It's January 2018 and Lisa Pascoe, Ofsted's deputy director, social care, is addressing a conference about the new inspection framework for local authority children's services. She's careful to emphasise that the new framework will be proportionate to each authority, that "good" authorities will receive a short inspection of one week which will feel less intensive than the inspections that have gone before. She mentions the importance of honesty and openness and how senior teams will be rewarded about knowing the practice in their authority well. She warns there will be no room for showcasing just an honest appraisal of what is working well.
Fast forward to 9 April 2018 and Oxfordshire County Council gets "the call". Unluckily for me I am on holiday in Barcelona, I decide to travel back that day.
Once back in Oxford and day two of the off-site week, the inspection had well and truly launched. The first week felt very intense with not only us sending through all of the Annexe A data requests but also taking phone calls from the lead inspector on key lines of enquiry (KLOEs). This involved myself, my senior management and key service leads (adoption being a particular focus) taking lengthy phone calls on specific and detailed areas. Additional information was requested on a daily basis.
The inspectors, conscious of the short time they had to come to firm conclusions, were using the first week to interview us to test out KLOEs. This caused some hair-raising moments at times, especially when Ofsted quoted data back at us that they obviously had in front of them, such as a named worker's caseload, without prior notice. However, inspectors were willing to accept clarification further to the phone call.
All in all, the offsite week felt very different compared to our last inspection in terms of intensity and also the sophistication of the data analysis Ofsted conducted - we were genuinely impressed with this and felt that they were able to get to know us as an authority quickly because of their analysis.
Once the team got on site the intensity increased significantly. We were able to meet the whole inspection team on day one and we went through the fairly fresh presentation we used for our annual conversation. The first day felt particularly tough with us responding to their KLOEs (17 by this stage) and us attempting to centre their work on the history and context of our authority. We were a good authority when Ofsted came to visit but since our last inspection we had had a huge surge in activity which had impacted on our service. The story of how this came about and our response to this was a big part of context setting in day one.
The practice days that followed were true to the guidance and new framework in taking a whole-system approach. For us, and because we had focused a lot of our strategic work on looked-after children, Ofsted decided to visit our looked-after children and leaving care teams on day one, followed by our child protection service on day two, concluding with the front door on day three.
A typical day would go like this: after the KIT they would spend a short amount of time with the team manager who was able to give them some context and after that a team of four inspectors spent time talking to every single social worker in the team. They spent a lot of time (8.45am - 7.30pm) with front line staff, either talking directly with them or looking at their case files. They were also looking at case files from similar teams across the authority.
Social workers reported back that they enjoyed spending time with the inspectors and talking about their cases. They found the inspection intense and working with the inspectors for such long hours gruelling.
At the end of the day the lead inspector would ring me to go through KLOEs and offer headline feedback. At first the inspection felt very focused on queries about what was wrong with the service rather than a balance of concerns and things that were working well. I was told that this was because it was a short inspection and that it was to give us time to gather evidence in the time available rather than spend time on what was clearly working well.
The KIT meetings were robust and challenging but did give us a chance as a senior management team to engage and challenge back where appropriate. We felt a sea change on day three where the inspection became much more collaborative. In hindsight I understand the reasons for getting all the negatives out on the table early so they could be explored, tested and where necessary put to bed and overall it was a helpful approach - but at times it felt bruising and anxiety producing.
So, in summary, did it live up to Lisa Pascoe's expectations that she set out earlier this year? It felt no less intensive than the inspections before. It did feel more sophisticated though and had a real focus on front line practice. The authenticity of the approach is not in question and there really is nowhere to hide. Personally, I felt it lost something by not focusing on partners, the local safeguarding children board or the wider environment we work in. I felt the inspection team were well informed and had the tools to get to know us as a council and the journey we were on. To get you through the intensity, I would recommend cake and wine though not necessarily in front of the inspectors.
I would like to thank the staff that work in children's services in Oxfordshire and my team for their relentless focus on improving the lives of children.
Lucy Butler is DCS in Oxfordshire. This blog first appeared on the adcs website