Ofsted inspections 'focus too much on process', review finds

By Neil Puffett

| 27 September 2019

Ofsted inspections of children's services departments should focus more on the quality of practice, rather than processes, a review has recommended.

Ofsted launched the ILACS inspection framework in January 2018

An independent review of the implementation of the inspection of local authority children's services (ILACS) framework, which was introduced in January 2018 as a replacement for the single inspection framework (SIF), found that although there was a consensus that ILACS was better than previous frameworks, a number of improvements could be made.

The report, conducted by academics at the University of Birmingham, states that: "ILACS does get closer to social workers than previous frameworks did and it results in some important insights about practice.

"However, it relies too heavily on ‘process' data and the internal workings of the organisation rather than being centred in the experiences of children and families and looking at the quality of direct social work practice."

Responding to the recommendation, Ofsted said it would need to "dedicate a large amount of inspector time to observing practice" in order for it to "form a useful part of inspection evidence".

"We need to ensure that our inspections gather sufficient breadth and depth of evidence so that findings represent the full range of help, protection and care that the local authority provides," it said.

"There will also be variations in what inspectors need to observe to address the specific lines of enquiry of that inspection. We could not therefore support a rigid approach to the amount of observation that inspectors are required to do. This kind of approach would require a significant increase in inspection time. It would increase the burden of inspection on authorities and is not achievable within our current budget."

It added that, as an inspectorate, it only has the powers to inspect local authorities.

"To link an inspector to regularly and directly observe practice throughout the year would change our statutory role. It would require either a change in legislation or the requirement to publish a report following every observation on every practitioner. This is not something that we feel is practicably possible or desirable in relation to Ofsted's strategy. We are an inspectorate, not a performance manager."

The review also called for Ofsted judgments to reference the local authority situation in relation to levels of deprivation and the amount of money available to support families.

"Research and practice evidence shows that the overwhelming context for the majority of families in contact with children's services is an experience of poverty, migration, austerity, deprivation and so on," the review states.

"While local authority staff make this context clear and inspectors appear to be sensitive to it, the impact of this context on a service should be much more clearly defined and outlined for all focused visits and judgment inspections."

In response, Ofsted said councils have been hit by some of the most significant budget reductions across the entire public sector and are having to make difficult decisions about how to prioritise scarce resources, but added that it can only comment on the quality of practice.

"In some authorities, [financial] pressures have impacted on the quality of children's social care services," it said.

"There is no escaping the fact that local authorities, social workers and other frontline staff are having to work in very challenging environments. They're supporting larger numbers of families whose lives have been shaped by an inequality of experience and an inability to access the very basics for successful daily living.

"Poor housing, mental ill health, substance misuse and domestic abuse continue to feature in most referrals to children's social care. It is for others to comment on this wider context. We can only speak from the evidence that we find."

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