The Work of Ofsted - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents


Further supplementary memorandum submitted by Ofsted

PERFORMING `INITIAL ASSESSMENT': IDENTIFYING THE LATENT CONDITIONS FOR ERROR AT THE FRONT-DOOR OF LOCAL AUTHORITY CHILDREN'S SERVICES

  Thank you for your letter to Michael Livingston sent on 28 February 2009, and received in my office on 2 March 2009, referring to the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee hearing on 9 February 2009.

  During that hearing, Graham Stuart MP referred to a piece of work entitled, Performing `Initial Assessment': Identifying the Latent Conditions for Error at the Front-Door of Local Authority Children's Services, a research study by Karen Broardhurst, Sue White and others, on behalf of the Economic and Social Research Council's (ESRC) Public Services Programme.[7]

  The paper presents the results of `a two-year ESRC-funded study of child welfare practices in five local authority areas in England and Wales, which focused on the impact of performance management on organizational decision making'. There are a number of similar studies of performance management systems in different countries and their impact on practice and morale. The authors discuss the interface between practice and inspection and argue that their research findings demonstrate that `the prevailing performance culture is not conducive to honest and reflective feedback.' They observe that `workers are too busy responding to the relentless targets... and that... everyday errors will inevitably be kept quiet'. They conclude that, `the inspection process can seem to amount to little more than an elaborate game of cat and mouse, rather than a useful exercise of organizational learning in which pertinent `systems-focused' questions are posed.'

  Such a description of inspection does not reflect a comprehensive or complete analysis of Ofsted's approach. For example, building on the work of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, we are very aware of the need to examine the reality of social work practice `at the front line' and not simply to focus on data, structures and policy. When giving evidence previously, I stressed to the Committee that inspectors have been critical of councils who `chase targets' without attention to the quality of practice. I also underlined the importance of `on the ground' observation and the dangers of over-reliance on performance data.

  Ofsted recognises that children's social care data has inherent limitations, drawn as it is from small groups with very diverse needs and characteristics. However, this does not mean that we should ignore data completely. Statistics are essential to help us to generalise from our sample of observations of direct practice and from our discussions with staff from different levels of agencies. We observe that the consistent use of accurate management data, integrated with effective performance management and a sound framework of professional practice and values, does support improvement in services.

  Our approach is well illustrated by the recent joint area review (JAR) programme, led by Ofsted. In addition to observation of service delivery, inspectors from Ofsted and our partner inspectorates always met with children, young people, parents and caregivers, as well as with front-line staff, middle and senior managers and leading local politicians. We examined the linkages between practice, management and policy and reported on the impact of these on outcomes for users and on the experience for citizens. We know that practice can be difficult to evaluate in complex cases, where outcomes may be long-term and incremental. Our judgements therefore have to take account of evidence from both observation and data. We would suggest that inspectorates have evolved a highly sophisticated methodology to achieve this, `triangulating' information from different sources to arrive at the final judgement.

  Throughout the JAR fieldwork, as is the case with school and other inspections, the lead inspector had regular, often daily, meetings with the head of the organisation, in this case the Director of Children's Services. The dialogue informed our evidence gathering and our judgements were fed back to the management team and others at the end of the inspection, providing an opportunity for `organizational learning in which pertinent `systems-focused' questions' were indeed examined in detail. Feedback from Directors and managers suggests that this process was valued; I recognise that fieldwork staff in children's services may not be so aware of that process of dialogue.

  I have argued that our judgements need to be informed by combining analysis of data, observation of practice and information from other sources. If we are to analyse data, this does of course have to be collected. However, we are always careful to minimise the demands we place on others to produce new data and usually make use of data that the organisations we inspect already collect to support their own improvement. I know that many social workers are concerned about what they perceive to be unreasonable demands for administration and data collection, and I recognise the importance of creating more space for social workers to have direct contact with children, young people and parents. I, therefore, welcome the work of the Social Work Task Force, which is examining this matter.

  I note that the authors state that they are `are not arguing for a wholesale abandonment of new modes of governance and new technology'. They, like other critics, recognise the need for accountability and evaluation and that inspection has a role in that process. We recognise the complexity of the judgements and employ a team of highly experienced and well qualified HMIs to lead this work.

  It is also important to note that the cycle for inspecting local authority children's services outlined above is now complete, and will be replaced by the Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) from April 2009. Ofsted's contribution to the CAA will ensure an even stronger focus on front line practice. The framework will include annual unannounced inspection visits of child protection arrangements in every local authority. We will also review information on local authorities quarterly (in particular, Ofsted inspection outcomes) and this will direct our energies into areas of highest risk, allowing us to target inspections at specific areas of concern. This will support a three year programme of rigorous inspections for safeguarding and services for looked after children. If the unannounced visit raises concerns, the full inspection will be brought forward.

  Ofsted's contribution is outlined in detail in Comprehensive Area Assessment: assessing children's services and adult learning, available on the Ofsted website at http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/Ofsted-home/Forms-and-guidance/Browse-all-by/Other/General/Comprehensive-Area-Assessment-assessing-children-s-services-and-adult-learning/(language)/eng-GB. I am confident that this combination of inspections and evidence gathering will provide us with the best picture yet of services for the most vulnerable children in England. I hope that this will help to drive further improvement and help make outstanding providers increasingly common.

  I believe that Ofsted is attuned to current debates and recognises the duty on us to be sensitive to practice realities. We welcome systematic research on the interface between practice, management and inspection and adjust our methodologies as our knowledge grows, so that we continue to provide informed judgements for the public. We will continue to work with government, our partner inspectorates and our users and stakeholders to ensure that our inspection frameworks are effective and proportionate, that they support and develop good practice and that together we ensure effective public accountability.

Christine Gilbert

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector

March 2009




7   Broadhurst, K., D. Wastell, S. White, C. Hall, S. Peckover, K. Thompson, A. Pithouse and D. Davey (2009) Performing `initial assessment': Identifying the latent conditions for error at the front-door of local authority children's services. British Journal of Social Work,OUP, Available from http://bjsw.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/bcn162v1 Back


 
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