More than a year into Ofsted's Inspection of Local Authority Children's Services (ILACS) regime and all authorities have had at least one annual engagement meeting.
While regular meetings between the regulator and senior management in children's services have always taken place, ILACS now sets out clear expectations for these annual get-togethers to help gain an accurate picture of performance and progress, identify any issues early on and plan inspection activity.
"The annual engagement meeting is an opportunity for senior officers from the local authority and senior colleagues from Ofsted social care to get a shared sense of where that local authority is at," says Ofsted's national director of social care Yvette Stanley. "What we're really asking for is focus on practice. So what do you know about the quality and impact of social work practice in your local authority? How do you know that? Have you got a clear idea of your strengths and areas for improvement and what are your plans for the next 12 months?"
While these are the core questions the meeting needs to address, it is also an opportunity to update the regulator on progress and improvements since an authority was last inspected as well as practicalities such as changes in personnel or the launch of a new IT system, practice model or service.
Crucially, the conversation will help determine the next steps for Ofsted. "It will help us determine the next inspection or - if the next ILACS event is likely to be a focused visit - where it could be most useful in terms of the local authority's journey," says Stanley. "That might be looking at an area where they have done some improvement work and it is useful to have an outside eye or an area of weakness where they want us to help diagnose the problem."
Last summer, Ofsted gathered feedback from directors of children's services and their teams on how they felt meetings had gone.
According to Stanley, directors were generally fairly positive and particularly welcomed discussion about potential areas for a focused inspection visit.
One of the main issues raised by local authorities was an apparent variation in the format and content of meetings across Ofsted's eight regions. Some meetings were longer than others; some focused on children's social care while others covered other remits; and meetings were attended by different Ofsted staff.
Ofsted has said it will try to ensure meetings are as consistent as possible but, as Stanley points out, variation is inevitable.
"We will be visiting a local authority that may have had an ILACS full inspection in the last three or four months or we might be seeing somewhere we haven't been for quite some time," she says.
For those recently inspected the meeting may be more of a "catch-up", she explains, while others - especially where there is a new director of children's services (DCS) in post or there have been other recent changes in senior management - may want to run through their self-evaluation in more detail.
For those that have just had a social care inspection, a broader conversation covering education and wider services may make sense.
"There is never going to be a situation where they are all exactly the same because every local authority will be in a different position," says Stanley.
Meetings will generally be attended by at least two senior regional Ofsted colleagues. "So it might be the regional director, it will almost definitely be a senior HM inspector and possibly another HMI," says Stanley.
It is up to directors of children's services who they decide to bring. "Many DCSs bring their departmental management team and they may bring their principal social worker or head of quality assurance," says Stanley. "If they have a strong focus on looked-after children and care leavers they may bring the head of service responsible for that."
At the meeting directors and their teams are expected to share their self-evaluation of the quality and impact of social work practice.
Again these will vary and there is no set format but one theme that emerged from the first round of meetings is a tendency for some to focus too heavily on performance data.
"We felt that in some places the discussion on how well things were going was very much driven by measures or key performance indicators and actually we want to get behind that to what's working really well in terms of social work practice," says Stanley.
"From our perspective, the local authorities who were able to share their knowledge about practice, what was going well and what needed to improve, in an open and honest way - that really helped with our planning."
This includes opening up about challenges and problems - many of which are shared by councils across the country grappling with increasing demand, reductions in resources that have hit preventative services particularly hard and ramped up pressure on the frontline, and shortages of good-quality placements, especially for teenagers with complex needs.
"Even those in very strong authorities that are soundly ‘good' and have been good for some time are experiencing demands on the frontline and the through the whole system," says Stanley.
Ofsted is aware "there will always be challenges within a social care department", she maintains.
"Knowing there has been a difficulty and how that is being addressed can be a positive thing," she adds. "The issue for us is when colleagues have shared a self-evaluation and then we turn up on inspection and things are quite different. That doesn't happen very often but it has happened."
As an ex-DCS herself Stanley understands directors will want to prepare for the meeting but Ofsted is not expecting them to produce anything new or special, she stresses.
"We're really interested in them sharing what they do in real time - not making up stuff for Ofsted," she says. "As a DCS there are things you look at weekly, monthly, quarterly. What's that telling you about your children and their experience and progress? What's it telling you about making that great environment for social work practice to thrive?"
These are the core elements inspectors on the ground will look at - assessing the impact of leaders on both.
There is plenty of useful information DCSs could bring whether that's insight on recruitment and retention from the latest staff survey and the authority's response, key themes emerging from case audits and how that links into training and development for social workers, or lessons learned from multi-agency reviews.
Crucially these are "all things that show they are really close to what frontline practice in their locality looks like", says Stanley.
"We know all DCSs and their teams work exceptionally hard. I have not met anybody who works in children's services who didn't have children at the front and centre of their thinking," she says. "We take that as read. What we're looking at now is the impact of the improvement plans people have put in place in making that difference to frontline staff and children."
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