Inspections proved to be a key theme running through the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) annual conference held in Manchester this month. New ADCS president Alan Wood used his welcome speech to outline his vision of a more "proportionate" system, while the following day, Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw explained what the inspectorate expects to see from councils.
Although the premise of Ofsted's current inspection framework for children's social care, introduced last November, has been generally well received, there have been gripes. Not only are councils concerned about the impact an "inadequate" or even a "requires improvement" grade can have on morale, recruitment, and retention, but the sheer amount of time and resources councils expend on the process has emerged as a bugbear.
Once the current three-year cycle of inspections ends in 2016, Wood wants a two-tier framework to be introduced. All authorities would have a twoor three-day inspection of "front door services". If local authorities passed this, they would not be subject to a fuller inspection, which would be reserved for authorities with problems.
Speaking at a workshop on the current inspection framework, Debbie Jones, Ofsted's director for social care, said improvements are being made on the back of an evaluation of the first 11 inspections, conducted by Professor Eileen Munro, which highlighted, among other things, concerns about consistency.
"Eileen didn't say that our judgments weren't valid," she said. "What she did say and what we have accepted is that it is important for us to be able to look at those issues of consistency and we are establishing a consistency panel."
Jones added that work is being done to improve the way inspection results are reported, including for reports to say how near councils are to adjacent grades, particular for those that receive a "requires improvement" judgment.
"There's a big debate about that and we are looking to ensure we are more precise in terms of what we describe so we capture that journey," said Jones. "One of the things we are keen to do is to tell the story in a much tighter way in the report summary and the recommendations. There is too much regurgitation of what is in the report, so we are working towards greater analysis of what the overall picture is."
Wilshaw started off his address by saying "social care professionals are working in a really challenging environment and Ofsted can add to that pressure".
He said the analysis by Professor Munro had produced evidence that the new inspection framework is helping drive cultural change in local authorities, particular on early intervention.
"We want to see increased focus on early help for children and families, not last-minute responses to family breakdowns and abuse," he said. "What strikes me is that a strong local authority focuses on what matters most – that leaders have a firm grip on practice. In the weakest ones, lack of leadership is palpable throughout the system."
He added that "strong leadership" would be critical in the multi-agency inspection framework, due to begin in 2015. "They will want to see how you are working across boundaries and with the local safeguarding children's boards.
"Money is an issue and cutbacks are significant, but what is more important is leadership. In local authorities facing similar (financial) situations, those where there is good leadership resolve issues quickly."
Elsewhere, during his keynote speech to the conference, children's minister Edward Timpson called on councils to work hard to ensure the special educational needs (SEN)reforms are a success. Despite revealing that 95 per cent of councils have told the government they are "on track for September and can manage the changes", he warned it is "very much the beginning of the process".
"If it's to have a real impact, a change in law must go hand in hand with a change in culture - a long-term change that gives much greater priority to children and young people with SEN," he said.
Although the changes - which include councils publishing a "local offer" of support services and the introduction of a new education health and care (EHC) plan – officially take effect on 1 September, the government is planning for gradual implementation. Rather than all changes taking effect on the same day, Timpson said the transfer will take place at a "manageable pace" over the next three-and-a-half years. He said certain things such as information and advice, the local offer and the capacity to assess those wanting a new EHC plan must be in place by September, but other elements like joint commissioning and the offer for young offenders will take longer to develop.
"Developing good links with parents and doing all you can to involve them, now and in the long term, is utterly vital to the cultural shift that's needed to make these reforms a success; to helping families understand what the changes mean for them and to managing expectations," he said.
Wood also used his speech to call for a debate about the role of volunteer workers in the sector, suggesting that local authorities "sometimes seem to back away" from utilising them. He pointed to key life-saving services – the military, police, lifeboats and family support services – as evidence that people do not have to be paid professionals to be capable of taking important decisions.
"Is there nothing we can learn from these and other places like intergenerational family support models in the US as we think about the way we deliver our services?" he said.
Wood cites two areas where he believes there could be a greater role for volunteers. The first is working with the main carer in families to help them become more independent and manage matters such as finances and cooking for children. The second is with young adolescents who are "troubled and troubling".