Call for Greening to overhaul 'deeply flawed' Ofsted system

Neil Puffett
Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A senior director of children's services (DCS) has called for Education Secretary Justine Greening to take urgent action to improve the way children's services are inspected, claiming the current system fails to aid improvement and is "phenomenally wasteful".

Webb says a new inspection regime for children's services is needed.
Webb says a new inspection regime for children's services is needed.

Andrew Webb, director of children's services at Stockport Council and former president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said the current process "neither evaluates actual social work practice, nor provides a rigorous assessment of system impact".

He has called for Greening to consider a fundamental overhaul of the system.

Webb, whose children's services department was last week rated as "good" under the current single inspection framework (SIF), said he estimates that the inspection process cost his council upwards of £200,000, making it "phenomenally wasteful of scarce resources".

In an eight-page critique of the inspection process, Webb said that, despite the substantial cost of inspection, evaluation was "carried out at such superficial level that it cannot provide meaningful insight into the families being supported".

"Successive governments have placed great faith in Ofsted's inspection programmes, and have intervened in local services as a result: but this faith has been misplaced," a letter sent by Webb to Justine Greening and Ofsted's chief inspector Amanda Spielman states.

"I am not suggesting that certain local authorities have not failed some of their most vulnerable children, nor that government intervention has not been required, but I have concluded that Ofsted's methodology has neither the precision nor the evidence base to support a self-sustaining national programme of improvement across the public sector.

"Despite the lack of reliable, independent evidence to support the view that Ofsted's methodology is sound, or that its activity contributes to improved outcomes for children and families, Ofsted's leadership has stuck, doggedly, to an approach which is deeply flawed.

"When challenged with academic concerns or research findings that drew his attention to Ofsted's questionable methodology, the previous chief inspector [Sir Michael Wilshaw] simply described the concerns publicly as 'tosh' or 'tosh and nonsense'.

"In addition, both Ofsted and government have ignored calls from the children's services and local authority sector to re-examine their approach to inspection as the primary driver of service improvement."

Under the current single inspection framework (SIF), which was introduced in November 2013, all local authorities are subject to an inspection that can last up to four weeks.

Under the new system, to be introduced in January 2018, 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.

Webb, who is one of just a handful of DCSs to have remained in post since the role was created in 2008, said he believes that too many of the "methodological faults" identified in the SIF will simply be re-created in the replacement for it to have any real merit.

"From what I have seen, the new approach is an evolved version of the SIF, which includes more scope for dialogue between the inspectors and the inspected, but it still has no sound evidence base on which to make judgments about service quality, nor any sound basis for intervention in areas found to be underperforming on behalf of their vulnerable children," he said.

Webb has called on Greening to commission an independent review of evidence relating to improving the performance of complex systems, and commit to designing a national programme to ensure minimum standards are met and continuous improvement achieved in the life chances and outcomes for vulnerable children.

"I believe this would create an opportunity to test the central construct that it is possible to achieve improvement through inspection, and may well lead to a radical alternative approach requiring a paradigm shift in government policy," he said.

Last week's inspection report for Stockport rated children's services at the council as "good" overall, with adoption services at the local authority being judged as "outstanding".

In a statement issued to CYP Now, which can be viewed in full here, Ofsted's director of social care Eleanor Schooling said improvements have been made as a result of the work of the inspectorate.

"Everything that we do through inspection, monitoring, and visiting local authorities, is to do good for children," Schooling said. 

"Our inspections give a graded judgement and areas for improvement that help areas to see what else to do to improve outcomes for children.  Our monitoring visits, that are not graded, also identify in detail where things have improved and where more needs to be done.
"When I arrived at Ofsted I spent a lot of time looking at how we told the story of what it was like for social workers to do their work.  I am convinced that getting working conditions right for social workers will give them the best chance to work effectively with children and their families. 

"We published a commentary about what leadership that helps social workers looks like, in creating the right conditions for social work to flourish. 

"This was intended to be shared and as I talk with social workers and local leaders I hear much of what we said is having an effect and local authorities are increasingly reducing caseloads and making the day job easier.  That is improvement.
"Over the last two years we have worked with local authorities to develop the new inspection framework, one that during the pilots has been described as the most authentic inspection yet. These inspections are taking the best of the SIF, the looking at children's files and talking to social workers and increasing the time we spend on that so that we get a really clear understanding of what it is like to be a child in need or a child looked after in that authority. 

"I still believe this is the best and only way we have yet found to understand the impact of social work on children's lives.  We are moving away from speaking to groups of leaders, and instead we look to see what the impact is of their decisions and actions.  We can see this through children's lived experiences."

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