Further supplementary memorandum submitted
PERFORMING `INITIAL ASSESSMENT': IDENTIFYING
THE LATENT CONDITIONS FOR ERROR AT THE FRONT-DOOR OF LOCAL AUTHORITY
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.
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.
Her Majesty's Chief Inspector
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