Ofsted Inspection of Children's Services - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 20-28)


20 JANUARY 2010

  Q20 Mr Stuart: Has it improved since that report?

  Dame Denise Platt: It is too soon to say. The Audit Commission has produced a lot of materials to help people with that improvement. It is behind the comments that I made at the beginning. I think that some of the best councils that the Audit Commission looked at were those that had devised their own solutions, integrating services that made sense for them on the ground and using resources in different ways because they understood their communities and knew what was intended for them. It is a whole locus of the place-shaping responsibility. Councils have to be able to answer the question, "What is it like to grow up as a child here? As a child, can I get the schooling, the career, the education and the family life that I need?" Councils have to be able to answer that question in partnership. They answer it by devising services that respond. As I said in the beginning, structures can get in the way, but of themselves, structures don't deliver—it is what people to do and how people relate to local communities that deliver, not all those other bits. Now you can tell why I am retired.

  Chairman: That was useful for us, Denise.

  Q21 Ms Buck: This leads back into that very interesting example that you gave about inspections. You talked about the council of the year, where the service was not living up to what was coming out of the performance indicators. Could you give us an indication about the extent to which those discrepancies occur where, on paper, the authority is performing well but the Commission finds that in practice the quality of service is not that good? Can you also say why those discrepancies occur? Is it because the indicators are not what they should be? Is it because the self-assessment is reporting back, in some way, almost fraudulently? What causes that variance?

  Dame Denise Platt: We had a word outside about jargon. It can be very easy for people to mystify professional tasks in a whole range of jargon, or just say, "It is too difficult, you don't understand; these are professional issues and we will deal with them." I think in the early days we had to uncover a lot of that. Thinking way back to the Quality Protects initiative from Frank Dobson, one of the most useful things I think we did in that initiative was to devise a list of questions that councillors should ask and expect answers to. Some of the tools that the Audit Commission and that we produced were really addressed for councillors. Just giving councillors that are ultimately responsible for these services the competence to ask difficult questions and to interrogate information that they are given would provide something similar. A lot of information is generated by councils. A lot of analytic time is spent by councils just amalgamating it, rather than adding value to it. There are sections in most councils that can look at that data and say, "Well, what is this telling us?" So councils are awash with information and data that can be harnessed and used in ways that can actually help councillors understand much more, and actually help frontline practitioners and managers to understand what is going on in their service more. When we first introduced performance assessment, it was extremely difficult to get councils to know how many children they were dealing with, because the information that was generated was in different places and not collated in the right way. That is not found these days, but the Audit Commission is still finding, and published a recent report about data quality, that many councils still do not know how many people they employ. Yet the data is there. It is not harnessed in a way that people can use intelligently to understand the services that they have. Some of that discrepancy is the role of scrutiny in local councils getting underneath some of those issues and accountability and adding value to the information that you have to interrogate it and understand it.

  Q22 Ms Buck: That is very valuable. I am not sure it quite answers the question as to why an inspection could uncover, to take your example, a really significant variance in quality between a self-assessment and an independent look at the service. I am sure that it is absolutely true that there is a lack of data that is not being harnessed.

  Dame Denise Platt: It is the value of people externally coming in and having a look and saying, "This is not acceptable." Sometimes people accept the most unacceptable. I have been in teams where a high level of unallocated cases was the norm. You took referrals out of the unallocated cases basket, you looked at them and you decided they might remain unallocated. I am not talking about current circumstances, because I think departments usually have a plan to deal with those sorts of things now, but cultures of organisations can get very embedded. Poor practices can become normal practices. I am amazed by how quickly bad habits can get circulated and good habits take such time, effort and energy. It is always more difficult to give up smoking than it ever was to take it up. So, getting out of those bad habits and away from bad practice that is accepted as the way things are, takes somebody from outside coming in and saying, "No, it's not acceptable". These children can't wait. A year is a long time in the life of a child.

  Q23 Ms Buck: I read into what you are saying, possibly wrongly, that the quite dramatic example that you brought to us this morning is more likely to be the norm than the exception.

  Dame Denise Platt: No. We went through a stage in which we were finding those sorts of things. The thing about children's services is that they are really quite volatile. When key significant leadership changes or significant people leave, good departments can turn over very quickly. What a child values is consistency of contact, and if there is a lot of churn and turnover in the services, you are operating at high risk and situations can get out of control.

  Ms Buck: And reorganisation can be a part of that as well.

  Dame Denise Platt: Reorganisation can be a part of it.

  Q24 Ms Buck: This is probably not a very fair question, but has the whole children's trust model been worth it, in terms of the added value it brings compared to the level of churn that comes with that scale of reorganisation?

  Dame Denise Platt: It is important to remember where the idea of children's trusts came from. It came from within the Department of Health, when care trusts were being set up in adult services. Some councils wanted to experiment with different organisational arrangements, particularly perhaps in areas where there were children with disabilities and where a structural arrangement that brought health services in much more closely would be very advantageous. I always find it interesting—sad, really—to see how those initiatives, when they come up the system and go out again, are so rigidly ossified that the creativity that created them in the first place is squeezed out. I am not for laissez-faire, but I do think that sometimes Whitehall has an innate ability to take a good idea and institutionalise it, and then suddenly that idea becomes dysfunctional. I was part of Whitehall and so probably part of that process at some stage in my career. Sitting outside it, I can see it only too well.

  Chairman: Confession time.

  Dame Denise Platt: I have never been in the business of saying that it's all them. I think if I would want to leave you with one message about the Commission for Social Care Inspection, it would be that we saw ourselves as part of social care, even though we had a very specific role. We would encourage high-performing practitioners to come and work for us because they could find out about how different councils behaved, how to interrogate performance and how to understand some of these issues. We hoped they would then go back out and take senior position again. If you are an inspectorate that sees itself as an expert in regulation, that may help the regulators but may not entirely help the service.

  Q25 Chairman: Just a couple of questions before we reluctantly let you go, Dame Denise. You have been a chief inspector, so what do you think is the right relationship between a department and a chief inspector?

  Dame Denise Platt: This is a critical friend relationship; a critical professional friend relationship—you are not friendly-friendly, chummy-chummy. It is giving a view of performance in a way that the person on the receiving end can understand what you are saying, understand the importance of it, and understand the importance from the child's and the family's perspective. You say: "If you do not get your act together, they are the ones who are going to suffer; your reputation may take a knock but what happens to children and families is absolutely paramount. My business as a regulator is to help you to understand where you need to improve, and we will keep the pressure on you while you do that. We will congratulate you when you do good things and even the poorest departments have some staff doing very good things. But actually we will pull no punches. We don't want to see you driven into the ground. We don't want to see you drummed out. We want to see the best possible service for the children and families living in your community. It is an agenda which we share. You fall short. They don't experience what they should, what their rights are in terms of the services you want to provide and we are here to tell it straight and keep the pressure on until you get there".

  Q26 Chairman: How often did the Secretary of State tell you to go in and look at a local authority because it caused her or him great concern?

  Dame Denise Platt: It was more often the other way round. It was more often me saying, "Secretary of State there is a council here you really need to spend your time thinking about and I'm going to see them and I'll recommend to you what intervention powers you may or may not need. If I think that they're going to get there in the end, then we'll keep the pressure on. If I think you need to use your powers of direction then we will use them." We did use the powers of direction for the first time and on a couple of occasions. But most often councils don't want to wallow in the mire. They don't want their children's services to be awful.

  Q27 Chairman: But if you look at the popular press, we seem to have an increasing number of ghastly events. Is that because the press are playing it up or are there just more of them? Are there more horrific things going on in children's services and inadequate children's services to respond and prevent those ghastly things from happening?

  Dame Denise Platt: There are more children who are protected than not. It is always important to hang on to the fact that many children in very difficult circumstances are supported in the way that they and their families find helpful and they get through those circumstances and families can cope. It comes back to what I said about the service being able to provide straightforward solutions when there are straightforward problems. The complex families that provide the biggest challenges to social care services have, I suspect, probably always been around and quite often doing the things that they are doing. But services know about them more than they ever did in the past and what is expected of services is quite rightly more in terms of the situations that they encounter.

  Q28 Chairman: We have valued your evidence a great deal. Can I ask you a great favour. Will you remain in contact with us and help to make this an excellent report?

  Dame Denise Platt: Of course. In any way that you wish.

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