The mantra that "only ‘good' is good enough" when assessing the performance of children's services was strongly and repeatedly put forward by Ofsted in the lead up to the launch of the single inspection framework (SIF) in November 2013.
Ofsted's desire to raise expectations of children's services was driven by concerns that some councils were coasting. To address this, the "adequate" rating was replaced with "requires improvement".
The results show the bar was raised: 30 councils were rated as "inadequate" under the SIF, with a further 68 rated requires improvement. By comparison, under the previous inspection framework, 17 authorities were judged inadequate for safeguarding.
The SIF was thorough - the whole process took four weeks - but resource intensive, both for the local authority in the amount of staff time allocated to inspection-related work, and for Ofsted, which took four instead of the originally planned three years to complete the full cycle of inspections.
Five years on from the launch of the SIF, and the mood music coming out of Ofsted is very different. Its new social care inspection framework - the inspection of local authority children's services (ILACS) - addresses many of the concerns raised about the SIF.
Launched in late 2017, the ILACS is less burdensome and more improvement oriented, says Yvette Stanley, who took up post as Ofsted director of social care in April, replacing Eleanor Schooling.
"The values behind the new inspection regime - more proportionate and practice based - resonated with me. I felt it was a job I wanted to apply for at this moment in my career," says Stanley, who had been director of children's services (DCS) in the London Borough of Merton since January 2009.
The ILACS links the amount of inspection a children's services department has with the level of risk and its previous Ofsted rating. So, authorities previously judged good or better will get a one-week short inspection every three years. Those rated requires improvement will get a two-week standard inspection every three years. Both standard and short inspections result in judgments on the established four point scale.
Authorities judged to be inadequate will remain the same as now - quarterly monitoring followed by an inspection under the SIF. Focused visits will identify good practice or catch local authorities "before they fall", says Ofsted.
Common across all the inspection types is the focus on inspectors observing and judging social work practice.
"In my second week I visited Rochdale, the first ILACS inspected authority," says Stanley. "Leaders and social workers said it was scary having an inspector sit alongside them, but it is about casework and they really felt the inspectors were expert practitioners who were listening and curious, and who valued the work and understood the context in which they were practicing.
"For many of them it was confirmation that what they were doing was good work."
Stanley says she plains to do more of these visits "to check that it feels on the ground how we aspire for it to be".
"We will be making judgments on practice - that is our role - but in terms of individual social workers what we're asking is have leaders and managers locally created the environment for them to do their job well. We will make those judgments when we need to," she adds.
Creating the right environment for good social work includes ensuring there is sufficient resources, says Stanley, and Ofsted will not shy away from raising the issue in its reports.
"You cannot expect the best work from a practitioner if they've got 30 cases, as we have picked up on occasions in some councils," she says.
"In other areas of Ofsted, we talk quite a lot about teachers' workload and the numbers of pupils in a class, so we shouldn't be shy of talking about that in social work.
"You cannot comment on practice without commenting on the environment so you'll probably see it mentioned more frequently than in the past."
The more proportionate inspection system will be supplemented by an annual "conversation" Ofsted will hold with each authority, which will mean the inspectorate has more regular contact with children's services leaders.
"It will become much more routine," says Stanley. "The concept of dialogue with an inspector and talking about your work becomes less frightening. For six of the eight people I met in Rochdale it was their first-ever inspection experience. It would be much better to have a critical mass of people who say ‘it's ok; they are longstanding professionals, they're deeply passionate about children and have specialist knowledge'. It is really interesting to have a professional dialogue with people who are kindred spirits. It will never be cosy but it can be helpful professional dialogue."
The annual meeting is an opportunity for children's services leaders to share findings from self-evaluation of performance and for Ofsted to raise any issues that may have emerged from data analysis.
"We do expect them in their annual conversation to be very clear on their self-evaluation," she says. "It is meant to be a more transparent, honest dialogue.
"For some it might be that we've looked at the data and given the authority the opportunity to consider that area as part of their improvement work before we come back.
"There were times when I was a DCS that I would have appreciated more dialogue and the forensic look that Ofsted has rather than waiting for five years [to be inspected]."
Analysing the vast amounts of data collected on children's outcomes is another key element of the ILACS. Stanley says Ofsted will be looking for patterns and trends that may indicate concerns and that need further investigation.
"Social care is awash with data - one piece of information could be a good news story or indicate concerns," she explains. "For example, falling numbers of child protection plans could be good use of early intervention, or it could be an authority missing children who should be on a plan.
"We're really keen for our data to be about asking questions - it gives us key lines of enquiry to explore. We'll be looking for the authority to know the answers."
Ofsted has developed the Child Analysis Tool (CHAT) which helps councils to analyse data and identify trends.
"It could be triangulating workforce data with how fast cases are moving through the child protection system," says Stanley. "We've worked with a group of authorities, including Hackney, Waltham Forest and Tower Hamlets, to develop the tool so that they can look at some of those dashboards and ask themselves the same questions."
Ultimately, the aim is to improve outcomes for children. With just a handful of councils having undergone short, standard or focused inspections under ILACS, Ofsted nor Stanley want to be drawn on any emerging trends. Rochdale was rated requires improvement in March.
However, seven inadequate authorities have been reinspected since ILACS was launched. Of these, only Buckinghamshire and Sandwell have remained inadequate. Doncaster and Rotherham have jumped two ratings to good, while Norfolk, Cumbria and Somerset have moved to requires improvement, suggesting authorities are engaging well with the new process.
Stanley says stabilising the workforce and getting strong leadership in place remain the crucial factors in turning around inadequate-rated councils.
"The pace of improvement is never as fast as any of us would like," she says. "To accept that isn't reducing your ambition: we all want the pace of improvement to be as fast as possible but that comes up sometimes against the reality on the ground."
Educator with a passion for social work
Despite her background in education management, Yvette Stanley says she is "passionate" about social work.
"For last 15 years I've managed social care services," she says. "Before I took up the DCS role I felt really secure in my knowledge. My inspiration is seeing colleagues doing fantastic direct work.
"Being a DCS for nearly 10 years I've seen children who were in primary school when they became looked after go on to university, I'm also a looked-after child grandparent. I'm passionate about people sticking with the job and seeing generations of children become safer."
Yvette Stanley on ...
Secondment of children's services practitioners as inspectors
"There is a cadre of 24 people - 10 ex-inspectors or DCSs and 14 serving practitioners - that have had the training and we will be utilising. We are not recruiting any more at the moment. It was a challenge for people coming forward for four-week inspections. Also if you do a four-week inspection and then nothing for a few months it is perhaps not as useful as opposed to three or four days or segments over the year."
Fall in Staying Put arrangements for fostered children
"Staying Put arrangements can be a really important part of the offer for care leavers. We've noticed that council foster carers are significantly more likely to convert to Staying Put than independent foster agencies, so it is probably for discussion with that community around what is impeding them."
Inspections of domestic violence services delivered by councils and other agencies
"Some councils used the Joint targeted area inspection to refine their thinking. When we are developing an evidence base other people look to those, so we're keen to do another couple on that topic. Ensuring everyone has the right strategies and are commissioning the right tools is key."
Challenges in residential care
"Children in residential care are more complex and have extra vulnerabilities. It's important care operators and authorities provide a secure environment. There are challenges in terms of permanent staff and registered managers. More children are presenting with additional vulnerabilities so it's important that support packages are there and that staff are properly trained."