Local government bodies have used the consultation into the proposed reforms of children's services inspections to raise serious misgivings about how they will work in practice and whether they will drive improvement.
The Ofsted consultation on proposals to bring together inspections for child protection and looked-after children's services closed this month. Even before the detail has been assessed, the timing of the inspection revamp, due to be introduced in November, has been questioned in light of Ofsted's announcement that this will be usurped in April 2015 by multi-agency inspections.
In addition to the timescales, a key concern is Ofsted's desire to introduce an overall performance rating chosen from four standard Ofsted grades of: outstanding; good; requires improvement; and inadequate. This rating would be based on how departments perform in three key areas: services for children who need protection; looked-after children (including adopted children and care leavers); and leadership, management and governance.
Children's services leaders, local government organisations and social work bodies have outlined why they have misgivings.
Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS)
In its response to the consultation, the ADCS says it "fundamentally disagrees" that graded judgments will help achieve good or outstanding services. "Understanding how systems work to protect children is not easily aided by trying to squeeze judgments into four categories," it says. It also criticises the proposed criteria, or "grade descriptors", for assessing performance. "The current list of what good looks like is overly long and descriptive, and a more precise definition of good would help to avoid a superficial tick-box approach," it adds.
ADCS president Andrew Webb says if Ofsted wants to base judgments on grades, it must be clear what information it uses to arrive at the judgment. "If Ofsted is basing it on a very small sample of social work records and following some cases through, it's not taking a holistic view," says Webb. "It's simply saying a proxy measure for whether we (children's services departments) keep people safe is the approach to social work and family support. It's too simplistic a way to draw a conclusion on the safety and wellbeing of children in the system."
He says introducing a one-word overall rating of services is "just wrong". An alternative would be for Ofsted to undertake a more holistic analysis that "is more likely to understand and assess more assuredly the complexities of the system and social ecology of the local area that it is assessing and, more importantly, identify precisely what it is that is not working effectively", he says.
The ADCS suggests the current Ofsted inspection report could be replaced with narrative judgments resulting from detailed conversations with all the public bodies associated with a problem area. The ADCS consultation response says: "Narrative judgments, which are used with great effect in the Coroner's Courts, would allow Ofsted to describe its findings in detail, including strengths and weaknesses of the system. This, combined with a requirement for the local authority to produce an 'action plan' detailing how improvement will be achieved, would ensure the public can see a remedy alongside a diagnosis for improvement."
Webb says the idea may be "a bit radical", but is dissatisfied with the alternative. "At the moment, we are just given a judgment, a feedback form, and have to live with that for the next three years."
Local Government Association (LGA) and Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace)
The joint LGA and Solace response shares the ADCS's concern about the overall judgment. It says it will "mitigate against a proportionate overview of the summary position and have the effect of producing unrepresentative judgments of authorities' performance".
Solace director Graeme McDonald says a one-word, negative judgment could damage a local authority in many ways. "Children's services are a broad range of services working together," he says. "If the reputation of one part can easily be assumed across the council, it can create lots of problems down the line in terms of commissioning services, working with partners, and recruiting and retaining staff."
Solace and LGA also question Ofsted's ability to achieve its proposals. "We retain significant concerns about the capacity and capability of Ofsted to deliver such an ambitious programme," they say. One of the key concerns is whether Ofsted inspectors have the expertise to carry out the assessments and to suggest how to improve services. They have called on Ofsted to consult with local authorities on a "companion set of proposals for the delivery of a fit-for-purpose inspection workforce".
"We don't want situation where judgments are being challenged," says McDonald. "This is a big step forward from what inspectors have been asked to do in the past and the implications of Ofsted getting it wrong are significant."
They also call on Ofsted to ensure the framework is flexible. "At a time when local government is operating under enormous budgetary constraint and undertaking almost continuous service transformation, this single inspection framework must be flexible, focused and proportionate to ensure effectiveness and manageability in its deployment," it says.
Included in the consultation are plans for Ofsted to review the effectiveness of Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs). Ofsted's plans depend on whether a current Department for Education consultation on legislation and regulation will allow the watchdog to take on this role. But subject to a positive outcome, Ofsted plans to make graded judgments on LSCBs from November. Solace and LGA back these proposals.
"We generally welcome the inclusion of LSCB inspections as a helpful way of trying to look at the whole local safeguarding system," they say. "However, this falls significantly short of the multi-inspectorate arrangements which have been deferred (until April 2015) and we are concerned that this inspection framework will not sufficiently help local authorities hold their partners to account."
British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and The College of Social Work (TCSW)
Nushra Mansuri, BASW professional officer for England, has raised concerns about the timing of the draft framework's launch. She says that with the introduction of the joint inspections framework and the multi-agency inspections, Ofsted was pressurising services with "frenetic" and "constant change".
"BASW was disappointed that the proposals to implement a joint inspection of multi-agency arrangements for the protection of children have been delayed and so these proposals feel incomplete until we have something more embracing," says Mansuri.
"This is apparent in some of the criteria that is included in the consultation in terms of what is to be inspected as, essentially, they are not solely the responsibility of one agency."
She also questions why Ofsted left out whistleblowing from its consultation. "This is remiss, particularly in the current climate, and needs to be included as it is an important mechanism that needs to be deployed in keeping children, and indeed everyone, safe."
In its consultation submission, the TCSW also criticises Ofsted for omissions. Commenting on Ofsted's descriptors for how it will grade leadership, management and governance under the new framework, TCSW highlights that Ofsted should acknowledge the role of principal child and family social workers. "In her review of child protection, professor Eileen Munro argued that the role was a key link between senior management and the frontline, and would help senior managers understand how their decisions impacted on social work practice," says the response.
It also quotes the results of a survey that showed 70 per cent of local authorities in England had a social worker in such a position last year. "There was a feeling among directors of children's services that principal child and family social workers had an important role to play in maintaining standards of practice," says the response.
The Ofsted response
An Ofsted spokeswoman said the consultation submissions would help inform the final framework. "Our priority is to ensure that the protection and welfare of children remains the fundamental focus," she said.
She refuted suggestions that Ofsted would not have the capability to deliver the new system. "All children's social care inspectors are highly qualified and have many years' experience working in the sector," she said.
On concerns about the introduction of the multi-agency framework, she said it was "too soon to describe the detail of any future inspection of the multi-agency contribution to the protection and care of children and young people".
AT A GLANCE
What is in the framework?
- The adequate grade will be replaced with "requires improvement"
- Descriptors of the good grade will be added to three key judgment areas: the experience and progress of children who need help and protection; the experience and progress of children looked after and achieving permanence (including additional graded judgments on adoption performance and the experience and progress of care leavers); and leadership, management and governance
- Local Safeguarding Children Boards will be reviewed and graded for their effectiveness. This is subject to the results of a current Department for Education consultation, which is reviewing the regulations Ofsted needs to introduce the changes. Ofsted intends to consult further on this before November
- An overall effectiveness judgment will be made based on assessment on the three key judgment areas
- Any key judgment graded inadequate will mean the overall effectiveness must also be judged inadequate
What is out?
- The single framework for child protection arrangements (introduced in April 2012)
- The targeted inspections for looked-after children's services (introduced in April 2013)
What stays the same?
- The inspection will take place every three years
- Inspections will be unannounced
TIMELINE OF MULTI-AGENCY INSPECTIONS OF VULNERABLE CHILDREN'S SERVICES
July 2012: Ofsted publishes proposals for multi-agency inspections involving Ofsted, Care Quality Commission, HM Inspectorates of Constabulary, Probation and Prisons. Scheduled to begin in June 2013
April 2013: Plans for multi-agency inspections are deferred. At the same time, Ofsted announces joint inspections of looked-after children and child protection services
June 2013: Plans for a tougher joint inspection regime for children in need of help and protection, children looked after and care leavers are published
Nov 2013: Ofsted plans to begin inspecting local authorities using the new joint inspection framework
April 2015: The redesigned multi-agency inspections are set to begin