The way local authority children's services are inspected is set to undergo major change from January 2018, with Ofsted planning to move to a more proportionate system that focuses on councils that are already struggling.
Following a 10-week consultation last year, the inspectorate has confirmed a range of details about how the new system will work (see box).
It has also finalised plans to inspect all regulated social care settings in the same way based on consistent principles (see box).
In terms of the replacement for the single inspection framework (SIF), which was introduced in October 2013, the majority of arrangements due to be rubber-stamped later this year mirror those set out in last June's consultation.
But Ofsted has also revealed details of a change that could be on the cards that would have significant implications for the future shape of children's services - that they will no longer be given a single judgment for the entirety of their provision.
Unlike at present - whereby children's services receive an overall rating from "outstanding" through to "inadequate" - Ofsted is considering the possibility of grading only the specific service areas inspected under the new system - child protection, children in care, and leadership.
Children's services leaders have long criticised single word judgments, arguing that they do not reflect the nuanced nature of service provision.
There are also concerns that the stigma attached to an entire service being rated "inadequate" can damage staff morale and make it difficult to recruit staff in order to improve services - perpetuating a negative cycle.
Although the Ofsted proposal does not go as far as to drop the four-stage grading system altogether, it could be interpreted as a concession to the sector in response to calls for the inspectorate to take a more rounded view of service standards.
However, it remains to be seen how keen the Department for Education - which currently uses the overall judgment rating as a guide for whether to intervene where standards are not good enough - will be on the idea.
Quality of practice
Ofsted has said it will discuss it with the DfE and ministers to "ensure that they have the information they need to make decisions about intervention and about the quality of practice in the sector more widely".
Colin Green, former director of children's services in Coventry, now working as a consultant, says the move is the result of pressure from the sector and will be welcomed by local authorities.
Since the SIF was introduced in November 2013, a total of 31 of the 123 councils inspected and that have received judgments (25 per cent) have been rated inadequate.
Green believes the move would help differentiate between those that are in serious trouble, and those that may only be weak in one specific service area.
"South Gloucestershire was an interesting recent example of a council that was rated inadequate on the basis of some very serious failings relating to children with disabilities.
"Reading the report, there were serious failures in one part, but other parts were significantly better and adoption was rated as ‘good'. By making this change, Ofsted makes inspection findings a bit more nuanced and less high stakes."
He adds that the change may make recruitment easier for some authorities, but believes those that are inadequate in a number of areas will continue to struggle to attract staff.
Eleanor Schooling, Ofsted's national director of social care, is playing down the significance of the potential change.
"We are keeping the judgments and keeping the four-grade scale," she says.
"We are simply saying that those judgments are three separate things the public want to know about and local authorities want to know about."
She added: "Amalgamating the three separate areas into one single judgment is not always the most accurate thing to do."
More generally, the new framework will see a shift from a single inspection applied universally to all local authorities to a more proportionate approach that takes account of earlier performance, and current data and intelligence on service quality.
While there was strong support in the consultation from local authorities for a proportionate approach, some respondents said all local authorities should receive the same inspection, and that past performance is not necessarily an indicator of current or future performance because standards can deteriorate quickly.
This is illustrated by the fact that a number of councils within the SIF cycle have received surprising ratings on the back of glowing reports in their previous inspection.
Among these is Lambeth Council, where children's services nose-dived from outstanding to inadequate in the space of just three years.
A scathing Ofsted report, published in May 2015, criticised the quality of social work practice and highlighted weaknesses in the way the council was attempting to tackle child sexual exploitation, concluding that there has been a "failure of leadership" within the department.
Schooling highlights that a key element of the plans is for Ofsted to conduct focused "modular" visits between inspections, providing a narrative report that details strengths and areas for improvement.
Local authorities will also be expected to self-evaluate their social work practice, while Ofsted will conduct reviews of the data and intelligence it receives.
"I feel we have a responsibility to avoid deterioration in services," Schooling says.
"There are two things I think will make a difference: asking people to do an audit of social work and discussing that with us in an annual conversation; and conducting focused visits.
"If the data we have highlights concerns, we will have the ability to do a focused visit which will tell us and the local authority whether there is a small concern that can be put right quickly, or more of a major concern that may bring the full inspection forward.
"Ofsted used to be more about catching people when they are bad, and that is not helping anyone."
Another significant change on the horizon for children's social care is the potential for councils to be allowed to apply for exemptions from children's social care legislation.
The provisions for such a move - set out in the Children and Social Work Bill - are currently the subject of fierce debate in parliament.
The government was defeated in the House of Lords, but successfully reinserted the clause when the bill was at committee stage in the House of Commons.
Figures in the sector have said there would need to be extensive monitoring of any local authorities that are granted the freedoms to ensure that children are not left at risk if services deteriorate while an exemption is in place.
But Schooling does not believe Ofsted will need to change its current arrangements significantly should the proposals become law.
"Local authorities are going to be subject to quite strong scrutiny before the freedoms, as envisaged at the moment, are granted," she says.
"Our standards will not change if a local authority has been exempted.
"We will still be looking at all the things we do now, which I think protects the interests of the child."
The new system is set to be piloted later in the year, with the results considered by Ofsted before the framework is finalised.
The new framework will come into effect from January 2018.
SOCIAL CARE COMMON INSPECTION FRAMEWORK PUBLISHED
Ofsted also plans to introduce changes to the way regulated social care settings are inspected.
At present, there are several variations in the inspection guidance for social care providers across the range of settings, and differences in the criteria used by Ofsted to make judgments on each type of service.
But from 1 April, the following three principles will link all Ofsted inspections of children's social care providers:
To focus on the things that matter most to children's lives
To be consistent in what is expected of providers
To prioritise work where improvement is needed most
The framework will be tailored to reflect and address each distinct type of children's social care provider: children's homes, including secure children's homes; independent fostering agencies; voluntary adoption agencies; residential family centres; residential holiday schemes for disabled children; boarding schools and residential special schools; and the residential provision of further education colleges.
NEW INSPECTION SYSTEM
The existing single inspection framework, which was launched in November 2013, sees all local authorities subject to an inspection that can last up to four weeks.
Under the new system, there will be a basic inspection for all councils every three years. But this will be a shorter inspection, potentially only lasting a week, for local authorities that were rated "good" or "outstanding" at their previous inspection. More in-depth investigations will be conducted if concerns are identified.
For services previously deemed to "require improvement", or where a short inspection has triggered concerns, there will be a full two-week inspection.
Services previously rated "inadequate" will be subject to quarterly monitoring visits under plans set out last month and will face the prospect of a full four-week inspection.
Councils will also be required to conduct an internal audit of social care provision annually.