Five inspection trends

Ofsted’s latest annual report highlights changes in performance among early years, education and social care providers, and the quality of services they deliver. Jo Stephenson analyses the key emerging trends.

Concerns revealed by inspections include placement and workforce capacity in the children’s residential sector. Picture: Phil Adams
Concerns revealed by inspections include placement and workforce capacity in the children’s residential sector. Picture: Phil Adams

Ofsted’s latest annual report shows the vast majority of education and early years settings are doing well and some encouraging improvements in social care – based on inspection results.

The proportion of children’s services departments achieving “good” or “outstanding” ratings under the Inspection of Local Authority Children’s Services regime increased from 42 per cent to 48 per cent in 2018/19.

The report shows 86 per cent of schools are rated “good” or “outstanding” as are 96 per cent of nurseries and childminders.

However, key concerns include a lack of placements and workforce capacity in the children’s residential sector and a lack of co-ordination in services for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Here are five trends to emerge from the report.

1. Concerning drop in performance among secure children’s homes

According to the report, the national capacity of secure children’s homes (SCH) “remains a significant concern” with about 20 children awaiting a placement on any given day. This, the report states, increases pressure on local authorities to use unregulated provision. In addition, provision is not always in the right place, “so that some children are placed a long way from their home and family”, Ofsted states.

There are 14 SCHs in England – 13 run by local authorities and one by a charity – providing 237 places in total.

The report shows the number of SCHs judged good or outstanding has dropped from 10 to eight while the number judged “inadequate” increased from one to four.

Common themes in inadequate judgments include weaknesses in leadership and management, and difficulties in recruiting, retaining and developing staff.

The report stresses children placed in SCHs – and secure training centres – are “the most vulnerable and at risk”.

“However, we cannot always be sure that the right people are working in those settings or that they are clear on what they can and cannot do,” it adds.

According to Jonathan Stanley, chief executive of the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, staffing and resources in SCHs are often more stable than in other types of children’s home provision.

However, settings can struggle to provide the highly specialist support needed by some young people with high-level needs – and this can affect inspection performance.

“A young person whose needs are hard to meet may require care, education, psychology, psychiatry and therapy all on one site,” says Stanley. “This may or may not be possible for all young people in the secure children’s home, given the range of needs. This could lead to a reduced inspection outcome.”

He says the way inspections work risks penalising secure children’s homes and highlights the need for inspectors with experience of the sector. “If Ofsted were able to reframe the inspection they could report secure children’s homes as being resilient in meeting the challenge of complex multi-factoral needs,” he says.

2. Is bigger better?

It is widely accepted that small-scale frontline services work better for the most vulnerable children. But when it comes to the size of the companies and organisations providing those services then the annual report appears to suggest bigger may be better.

Last year, Ofsted published data on the 10 largest private and voluntary providers of children’s homes. This showed homes owned by the largest providers performed better than all other private and voluntary homes with 82 per cent judged good or outstanding compared with 78 per cent for all other providers.

The report reveals a similar trend among independent fostering agencies (IFAs) with 97 per cent of the IFAs owned by the six largest providers judged good or outstanding compared with 92 per cent of all others.

Meanwhile, in the early years sector nearly a third of nurseries that are part of a large chain – defined as 21 settings or more – were judged outstanding. Being part of a larger organisation can bring benefits including greater access to support and training and policies and procedures that have been shown to work across a variety of settings.

However, the care sector ought to be cautious in making assumptions that bigger is necessarily better, warns Jonathan Stanley.

Larger companies may be more likely to have dedicated quality assurance staff to ensure compliance with key standards.

“Ofsted inspections, like all examinations, show you are good at getting results,” says Stanley.

3. Increased enforcement action against social care providers

The report shows enforcement action against children’s social care providers has increased again although there appears to have been something of a slowdown.

Ofsted has power to take a range of action when it has concerns about care standards and the most serious measures are restricting accommodation, suspending a provider or cancelling their registration entirely.

The annual report shows the number of suspensions and restrictions has increased over time. In 2015/16 there were just two suspensions compared with 29 in 2018/19. There were 25 restrictions in 2015/16 compared with 68 in 2018/19.

However, the increase in both slowed between 2017/18 and 2018/19. There were six cancellations in 2018/19 but 21 the year before due to the cancellation of thee chains of providers.

The report shows most enforcement action is against children’s homes.

According to Ofsted, there are many factors that can have an impact on the enforcement action it takes.

Official statistics show that – in general – children’s homes improve relatively quickly or leave the sector. This means there may be no need to take enforcement action in many cases.

4. Gap between most and least deprived early years providers is closing

There have been concerns about the quality of childcare and early years provision in the most deprived areas.

However, the annual report appears to show a gap in performance between settings in the most and least affluent areas continues to narrow.

According to the report the quality of provision now “varies only slightly with local area deprivation”.

At the end of August 2019, the proportion of all early years providers judged good or outstanding was 97 per cent in the least deprived areas compared with 92 per cent in the most deprived areas.

Childminders have seen the biggest shift over time with the gap decreasing from 13 to seven percentage points since 2015.

According to Ofsted, increased monitoring of nurseries and childminders judged “requires improvement” has contributed to an improvement in standards.

In 2018/19 the performance gap among nurseries and pre-schools in the most and least deprived areas increased by one percentage point on the previous year.

According to Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, the organisation’s research shows “underfunding in the sector is having a greater impact on nurseries in deprived areas”.

5. More written statements for SEND among unitary and metropolitan councils

In May 2016, Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission started carrying out local area inspections of services for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) as part of a five-year inspection cycle.

The annual report shows that as of the end of August 2019, 100 out of 151 of the inspections had been completed with reports published. But half of the areas inspected were required to produce a written statement of action (WSoA) to show how partners intended to address “significant weaknesses”.

Inspection reports show variation in performance between different types of local authority. Only one in four London boroughs required a WSoA while this was the case for almost one in two shire counties. Meanwhile, unitary and metropolitan districts were found to have the worst outcomes with 58 per cent of unitaries and 61 per cent of metropolitan districts required to produce a WSoA.

According to Geoff Winterbottom, principal research officer for Sigoma – a network of 47 metropolitan and unitary councils – one reason for the difference may be because SEND reforms have had a disproportionate impact on cash-strapped urban councils “mainly due to the volume and level of demand for statements and plans and their ability to manage the escalation of cases since the reforms”.

“The situation in many of these authorities has also been compounded by SEND funding and financial issues faced by these areas due to the disproportionate impact of general funding cuts on high-needs councils,” he adds.



The government has launched plans to ban the use of unregulated provision for looked-after children and care leavers aged under 16. It set out a range of reforms for independent and semi-independent accommodation which also include the introduction of national quality standards. The move follows concern about increasing numbers of children being placed in unregulated and unregistered settings. The plans – which are open for consultation until 8 April – also include new legal powers for Ofsted to take action against illegal providers.


Ofsted has unveiled plans for a new approach to inspecting initial teacher education set to be introduced from September this year. The regulator said proposals were in line with its new education inspection framework with a move away from outcomes data to focus on the quality of teacher training. The draft framework, which is out for consultation until the start of April, includes a new “quality of education and training” judgment to replace two current judgments and a new model for inspection visits. Inspections of training providers under the new regime are expected to start in January 2021.


Children sexually abused by family members are going unseen and unheard while abusers evade justice, according to a report based on the latest joint targeted area inspections. Inspectors from Ofsted, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, Care Quality Commission and HM Probation found local agencies were often “woefully ill-equipped” to deal with child sex abuse within families and a “worrying lack of knowledge” among all partners.


Ofsted says it has made a range of improvements to online resources for childcare providers, including information on how to register. The regulator has created a series of short videos to accompany the changes to its Providing Childcare Services in England guidance. Meanwhile, Ofsted’s latest webinar for childminders covers topics including ratios, safeguarding and the new inspection framework.


Gloucestershire Youth Offending Service has been rated “requires improvement” after a routine inspection by HM Inspectorate of Probation. Inspectors reported the service was well led and said work with young people sentenced in court was “outstanding”. However, they found individual plans for children and young people needed to be more aligned with the work of other agencies and said children dealt with outside court should be assessed more thoroughly.

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