Surviving Ofsted: a team manager’s story

A manager shares their experience of being inspected by Ofsted, and offers tips for social workers and managers on demonstrating how you support children and families, staying confident and looking after yourself

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Photo: 3d_generator/Fotolia

By a safeguarding team manager

One Monday a few months ago, I said to my (ever supportive!) partner: “I think something’s awaiting me today, I’ve just got a feeling. They’re coming today.”

He kindly reminded me: “You’ve said that every Monday morning for the last six months.” But on that Monday, I was right (it only took six months of Monday morning “feelings” to hit the jackpot!).

At about 10:30am, I messaged the manager of one of the assessment teams to ask if she thought a particular family’s situation would progress to a child protection conference and for a quick chat about allocation. These are the kind of messages I send every five weeks when my team are due to ‘intake’ new referrals and start our work with new families. Her response:

We’ve had the call.”

Within minutes, I had an email from my manager asking what annual leave I had booked over the next three weeks. A few minutes later came another email with a spreadsheet full of key performance indicator data across the teams and asking us to sort “ASAP”.

Family members of mine worked in settings where Ofsted inspected. I was pretty attentive at school and noticed when someone new was in the classroom and the teacher was just that little bit nervous. I worked in a children’s home for a short while and had two Ofsted inspections in that time. I’ve been a school governor and fed in to Ofsted inspections in that format too. So, Ofsted inspections are not alien to me.

But being the manager of a safeguarding team during Ofsted… none of the above prepares you for that!

Most of my friends are not social workers and they’re always surprised to hear social care is inspected by Ofsted. I got messages like: “Don’t they go in to schools?” And: “Ah, at least it’ll be over in a week.£ I got a bit sick of texting the words: “They’re here for three weeks”; “No, that’s normal” and “Yes, it is a long time isn’t it?!” to well-meaning friends!

Week one: ‘I looked at everything on the file’

Ofsted didn’t actually come in to our offices during the first week of the inspection. I wouldn’t say that stopped it being busy though! There was a big drive for data and information to be provided.

We, as team managers, were sent the Annex A data, the detailed anonymised dataset required by Ofsted. It lists all children in contact with the local authority through early help, child in need, child protection, the care, care leavers and being placed for adoption; and details of all events such as referrals, assessments, strategy discussions, last conference, review or visit etc.

We were asked to correct any errors and give a rationale for any discrepancies in the data, for example where procedures and timescales had not been followed for a valid or justified reason. This often meant explaining that we had not visited a family because they were isolating having tested positive for Covid.

Later that week, we were notified which cases Ofsted had chosen to look at. These were children whose files had been the subject of an internal audit in the last six months.

One child that my team worked with was selected. The social worker and I spent half an hour looking through everything on the file, talking about the best practice on the file and what the audit (two months previously) had mentioned and how we had responded to the suggestions made. The audit had graded the file as ‘good’ and I agreed with this judgment.

There had been a few actions from the audit, one of which the social worker had not completed but was able to that day. She also had some direct work which she had not had chance to scan on to the child’s file but did so the following day. We both felt really prepared for Ofsted looking at the child’s file and ready for the social worker to be interviewed.

Week two: the inspectors arrive!

Now the inspectors were on site! We were told they would be wearing brightly coloured lanyards – which would mean they could be identified if you passed them in a corridor or stood next to them in the queue to buy coffee!

The inspectors started in our multi-agency safeguarding hub – the ‘front door’ of children’s social care – and then worked through the system, following the journey of a child.

On day three of week two, they met with two social workers from the safeguarding team I manage, with the meetings taking place at the same time.

The social workers were not given any hint as to what would be discussed, just an instruction to bring their laptops and that the meeting would be one hour.”

The title of the meeting was ‘case sampling’ and from the feedback from the two social workers, that’s exactly what happened. Both social workers were asked if there was a case they wanted to show the inspector. In one, the inspector asked specifically:“Have you worked with a child where there has been a recent section 47 investigation and progress to child protection involvement?” For the other social worker, they were given freedom to pick whichever case they wished.

Both social workers were asked about supervision, how regularly it happened and whether it was useful to them.

The social workers who spoke to the inspectors came out feeling positive and relieved. One of them reported that the inspector had said they clearly knew the children they were working with.

Both the meetings for my team were at 3pm and finished at 4pm. The following day, a ‘query’ was raised about one of the children the social workers had presented to Ofsted. The child had been subject of three child protection plans at a young age. The inspector’s query was: “Are the current social work team considering and aware of the cumulative impact on this child?”

When my manager rang me with the query I immediately said: “It’s a great question and I would ask the same!” I was able to signpost my manager to reflective supervision notes where the social worker and I had queried whether we were considering the impact on this child and why multiple periods of child protection involvement had seemingly not reduced risks to him.

Some social workers were interviewed about our audit processes. Remember in week one I spent time with a social worker in the team about a case of hers which had been audited? They never asked to speak to her! The social workers that did speak to Ofsted about these cases were asked about what the audit involved, whether the social worker knew in advance the audit was happening and what difference the audit made to the social worker’s approach or their case recording.

Week three: the need to protect children never stops

By week three, Ofsted had moved to the permanence section of the service, where children in care are supported, and our fostering, adoption and assessing carers teams sit.

I could have been fooled into thinking this would be a quieter time for my team and me. But, while we were not interviewed directly, the Ofsted inspectors were looking at the files of children who had been supported by our part of the service through court proceedings, and our decision making was scrutinised.

The Ofsted inspectors wanted to see evidence of care plans for children and statements submitted to court. Safeguarding teams are often more likely to be writing these documents for children than the children in care teams.

On the Thursday, Ofsted left the building!

We were aware that the director and senior management team, as well as the lead councillor for children, had had a debrief with Ofsted where an overall view was shared and a ‘hint’ at what the grading was likely to be. This was not shared with us, but we were informed the inspection had ended.

It felt very poignant that, on that Thursday afternoon, a child we had been supporting for some time in a neglectful home situation made an allegation and needed to be supported to live with someone else that very evening to keep him safe. Two social workers in my team were out until 8pm making sure this child was settled and safe. They visited him again the following morning to support him to get to school and to check in on him and ensure everyone knew what was happening. Their determination and commitment to doing what was right for the child was inspiring.

It was a stark and important reminder that, whatever is going on, and whoever is visiting, children’s lives continue and our support and protection of them is paramount.

Tips if you are due to be interviewed by Ofsted

  • Be confident: you know the children you are supporting and you know the progress made.
  • Make sure your laptop is fully charged and/or have your charger with you.
  • Turn your phone to silent.
  • Close down everything else and turn on ‘do not disturb’ on your emails and Teams/Skype/Zoom – you don’t need any distractions.
  • Make sure you know which room you are going to and get there five minutes in advance.
  • If it’s not offered by your local authority, ask for a debrief afterwards. All of our social workers met with a manager or an advanced practitioner after their interview to de-brief.
  • Make sure your files are up to date! Check case summaries, chronologies and that you have attached all the brilliant direct work done with the family.

General tips on surviving the full inspection

  • Eat! I must have really known something was coming because on the Sunday before ‘the call’ I had made a big pot of soup; and it fed me each lunch time that week. Have some healthy food in the fridge when Ofsted arrive; treat yourself to your favourite sandwich from the best sandwich shop in your town during those weeks.
  • Stay hydrated! When we’re stressed we forget all those normal things we know keep us healthy. Make sure you drink plenty of water…and tea… and coffee.
  • Take deep breaths.
  • Turn to your colleagues – have a moan and a deep sigh and then pull yourselves back together and get back out there!
  • Ask those around you to support you. Let them know how stressful this could be and ask them to be there for you in these weeks.
  • Remind yourself: you know the children you work with, you are a qualified social worker for a reason and you do this job for a reason!
  • Keep going!
  • Keep children at the centre of everything – this is what Ofsted want: be child focused, always.

3 Responses to Surviving Ofsted: a team manager’s story

  1. David Wilson June 17, 2022 at 9:08 am #

    From the first two paragraphs it sounds like your data/performance teams really rose to the challenge as well!

  2. Superallie June 17, 2022 at 8:01 pm #

    Great outline of Ofsted’s usual stressful process where people ( ofsted) interviewing haven’t practiced for a 100 years but get to grill people out working until 8pm dealing with clients with only their communication skills ( gift of the gab) and empowering skills to rely on. Then give some subjective ruling which in the real world means everything for reputation, recruitment and retention of staff and nothing at all to do with children being kept safe. Did they speak to kids? Because they always say “oh it’s about their journey” and plough over KPI sheets. Those Annex A sheets are a pain so too are any audit tool just landed on staff who are expected to complete it. Better random auditing. I was involved in one inspection where Ofsted visited while the office was shut during full lockdown and expected us all to come into the office. There was no vaccine then. Hotels were even closed. What was the reason… THEY all lived close to the office in question. Shocking. Never mind thier behaviour at times can be questionable with poor language, old and dated terms of reference. It’s time for a change in their archaic ways. Well done on surviving. I have been involved in 20 in my long career and everyone is stressful but needn’t be. Ofsted make it stressful. I am sure on purpose. So we “up our game”.

  3. Eddie June 19, 2022 at 9:24 am #

    I hold no torch for Ofsted, too many puerile conversations with inspectors, but should it really take their scavenging to prompt updating records and their? We give them legitimacy they haven’t earned don’t we?

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