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

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 29-39)


20 JANUARY 2010

  Q29 Chairman: I welcome some old friends and some new friends: Kim Bromley-Derry whom most appear to have met; Tony Howell, whom most of us met; Nick Jarman, I am very pleased to meet you and Councillor Shireen Ritchie, this is your first appearance before the Committee.

  Shireen Ritchie: It is.

  Q30 Chairman: You know what this investigation is about. We take our responsibility as the Children, Schools and Families Committee very seriously and of course we are switching and swatching across our vast canvas—it's a mixed metaphor, but you know what I mean. We are moving around all the time to try to show that we value our whole remit both in terms of the Department's many guises and our responsibility to scrutinise all its activities. We have been increasingly interested in the role of Ofsted in terms of children's services and thought that this was a good reason to have a short inquiry. I usually give witnesses the opportunity to say something, or they can go straight into questions. What is your option?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: I am fairly relaxed. If all four of us say something before questions, we might use up most of the time.

  Q31 Chairman: Can I suggest that we go straight into questions? Let's get you started. I am always regarded as the warm-up act and the real questions come from my fantastic team. You know why we are looking at this area. We have seen some interesting activities in terms of the Ofsted response to particular crises in children's services. We are trying to get under that. We have just heard a very experienced expert, Dame Denise Platt, talking about the churn and change in inspection over quite a short period; I am looking at the time frame from 2002 and 2004. There has been a lot of change in this area in terms of inspection, which makes me wonder whether any of you, as Directors of Children's Services, know what is going on. Is the current Ofsted inspection process fit for purpose?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: We feel that, as part of that change and churn, we have probably lost more than we have gained in terms of the quality of inspection around particular areas of the children's services remit. We certainly think that some of the frameworks—some more than others—are fundamentally flawed. We have a new set of frameworks that we are operating with at the moment, and it is very early days for some of them. The three or four critical areas that we would identify include the lack of triangulation of evidence. We heard Dame Denise talk about that. If you use performance indicators as proxies, you have to understand what the proxy is. I will use one example around initial and core assessments. I was involved in the work that developed those as performance indicators. The reason we had them was because a piece of work patterns and outcomes in 1985 showed that if you entered the care system and were in it for more than six weeks, there was a high chance that you were going to be in it for much longer. So we designed an inspection framework that had one day, seven days, 35 days, adding up to six weeks, so that we could ensure that assessment took place quickly enough, but if you needed to go back home, you could do that within those six days. Now, it is being used as a proxy to look at the quality of a whole safeguarding function. That was not why we had the assessment framework and those indicators. Using process and systems to judge quality is not appropriate. We have lost the triangulation of evidence where you looked at and talked to people and you looked at case files and the performance indicators. We have also inevitably lost a level of expertise in terms of that shift. Initially, when Ofsted was set up, there was certainly a lack of experience in social care issues. I think that we are only just beginning to get that back. Therefore, quite often the organisational intelligence about why we look at what we look at is lost. Many local authorities feel that most of that expertise was in the local authorities, not the inspectorate. On the separation of what we describe as regulation in inspection from development, Dame Denise articulately talked about the fact that a business relationship manager actually knew and worked with the local authority. We have just seen, in the past two, three months, Ofsted create link inspectors to effectively replace what was the business relationship manager, but that has happened five years after we lost it.

  Chairman: Some suspect that might have been after an interview with the chief inspector of this Committee.

  Kim Bromley-Derry: Possibly.

  Chairman: But we don't know. I'm going to hold you there, Kim. You are the president of the directors, so you and I have done the warm-up. Two members of the Committee are going to Prime Minister's Question Time and are on a shorter time frame, so I am now going to call David and Karen. I will then give you a fair crack of the whip later.

  Q32 Mr Chaytor: Is Ofsted too big?

  Tony Howell: That is an interesting question. As Kim said, part of the challenge—this relates to what Dame Denise said—is that it is not the structure that is the issue, but the way it works. The thing that I want to say, having gone through the last year of difficulty and correspondence with Ofsted, is that some aspects of the lack of transparency, particularly around some of the inspection regulation framework for children in social care and things like serious case reviews, remind me of the early days of the inspection of schools. It is as if we are finding our way forward. The relationships with both local authorities and other provisions that are inspected, also with other inspectorates, present interesting challenges. There have been some interesting difficulties between the Audit Commission and Ofsted around CAA and communication and who is the senior partner. It is more about the relationship ways of working than about the size of the organisation. I want them to use the same data more than once, not ask us to do self assessments more than once, but at the moment, that is the kind of world we live in.

  Q33 Mr Chaytor: Is the division of responsibility between inspection of children's services and the Care Quality Commission's responsibility for inspection of adult services the right division of responsibility?

  Tony Howell: Personally, I think it is helpful because it reflects what we are trying to do in joining up services for children. We want to see the same kind of operating model that the adult services are getting at the moment.

  Q34 Mr Chaytor: Does it bother you that Ofsted has responsibility for inspection of adult education, for example? Is that consistent with its other responsibilities?

  Tony Howell: I think it can be consistent. It is important to have transparent frameworks, language that people understand and a willingness to meet each other to talk about what the findings are, where the evidence is, and what we should be doing about it. That is the part that is lacking at the moment.

  Q35 Mr Chaytor: So there is not a fundamental structural problem, it is about processes.

  Tony Howell: Not for me. It is about processes and relationships.

  Q36 Ms Buck: Just going back, perhaps I can start with Mr Bromley-Derry and the issue of the inspectors. John Goldup's response to Lord Laming's criticism, which is to some extent mirrored by what has just been said, said that most of the inspectors had been transferred from the commission into Ofsted, which in his view undermined that criticism quite strongly. Is that something you accept, and if not, why not?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: That is certainly not the experience of most of my members. Most of the inspectors have not worked in a children's services environment, although they may have worked in previous iterations of structures in local authorities. Until recently, there was no one who worked in Ofsted who had been a leader in children's services, but yet Ofsted made judgments about leadership in children's services. The general view in the sector was that there was a real deficit in experience both at an inspectorate level, and at a senior leadership level, hence the loss of some of that organisational intelligence about why we do what we do. If you're going to be a robust challenger of the sector, as Dame Denise said, you naturally need to understand it and have worked in it. You need to have experienced it.

  Q37 Ms Buck: Does it worry you that John Goldup's response to the criticism was effectively—taking your reply to the question—quite mechanistic in terms of saying that if inspectors were transferred from the commission to Ofsted, that ticks the box? Why would that happen and what does it tell us about Ofsted?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: Obviously, we have a dialogue with Ofsted and feel that its approach is very mechanistic. It looks at process and systems rather than the quality and depth to that discussion. That response would epitomise the experience that we have with Ofsted in terms of its approach to inspection, regulation and management of the system.

  Q38 Ms Buck: You have partly answered my next question, but perhaps I could turn to Councillor Ritchie and ask what in your view—a thumbnail sketch—makes for a good inspector?

  Shireen Ritchie: If I could just set the context. I am here in my capacity of chair of the Children and Young People's Board of the Local Government Association. I am a statutory lead member within my own local authority—as Karen obviously knows—and I chair my local children's trust. In local government we are arguing that all parts of the system that protect children from harm need to be involved. Inspection needs to be one of the tools that can help local authorities to learn and improve, and that aspect of improvement is something that we find is missing from the Ofsted inspection at the moment. One of the things we would be interested to see put within the Ofsted framework is inspection. We are all absolutely determined to make sure that we can protect all children, but in particular the most vulnerable. That is the thing that feels to us is missing. There has been a lot of comment about process rather than practice. Again, we don't feel the mechanistic approach to inspection is helpful to provide the best protection for children and the best for children.

  Q39 Mr Stuart: Some of Ofsted's annual performance assessments of local authority children's services, notably Haringey and Warrington but there are others, painted a fairly rosy picture of performance, which was promptly contradicted by other Ofsted reports highly critical of provision and suggesting that it was not very good. Has Ofsted's credibility been damaged?

  Nick Jarman: I don't think that Ofsted's credibility has been damaged as such. We need to look at the history of where we came from. Dame Denise alluded to this as well. We previously had the joint area review—which was ludicrously abbreviated to JAR—and the annual performance assessment. I have been in Doncaster since April when the Secretary of State intervened. Until very late in that process it failed to detect the extent of distress that there was in Doncaster; the problem had been going on for over a decade. Now I have to say, we had an unannounced inspection last week of our contact, referral and assessment service, and it was vigorous and fair and concentrated on the right things. It was reminiscent of the old days of Ofsted. Coming from an education background, I know Ofsted started to inspect schools and got better at it, and more lately, local education authorities. Again, those are fair, rigorous, process-based inspections. The previous regime, I think, placed an over-reliance on fairly nebulous data on outcomes, at the expense of looking carefully at how well things were being done or not, as the case may be.

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