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Inspections are failing to drive improvement in children’s services

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At the Solace conference last week, I said that I didn’t believe inspection could drive improvement in children’s social care.

Staff working with partners and communities drives improvement. Inspections shine an imperfect light on performance but it is local partners who innovate, improve and develop services.

Competent inspections measure what inspectors see, when they see it. They are unavoidably backward-looking from the day their reports are published and do not capture the volatility of many children’s services systems.

Star ratings have oversimplified Ofsted’s findings and played to the media with the dubious terminology of ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’. The regime is silent about the context in which we work. While local government has had to reduce expenditure by 30% since 2010, inspection requirements have become more demanding. They risk being seen as a cynical exercise in denigrating councils.

The inspection system then categorises councils into four boxes from ‘rubbish’ to ‘brilliant’. The rubbish councils are shamed and subjected to ‘monitoring’ while the brilliant councils are rewarded with new freedoms and let off from further inspections.

Rubbish councils are subject to the resignation or sackings of senior members and officers, vilification in the media and the demoralisation and exit of hard-to-recruit social workers. How does this drive improvement?

Councils then start their ‘improvement journey’ with one arm tied behind their backs due to turbulent leadership, an over-reliance on agency social workers and an obsessive need to prove that things are getting better with limited capacity to effect real change.

This is an unhelpful and superficial approach to driving improvement. Within a few months of an ‘outstanding’ rating, a children’s service could have completely new senior management or be responding to a very different resource scenario. How do we know they are still outstanding?

Inspections are a distraction. Life stops for everyone during the four-week process and the short-notice inspection method means everyone has to be in a constant state of ‘inspection readiness’ at the expense of long-term strategic planning.

The existing model is broken. We need a radical new approach. There are five key elements that will improve children’s social care.

First, we must put in place a self-improving system. Councils should not wait for Ofsted to tell them about the state of services. Chief executives should be curious about all council business and engage with children’s services – not just after a poor Ofsted report.

Councils spend much time measuring key performance indicators, some of which are of dubious merit. Less time is spent measuring quality and even less on how to improve it. Instead we need a system of regular internal assessments followed by intense input to improve front-line services.

Authorities must collaborate to support each other in this process. A strengthened capacity to commission better services and measure against the best in the market is a must.

Next, we must introduce competition into children’s social care. For too long the service has been run by a municipal monopoly, with the market only embraced as a provider of last resort. This is in stark contrast to other services such housing, environment and adult social care, where commissioning has become more sophisticated and markets have developed.

We must develop new service models. On 30 September we launched the Doncaster Children’s Trust, an independent organisation delivering all social care services on behalf of Doncaster MBC. This will bring a new focus and energy to children’s services but there are opportunities to take this much further with models of social ownership and by forming alliances with other agencies.

We need to challenge the cultural hegemony within children’s social care. We must rid ourselves of professional elitism that encourages the status quo, and resists the modernisation of services.

The sector’s response to the consultation on the delegation of social care demonstrates this. There was a lot of shroud-waving about risks to children from profiteers but no mention of the significant use of the private sector in the provision of agency social workers, independent fostering placements and residential homes.

We do not live in a binary world of public=good and private=bad. Nor do we live in a world where the agency social worker working with a family for a day knows better than the headteacher with five years of knowledge, purely because of their professional designation. That’s what I referred to last week at the conference as ‘professional narcissism’.

Finally we need an inspection system that is viewed as fair. Ofsted has offered councils a tremendous tool in the criteria by which it judges services. These criteria describe the outcomes we want to see and we have an opportunity to achieve them through our internal quality assurance processes. Ofsted could support the process of self-assessment through independent challenge and by signposting to areas of good practice.

Jo Miller, chief executive, Doncaster MBC




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