously raised, and would welcome further discussions about, quality assurance – we understand from our members that there can be regional differences.”
Crocker said it would be “increasingly important” to understand how the wider context within which children’s services operate could be brought within the future scope of inspectors’ judgments.
‘Too much reliance on the written record’
The Birmingham university academics who worked on the study were not immediately available for comment. But Clive Diaz, a social work lecturer at Cardiff university and former principal social worker, said the report showed there was still “too much reliance on the written record and what social workers say happened”.
“Unless you’re observing meetings and visits, and speaking to families to gain experience, how do you know what’s the reality of what’s happening?” Diaz said. “You [could also] write to 100 families at random, offer them the chance to speak – in my experience they will want to highlight both good things and those that are not good enough. It would take more time but be worth it in terms of getting a genuine picture of what services are like.”
Diaz also called for one-word judgments to be reviewed, pointing out that in Wales councils receive narrative evaluations without a definitive grading. “You have people thinking a place is wonderful, or in places deemed ‘inadequate’, people losing their jobs – a one-word judgment doesn’t work,” he said.
Community Care has approached Ofsted for comment and will update this article as and when we receive a response.