Inspection row engulfs Ofsted

By Cathy Wallace

| 11 December 2007

This year's Ofsted inspections of local authority children's services have been dogged with inconsistencies and confusion to the point where some councils are considering taking the watchdog to a judicial review, CYP Now can reveal.

Inspection

Ofsted insists it has been consistent in handling this year's annual performance assessments and denies any confusion. But minutes of a meeting held between chief inspector Christine Gilbert and the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) tell a different story.

Today (12 December) Gilbert will be quizzed by MPs on Parliament's Children's, Schools and Families Committee, where she will face searching questions about the assessments as part of a bi-annual report from Ofsted to the committee. The committee's chair, Labour MP Barry Sheerman, said: "If there are inconsistencies they have to be explained."

The annual performance assessment (APA) inspects children's services, with councils given a grade based upon the findings. But CYP Now has learnt that this year some inspectors used data from 2006/07, while others gleaned more up-to-date data.

Moreover, Ofsted took the decision to raise the bar on standards this year, meaning councils who maintained their performance from last year found themselves downgraded.

David Hawker, chair of the ADCS's standards, performance and inspection policy committee, said the move had "caused anxiety where authorities were downgraded even though their performance was at the same level as last year. We did have concerns about the signal that would send out to the wider world."

Hawker said a survey of directors of children's services showed one quarter had felt this year's APA process had been poor. "Ofsted have been very open to the fact that not all of the processes worked very well this year," he said. "We want clear indications about what data is being used and how and when we're going to get the data agreed in advance of the process."

Sheerman added: "If these concerns are based on legitimate experiences, I think that Christine Gilbert and her team will have some hard questions to answer"

A spokesman for Ofsted said: "The data we used in this year's assessment was consistent."

But minutes from a meeting held between Gilbert and members of the ADCS, obtained by CYP Now under the Freedom of Information Act, tell a different story: "Children's services were unclear about the exact data being used for APA inspections stating that some inspectors suggested current data could be used and some stuck to the 2006/07 data set."

The minutes also revealed: "It was noted there had been some confusion with a number of briefings sent to children's services."

But the spokesman said: "We do not agree that there has been any confusion about the briefings sent to children's services. Those briefings produced by Ofsted were all sent on time, but we accept some others may have been late.

"As far as a lack of consistency is concerned, the process followed by inspectors when carrying out the APA is set out in the APA handbook which was published as usual on our website in April."

He would not comment on the issue of judicial review, but Hawker confirmed some local authorities had mentioned this as a potential course of action.

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