John Freeman
Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The joint paper by the Local government Association, Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and Solace on multi-agency inspection represents a major step forward in describing a system that embeds local improvement to meet the needs of local communities. In that context, the proposed changes to the inspection process are designed to support and inform local improvement, to minimise the administrative burden – bluntly, to reduce the costs to local authorities, and to avoid the facile and simplistic judgements that inspectorates make too often. A single word to judge a whole service costing many millions of pounds a year is self-evidently not going to describe a service properly.

In case those last statements seem too strong, just think about the many inspection judgments that seem to indicate that a school, academy or local authority, or indeed any public service, is securely strong and deliver a service of real quality, and where the service later fails. The routine response – excuse – by the inspectorates is that inspection is “at a point in time” and that things must have deteriorated rapidly since the last inspection. This does not require much deep analysis to discount as a reasonable explanation.

It is the inability of inspectorates to avoid later failure of an inspected service that is making them so very risk averse – they avoid judging anything as good or outstanding if there is even the slightest doubt. As former ADCS president Alan Wood said: “The UK has one of the safest child protection systems in the world, yet the single inspection framework results to date do not reflect this reality.” That’s because no-one can say where the next high-profile tragedy will take place, and Ofsted (in this case) want to avoid it happening in an area where services have been judged good.

The ADCS, LGA and Solace argue for a multi-agency approach to accountability that takes into account both recent changes and changes in the future, and which uses the whole of the evidence available, rather than the snapshot approach of standard inspections. They are also proposing a reversion to the practice of HMI, many years ago, where thematic inspections and surveys were the norm, with the purpose of learning what was going on, what worked and what didn’t work, and making policy and practice recommendations. “A rolling, modular programme of multi-agency thematic studies should be developed and deployed, in conjunction with the sector. This has the potential to become the bedrock of the improvement offer.” This would provide the evidence to help all local authorities, other services, and the government, work out best (or at least, better) how to deal with some of the wicked issues.

In short, inspection and accountability should be about “doing with”, not “doing to”, and certainly not “doing over”. And the roll of inspectors should be strengthened by being made more porous, with many more seconded inspectors from within the sector.

But … and it’s a huge, huge “but”, don’t expect any of this, if implemented, and I hope it is, suddenly to change the whole landscape in the short term. So, for example, we must always remember that children are abused by abusers, not local authorities. There are things local authorities, and their statutory and voluntary partners, can do to avoid abuse, to reduce opportunities for abuse, to make children and young people more resistant to abuse, and to detect and deal with abusers as rapidly as possible. Where there are improvements to be made, they must be made, and public services held to public account.

All that is vitally important but we also need deeper societal changes, and while these will take years or decades, we ought not to take that as a counsel of despair but a call to long-term action.

John Freeman CBE is a former director of children's services and is now a freelance consultant