To all those colleagues who have worked or are currently working in authorities judged "inadequate" by Ofsted, I salute you! It's a tough place to be, requiring bags of resilience and a steady nerve under relentless scrutiny.
All directors of children's services (DCS), irrespective of their Ofsted judgment, are wholly committed to improving the lives of all the children and families that they are responsible for and we know how demanding a job this can be. Having recently completed my first interim role and my first time working in intervention, I experienced both the challenges and rewards that this can bring.
One of the first questions I was keen to find an answer to was whether things were as bad as Ofsted had judged them - and my experience was to find that the answer was both yes and no.
Yes - in that although I thought I knew what I was getting into, I was still pretty shocked at the extent to which poor standards had become entrenched, so that in some ways there was almost an acceptance of this and an attitude of "what can you do?" When I asked a very experienced DCS to come and spend a day observing and talking to staff to get another view, I asked him at the end of the day what had bothered him the most. He thought long and hard before giving the answer that it was the strong sense of learned helplessness that he encountered.
No - in that there had always been areas of service that had remained effective and well-functioning and there had always been some outstanding practice and practitioners, though that can all get forgotten. And no, in that the fundamental problems did not lie with the quality of frontline staff, it was just that they had not had the experience of a culture that was focused upon practice and getting the basics right, nor of an environment which enabled them to practice effectively. A sustained period of austerity and a 50 per cent reduction in local authority budgets only exacerbates these problems and impacts the staff directly. The large majority of staff that were there when things hit rock bottom will be the same staff who return things to an effective service and beyond. Not just my lesson, but one shared by others who have been on this journey, not least in Rotherham and Doncaster. These are skilful and committed staff, and boy do we need that commitment as we set about re-building. The challenge was to ensure we were all focused on doing the right things for children and families, and to ensure that we had the right people to be able to deliver this.
Probably the most immediate leadership that I brought to bear was in re-setting the priorities in a completely re-written improvement plan. This involved an intense rapid process of consultation with staff and then setting the focus on practice, on supervision and on caseloads.
Retaining and recruiting the right people proved to be the biggest challenge and one of the common handicaps that a poor Ofsted judgment delivers. Whilst the overall staff group was reasonably stable, this was not true of our frontline child protection teams where social work turnover was very high, and the same was true for leadership and management roles. That meant two rounds of senior recruitment, for a new interim team to accelerate the pace of improvement, and then a permanent leadership team to provide continuity and take on the next chapter of improvement.
The watchers sure take up a huge amount of time! And that's a DCS's job to deal with so that the service has the space to get on with the important stuff. Improvement Board, DfE, DfE Intervention Advisor, Ofsted, improvement partners - all on top of the heightened scrutiny of progress from Leader, Lead Member, Cabinet, all members, Chief Executive, corporate colleagues, and senior partners. Restoring the confidence of all these stakeholders, that we knew what we were doing, was a key task but inevitably takes you away as a DCS from the actual doing of improvement. This can all feel pretty imbalanced though, and I do think that one flaw of the crude headline judgments applied by Ofsted is this overload, and that so much of that changes on the magical day when the world jumps from inadequate to "requires Improvement" (or even "good").
Ah yes, Ofsted… Whilst my experience of our working relationships with the Ofsted team was positive, I do think that their approach to intervention is problematic in a couple of respects. The first is that every quarterly monitoring visit is experienced as a mini-inspection and so the demands of this can feel relentless and not always helpful; and the second is that there is a mis-match between the wider world's interpretation of the outcome of each visit as a key measure of overall progress, and Ofsted's insistence that the visit is only giving a comment on the narrow area of service it is looking at.
Personally, I found the year hugely rewarding, for all the challenges, and a chance to make a real difference. Upon reflection perhaps the most important thing that we were working to develop was the culture. To move away from an exclusive focus on process and KPIs to concentrating upon relationship-based practice and quality; to move away from a punitive and directive approach to poor practice and improvement, to an approach characterised by motivation, encouragement and learning; to move away from a risk averse and decision averse approach to one of confidence in managing risk and taking responsibility. And always, always to celebrate success, achievement and commitment.
James Thomas is DCS in Richmond upon Thames. This blog first appeared on the ADCS website