Another year, another Ofsted inspection regime hoves into view.
Much has been written about the (unintended I’m sure) negative impact of previous inspection regimes, the crudity of the one-word judgement and the burden placed on councils leading up and managing the inspection visits. The new regime might mitigate some of these criticisms – although sadly the one-word judgement remains – and the more proportionate approach based on previous inspection findings is to be welcomed.
However, I do think there is some danger here; all children’s services are fragile at the best of times, even in outstanding councils, and it can take very little change to start an inexorable and quick slide downwards, so there is a need to ensure an eye is kept on all.
The continued burden on inadequate authorities raises a concern too; the balance between getting on with the improvements and managing ongoing monitoring, especially when there are Department for Education officials, improvement boards and consultants occupying a crowded dance floor, can be counter-productive. Ofsted needs to adopt a more responsive position in those circumstances that help rather than hinder on-going improvement work.
The most important outstanding issue remains where an inspectorate sits within the system more generally and in sector improvement more specifically. Inspection is important of course; having periodic external and objective stocktakes is critical in such important services. That inspection, however, needs to sit within overall sector improvement and that requires a different and evaluative approach from the inspectorate.
Maybe the fault lies in it being an ‘inspection’. The word implies ‘we’re coming to see what’s going wrong here’. A ‘critical evaluation’ would be more helpful. A starting point informed by a drive to find out what is going on and, crucially, how it could be better would lead to a more analytical and insightful report and more helpful recommendations.
Inspection reports remain very descriptive, with little or no analysis into underlying causes, whether for success or failure. Describing problems and then setting out recommendations that essentially say, ‘fix them’ is not helpful enough. The more recent focus on the frontline and on practice is welcomed but inspectors need also to get underneath an organisation and comment more analytically on culture and leadership as well as budgets, the local politics and the quality of corporate support, setting out how they do or do not contribute to service provision and how they could be developed.
The irony, of course, is that if Ofsted was to find a series of social work assessments on families that summed them up in one word, offered little or no analysis of what was going on in the family and what some of the underlying dynamics might be, simply described their deficits and concluded by saying ‘fix those deficits’, we would be rightly criticised.
The approach, whatever the changing regime, needs to offer an informed understanding about why services, how they got there and, crucially, what might need to change if they are going to improve and develop and that surely ought to be the core business of any inspection body.
Mark Gurrey is currently chair of two local safeguarding children boards and an improvement board. He writes in a personal capacity