‘Outstanding’ or ‘inadequate’: should a single word define the quality of social work services?

Following the tragic death of headteacher Ruth Perry, Ofsted's single-word ratings of schools are under the microscope, but should a similar system persist in social work services? Take our poll

What are your thoughts
Photo by: MarekPhotoDesign.com/ AdobeStock

Should Ofsted and CQC assessments of children’s and adults’ services follow a single-word grading system?

  • No (83%, 394 Votes)
  • Yes (13%, 63 Votes)
  • I don't know (3%, 16 Votes)

Total Voters: 473

Loading ... Loading ...

Ofsted’s inspection process and the pressures placed on staff by single-word judgments have come under criticism following the death of a Berkshire headteacher.

Ruth Perry, the headteacher of Caversham Primary School, took her own life while awaiting the publication of an Ofsted inspection report that downgraded her school from ‘outstanding’ to ‘inadequate’.

Though it was rated good in all other areas, its overall rating was dragged down by Ofsted grading the school as ‘inadequate’ in leadership and management because of failures in relation to safeguarding procedures.

Perry’s death has now reignited an old debate about the appropriateness of Ofsted’s single-word grading system in education.

Last week, Suffolk Primary Headteachers’ Association wrote an open letter calling for an end to one-word judgments, recommending instead that inspectors “outline areas for schools to work on”.

However, Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, has defended the current system, saying that, while the debate was legitimate, grades gave parents “a simple and accessible summary of a school’s strengths and weaknesses” and helped government decide when to intervene in struggling schools.

Single-word grading system ‘leading to retention problems’


Photo by chrisdorney/ AdobeStock

As in schools, local authority children’s services receive an overall grade based on the same scale – outstanding, good, requires improvement and inadequate.

This has long been opposed by children’s services leaders. Last year, directors and academics criticised Ofsted’s assessment system for perpetuating the sector’s retention problems.

“Ofsted’s ultimate purpose is to improve services, not just to inspect them,” said David Wilkins, then senior lecturer (now reader) in social work at Cardiff University.

“So, I think you have to then ask, ‘is the current mechanism of inspection a good way of improving services?’. If it is leading to things like retention problems in councils that are already struggling, then maybe not.”

At the same time, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services said that Ofsted’s single-word judgment “for a complex set of services and differing local contexts tells at best a partial story and even risks weakening the very services the inspectorate seeks to improve”.

CQC assessments will include single-word judgments

woman writing on clipboard (inspection)

Photo: Andrey Popov/Adobe Stock

Councils’ adults’ social services will also receive single-word judgments, when the Care Quality Commission (CQC) starts assessing them under a new system starting in September this year.

The CQC said last month that the Department of Health and Social Care had asked it to deliver single-word ratings, despite many directors favouring a ‘narrative’ judgment instead.

Responding to the news, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services warned that “a single-word rating alone wouldn’t show the public how good different parts of the service are” and it should be presented “very clearly alongside narrative and potentially sub-ratings across the seven theme areas” assessed.

Have your say on the validity of single-word judgments in our poll and give us your opinion on the issue in the comments below!

, , ,

7 Responses to ‘Outstanding’ or ‘inadequate’: should a single word define the quality of social work services?

  1. Vanessa March 28, 2023 at 11:02 pm #

    I agree with Amanda Spielman that the ofsted grading process is necessary. I am so very tired of social services trying to align itself with other disciplines in order to push forward it’s own disfunctional agenda.

    Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy working in children services however, children (and adult) social services is a sector that is broken. There are some boroughs that are functioning extremely well but, we all know of other councils who have a ‘good’ rating but they are operating in a disfunctional manner.

    The ratings process is simply moving people from doing quality social work to being process driven in order to fill the ensacable KPI statistical machines. I appreciate that this statement does not refer to everyone. I am speaking out for the bad apples in the drum.

    As a result, the question should not be about the one word used by ofsted to sum-up an inspection, rather, it should be about questioning the process ofsted is using to satisfy the information tbey gather for the inspection.

    With respect, Ofsted need to move from sitting around a desk to interviewing hand picked people whom they have chosen by walking around the teams giving managers no notice (so no chance to strategically handpick staff). The inspectors need to sit with staff, enquire about what cases staff are working on. Ask workers anonymously what their experience is, hold focus groups for social workers which ofsted handpicked on their walk around that morning. Meet the social workers without the managers being present to allow people to feel able to talk without fear of reprisals.

    Say, there is a negative undercurrent of bullying, covert racism, controlling and passive aggressive behaviours that is present in social care. Staff are worried to speak out for fear of a negative reference or they will be walked out of the door disgraced. This is unacceptable behaviours which remains prevalent on children social care.

    Staff complain that caseloads are high and they are left to feel that they are the one that is inadequate. All of these issues and so much more including pay, is what is preventing people from taking up permanent work not a negative ofsted rating.

    Some of the most creative, listening boroughs with an inadequate rating is often boroughs that are willing to listen to suggestions from staff since they desperately want to raise standards.

    Again, the issue is not the ratings given by ofsted, rather the question can ofsted improve the way it gets it’s data to improve it’s assessing process. The question is therefore, who is assessing ofsted since they need to up their game. Some academics in ouncils have found ways to circumvent some of ofsted’s processes ie a child was visited in timescale, the case note is written academically correct but the actual time spent with the child was minimal. Nevertheless, the stats will say that the child was visited in timescale.

    Once ofsted start to spend more time with the workers on the floor as opposed to the managers and leaders then they will get a proper feel of the organisation, it’s work practice as well as.

  2. Paul March 29, 2023 at 3:20 pm #

    This is about people. Not a car MOT, where can fail on one thing. People are more complex. The current system by Ofsted is not suitable, indeed, if applied same grading system to them, Ofsted would be inadequate!

    • Soupysocialworker April 1, 2023 at 12:52 pm #

      Yes it is all about families, but social work practice feels more like we work for Ofsted rather than WITH our children and families who need us. All the performance layers mean not one iota to children and their families. Bring on some change chief social workers and others who have more influence.

  3. frustrated March 29, 2023 at 11:01 pm #

    having worked as a Children’s Social Worker and my daughter a teacher, and being politically aware I believe that the main purpose of Ofsted was to rubbish the professions, with the aim of justifying privatisation.

    Their inspections cause upheaval and chaos that usually does not benefit anyone. Whilst at times they may be close to getting an outcome correct their analysis of the cause can be alarmingly wrong.

  4. dk March 30, 2023 at 9:08 am #

    Wilkins’ position is the pragmatic one, and the one we should be approaching. If the single word rating system is not helping local authorities to improve their services, it is not fit for purpose. I would not expect a team manager to maintain a failing philosophical position on raising a team’s standards, or a social worker to maintain a failing philosophical position on a care plan that was not working.

  5. Dedicated Social Worker March 30, 2023 at 11:22 am #

    I am of the view that the whole inspection mechanism needs to change, and too reliant on “inspections”, which are often orchestrated.

    I believe the way forward would be a resident or frequently visiting Ofsted inspector, who would help to identify problems and solve them.

    A model of regular, frequent assessment and review, which is far less adversarial.

  6. Alec Fraher March 31, 2023 at 1:09 pm #

    There isn’t, ie it’s non-existent, an evaluation methodology or system of systems methodology to address this issue.

    Attempts are being made, like those from the Slovenian Evaluation Society and the work of Bojan Radej and Mojca Golobic to address this.

    For CPD see Complex Society: In the Middle of the Middle World by Bojan Radej and Mojca Golobic (2021)

    The Industry Regulators, both CQC and Ofsted, have instead hired-in Consultants and Consulting Houses to provide the steer.