Oxfordshire County Council's director of children, education and families Lucy Butler was on holiday when the call came from Ofsted to say the inspectors were coming.
"I was in Barcelona and was due back on the Thursday and the call came in on the Monday," she says. "I got a text from the deputy director saying: ‘We've just had the call. I will ring you when it is finished'. In the meantime, I was fretting and just thinking there is no way I can still be on holiday while this is going on."
After a stressful and convoluted journey, Butler arrived back in England that night to prepare for an inspection under the new Inspections of Local Authority Children's Services (ILACS) framework.
Under the framework "good" authorities receive a short inspection and Oxfordshire was the first in the country to go through this process.
While councils were promised short inspections would be less intensive, it did not feel that way, says Butler. "We were told that because we were a good authority, it would be light touch, but it didn't feel light touch, it felt extremely intensive," she says.
"I came back in on the Tuesday and was straight on the phone to the lead inspector. Already she was saying to me: ‘These are my key lines of enquiry, this is what I'm thinking' - so I felt the inspection had well and truly started. She was speaking to me and the deputy directors quite a lot, so it really felt like we were in inspection mode rather than the lead-up week."
She also saw a positive difference from the way inspections were conducted in the past. "They were much more sophisticated with their data analysis and I felt they really got to know you as a council and was impressed by that," she says.
As a result, the inspection report, which again rates Oxfordshire as "good" overall, was "very fair". "Like other local authorities, we have seen a huge spike in activity and so we have fought to keep our good," she says,
"When Ofsted last came in for a joint targeted area inspection, they criticised us around our Mash [multi-agency safeguarding hub] and around assessment, so it was really good they could see the progress.
"The issues they did raise with us - the areas for improvement - were absolutely the right ones and they said they could see we were definitely on the road to achieving them."
Butler was also pleased inspectors were positive about a new way of working. "Sometimes Ofsted can be a bit sniffy about new models, but actually they were really positive about ours and I thought it was really good for Ofsted to appreciate innovation."
OXFORDSHIRE COUNCIL'S LUCY BUTLER OFFERS FIVE TIPS FOR A SHORT INSPECTION
1. Ensure your Annexe A is ready
Annexe A of the inspection framework lists the information Ofsted will request from an authority at the start of an inspection. Butler's advice is to ensure this is as up to date as possible at all times. "You have very little time to submit it and they will use it as a benchmark for what they ask of you," says Butler. "If your Annexe A doesn't have perfect data in it, they will pick you up on that. So it is really important that people spend a lot of time on their Annexe A data - and get it as pristine and as near as good to go as possible."
2. Prepare your social workers
Oxfordshire knew 2018 would be an inspection year, so managers staged a series of workshops for social workers at the start of the year. "During the inspection, inspectors would go into an area office and speak to every single social worker in the team - they didn't leave anybody out," says Butler. At the workshops, social workers were told to be sure to show inspectors work that they were most proud of. "We just went through some really basic information so people knew what to expect, knew the sort of conversations they might have, and could start thinking about what they might want to share with inspectors," says Butler. "We were saying: ‘Don't hide anything, but make sure they see the good work you do'."
3. Do not be scared to challenge Ofsted
"Most directors of children's services would do this anyway, but be prepared to fight your corner if you think Ofsted is going down the wrong route," says Butler. Towards the start of the inspection, she became concerned it was focusing purely on negative aspects. "So I pushed back a little bit and said: ‘Look, are you telling me you have not seen anything good in the service?' and the lead inspector replied: ‘No - it's only because we are going quick and I wanted to give you as much time as possible to put me right and get the evidence'. After that, she came back with some really positive examples."
Managers should also not be afraid to suggest inspectors look at a particular service that is working well. "We have quite an unusual team in Oxfordshire called the locality and community support service, which we're proud of, so we said: ‘Why don't you go and have a look?'. They did and really liked it. Don't be afraid to show Ofsted something you are really proud of."
4. Communicate during and after
During the inspection, Butler wrote a daily blog that was sent out to the service. "That was really effective in keeping everybody in the loop about how the inspection was going and any areas they were focusing on," she says. "Every night I would have a meeting with key people who had been involved during the day and would then write the blog, which I sent out straight away."
It was also important to keep lead members, the council leader and chief executive informed - providing them with a "warts-and-all account" so there were "no surprises". Thought was also given to how to share the outcome of the inspection, working with the council's communications team. "It is about anticipating the press release you might want to issue," says Butler. "You don't get that many changes from Ofsted's final feedback meeting - they more or less tell you how it is. You can't go public because it is embargoed, but you can start to prepare for what they have said is going to be in the inspection report."
5. Take time to debrief and thank staff
During an inspection, the hours are long and you are operating on "high adrenaline", says Butler. "On the Saturday afterwards, I felt quite agitated because it was all that heightened energy just leaving. It's odd, but there is a sense of post-inspection loss. All those emails you have been able to ignore for the past two weeks - ‘Oh God I've now got to get back to normal'."
Staff pull together during an inspection and it is important to debrief and wind down afterwards, she says. "You just need to have a bit of a laugh, say how it has gone and make sure everyone is okay. It's that looking after each other as an organisation and as a team that is really important."
Oxfordshire also went on to stage a celebration event for staff. "It is so difficult to be judged good and stay good, so that was a real achievement. We just wanted to say ‘well done and thank you'. We had quite a lot of local press interest, which was positive and we printed that off. You rarely get good press, so we try to make sure people see it."
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