Learning from Ofsted focussed visits
Monday, November 9, 2020
Inevitably, I was on a zoom call when I received the phone call. We had been expecting it since the start of term – Ofsted were coming to Newham for a focused visit.
Whenever you get ‘the’ call, it elicits an instinctive emotional response – a heady mixture of panic, excitement, anxiety and apprehension, it quickens the heart and floods the brain.
Newham is on a journey of improvement following an inspection in February 2019 and an ‘inadequate’ rating. There were two monitoring visits before lockdown, with a third cancelled due to COVID-19. Newham was hit hard in the first wave of the pandemic due to the demography of the population; we have a diverse population with a high proportion of residents from Black and Asian backgrounds, significant numbers of multi-generational households, many residents with pre-existing underlying health issues, and high levels of poverty and disadvantage.
As soon as I got off the call I began to frenetically text, call and email a whole range of people to share the news. We quickly stood up the whole logistic and planning process to put everything in place to give a good account of ourselves.
The focused visit really felt more like a mini-inspection – looking across the usual range of social care services, but with a specific focus on how the local partnership responded to COVID-19, in particular how the Local Authority worked with schools and health to meet the needs of vulnerable children.
I won’t get into the rights or wrongs of inspecting local authorities who are already dealing with huge pressures and who have to continue to respond to an on-going global crisis and ever-changing situation – there are I’m sure people better-qualified than I am to comment on that.
In some ways, putting aside the added pressure and additional workload, this was a useful time to step-back and reflect on our progress. We are a new team, responding to all the usual improvement challenges, but experiencing this through the sometimes surreal lens of this pandemic. There is something about the intensity of an inspection that requires you to learn hard lessons very quickly – issues you may have otherwise filed away as being too difficult have to be resolved overnight. So looking back there are three key things I will take away:
- Purpose: This experience intensifies the development of relationships and communication between a team. It brings to the surface tensions and conflicts, but also enables uncomfortable truths to be confronted and addressed. It helps to define and delineate the collective effort of all those involved in delivering and improving services. Emerging from the visit, I know that we have a greater sense of purpose and a sharper focus on what we need to achieve over the next few months.
- Narrative: I think one of the greatest challenges for a service that has been graded ‘inadequate’ is to reassert a sense of ‘agency’ and to harness control of its own narrative. What emerged though our response to this challenge has started to coalesce into a story, and has the power to reshape the narrative of the organisation. The new narrative is that Newham is a place with a clear direction of travel. Central to this narrative is our investment in a relational and systemic approach to practice, and our positive response in the face of adversity.
- Appreciation: An inspection is as much about the ‘how’ as it is about the ‘what’. How we respond collectively to this challenge is a critical in creating the right culture for practice to flourish. It is important to strike the right balance between reflection and appreciation. I am very proud of all we have achieved so far, and in particular our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am also aware that we have plenty more to do, with no room for complacency. Embracing a learning culture, where we share in our achievements, and respond together to areas for development is a key part of our next stage of improvement. An appreciative approach is central to retaining great staff and attracting new talent to Newham.
I find it hard to avoid clichés when I describe the improvement journey in Newham. What has been said, ad infinitum, is that we are running a marathon, not a sprint. If our improvement journey is a marathon, then the effect of COVID-19 is like having the course re-routed up a nearby mountain without any prior warning. The challenge for us (and for OFSTED) is how to calibrate the pace of our improvement – these are new times requiring a different measure to evaluate success.
I am very thankful to everyone across the Children’s workforce in Newham, including our partners across schools, health and the police, who in this difficult time, were able to articulate their dedication, commitment and compassion for the children, young people and families in Newham. We have come together to respond to this crisis, and together we will go on to improve services in Newham.
Tim Aldridge is the corporate director of children and young people for the London Borough of Newham.