Inspections rift must be resolved

Ravi Chandiramani
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The first no-notice safeguarding inspections have triggered an unseemly spat between local authorities and Ofsted.

Our lead story last week revealed the strength of feeling against Ofsted's use of the descriptor "serious concerns" to cover issues of process and paperwork as well as practice.

As a result of our story, the BBC's Today programme last Friday pitted Association of Directors of Children's Services president Kim Bromley-Derry against Ofsted director for children Roger Shippam. Both outline their positions here this week (see p8).

Thankfully, Ofsted appears to have backed down, saying it will "consider revising" the words and confine the term "serious concern" to matters of child protection practice.

Inspections should of course where necessary alert councils to their failings and challenge them to improve. The term "serious concerns" is an emotive one and sets off alarm bells. But CYP Now has heard of one spot check where inspectors examined 60 child protection referrals, found two of the 60 had missed a seven-day deadline for filing papers by just two days - and called that a "serious concern". Such a senseless use of the term makes a mockery of its reports, so the revision of its terminology cannot come soon enough.

On a related but separate matter, the first evaluation of the reform of care proceedings, known as the Public Law Outline, has revealed its own "serious concerns" (see p1). The reforms were introduced nearly 16 months ago to streamline the court process and focus on the needs of the child. Examining three local authorities with a high number of child protection cases, the evaluation finds that 30 per cent of cases were not complete within the public service agreement target of 40 weeks. Compliance with earlier deadlines in the four-stage care process was worse still. Most worryingly, the study exposed a lack of availability of children's guardians, undermining the quest to consider the welfare and voice of the child.

So our safeguarding systems are clearly wanting. All institutions involved in safeguarding children are currently nervous and defensive. But now is not the time for knee-jerk reactions driven by a sense of panic. Ofsted needs to get its house in order and is taking steps to boost its expertise. The Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service must do more to nurture children's guardians. And a national campaign to make social care an attractive profession arrives in the autumn. Let's hope these developments ease the pressure.

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