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

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 40-59)


20 JANUARY 2010

  Q40 Mr Stuart: Dame Denise talked about the fact that no process will solve the problem. What you need is reflective, experienced, capable people who can make judgments on complex amounts of information, and challenge what they are told and follow it through. That suggests a very high calibre is required of people to be able to do the work. Does Ofsted have that work force?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: If I may respond to that in two ways. The first is, I think Nick is right, that lessons have been learned and so the methodology and approach are starting to change. If you take a mechanistic approach, you are always going to have floors and ceilings and misjudgments. A good example is how you might rate children's homes as red, amber, green, or just red-green. If you have five children's homes in a local authority and three of them are good and two are inadequate, you are green. If you have five, including two that are excellent and three that are satisfactory, you are red. I would be more concerned about the two inadequate ones, which are completely missed in that framework. Because everyone would perceive that authority to be green when it came to children's homes. If you take a mechanistic approach you get back polarised perspectives on performance. Some of the authorities we have seen, where everyone has said they are really good, was because we have this polarised perspective on performance. To get beneath that you need to know the services, you need to understand what makes a good children's home, what does not. I know of one authority that had an example of a children's home that was perceived to be inadequate because the health and safety sign was in the wrong place. That has nothing to do with the quality of care in that children's home but it was still judged inadequate. It requires somebody who has actually worked in a children's home, who has been involved in a children's home as part of that inspection regime, to understand what is going on in that children's home.

  Q41 Mr Stuart: You didn't answer my question, Kim.

  Kim Bromley-Derry: It's sufficient.

  Q42 Mr Stuart: Mechanistic processes are harmless enough if you've got brilliant, reflective, thoughtful professionals who can see beneath. As Dame Denise said, you can change these processes and say "Don't be mechanistic" and have a new set, but unless you've got the quality of people—you didn't answer my question about Ofsted. And going back to what Nick said, the truth is when you suddenly become a centre of national media controversy they pluck all the brilliant people they've got and they send them in, and suddenly Nick turns up here and says, "Ah, it's all right now; they're improving." Well they're not improving; they've taken the few people they've got who are good enough. If that's the truth. Is the overall calibre of people coming in to do this astonishingly challenging and difficult job high enough; and if it isn't, how do you, as people to whom the inspectorate should partly be accountable, according to Dame Denise, influence that to help them raise the calibre?

  Tony Howell: I think, as Kim said, some of the inspectors I meet are extremely credible; very good. Some inspectors are not, and that's part of the challenge we've got, and we really need to think about it, because I think there is a risk that Ofsted will lose credibility if we have that rather unpredictable and inconsistent approach. And at the moment part of the culture in Ofsted is that they're not expected, they're not allowed, to give us advice, or to talk about the detail. Some of the inspectors are very good, without giving us advice, at having very focused conversations with us about signposting, and where can we find other practice. And I think we do need to think and work with Ofsted to say "Where could the work force of inspectors come, who are completely familiar"? Because I've had exactly the same experience that Kim had about an inadequate residential home, simply because of a bureaucratic decision that an inspector chose to implement. As I said, that's a challenge.

  Q43 Chairman: Dame Denise just told us that one of her concerns was that there was an insufficient number of people with the right background in Ofsted to know about this particular area of activity. That's what we've heard from inside Ofsted. That is one of the problems, isn't it? It's hard enough in your job—I'm looking at you now, Nick, who comes from an education background originally. It's a damned difficult job. I think everyone on this Committee knows that under the new arrangements you have to get a director who's got to run the whole darned school system; and at the time when there are problems in the other part of their empire, the children's services part, they've got a massive Building Schools for the Future programme to juggle. Time and time again we talk to and visit directors who say, "Look, this is a very complicated task." For someone like yourself who is not from a social services background, but educational services, or someone like Sharon Shoesmith, who was from education—it is a tough job these days, isn't it, without people coming in who haven't got a background in the children's services or social services side? Is there a problem here, or not? You seem to be nice guys today: "We don't want to be too nasty about Ofsted; they might come and see us soon."

  Shireen Ritchie: I am happy to make an uninformed, non-professional comment. My understanding was that when Ofsted was set up to have the responsibility for inspection of both education and children's social care a lot of the Ofsted inspectors had come from education, which is exactly the sort of issue that you are alluding to. I'm sure that's changing over time, and there is a senior person at Ofsted with a social care background now, but this has taken some time to bed in and work through.

  Q44 Chairman: It's very difficult to recreate quickly, isn't it? It's all about putting a senior person at last at the senior management level at Ofsted, but what Dame Denise was saying was a whole tranche of expertise went off to the regional centres of government; other people chose to stay with social care; and the picture I'm getting, certainly, talking to the inspectorate, is that a lot of that expertise was lost because it's difficult to recreate.

  Nick Jarman: One of the points we're touching on here is that the Children Act 2004 by its nature created organisations, which are very large and very complex, as I think you have acknowledged. As a result of that, if you're going to inspect them, you need an organisation which itself is capable of being expert enough to deal with that complexity and that difficulty. Part of the problem—and I can only speak from my own experience here—where children's services go wrong under the new model is in my mind to do with two key success factors above any others, and they are clarity and manageability. It doesn't matter how good or noble your aspirations are; if you haven't got that clarity and manageability in a large organisation, you will not get integration and services working together to deliver the outcomes and improvements that you wish for. To some extent, Ofsted is likely to reflect that, because it is trying to inspect organisations that are huge and complex. There are solutions. There are no particular rights of access in terms of what people's backgrounds need to be for them to be a director of children's services. Obviously, you have to have a good knowledge of all the services, but you also have to have a structure that reflects them at the senior management level so that you, as director of children's services, are able, for example, to make an appropriate judgment about the performance of schools or referral and assessment. It is critically dependent on the senior management team.

  Q45 Chairman: Kim, while we are on this subject, and sitting where you are, as the director in Newham and as the president of the directors' association, which includes 150 directors, is it not important that Ofsted is seen to be fair? You all want fairness, don't you? When I talk to directors of children's services, they talk about the unfairness. They agree that if something is wrong in a local authority, the inspectors should by all means come in, find out what it is and put it right, but the process should be fair. Inspectors shouldn't come down like a tonne of bricks on one authority and use a much lighter touch with another authority. Tony, some people have said that compared with some local authorities, Birmingham got off a bit lightly recently in its treatment by Ofsted. Is that a fair comment?

  Tony Howell: I don't think we got off lightly. It's interesting that we had an unannounced inspection a month or so ago. We had been working for a year with the government office and the DCSF, and the inspection was good. We feel that we were treated extremely harshly in the annual performance letter, which judges that children's services in Birmingham are performing poorly, because of some aspects of children's social care. Schools in Birmingham outperform those in all the other core cities in the country. Our early years has been acknowledged to have improved and our youth service inspection was good, and I spoke to the chief inspector about this. It is just not fair to try to summarise all the performance of children's services in Birmingham, which has a population of 1 million people, including 260,000 children. It is not fair to say, "This is the way things are." We have acknowledged that there are things that we need to improve and we want to work with Ofsted to improve them.

  Q46 Chairman: But you have had some tragic deaths of children in Birmingham.

  Tony Howell: We have.

  Q47 Chairman: But you didn't seem to get the same media attention as Haringey, for example.

  Tony Howell: That's partly because we're also trying to raise the profile of the lives of children in very challenging circumstances in this country. At the time, part of the challenge that we had was that the media and the public didn't understand the nature of serious case reviews, the number of serious case reviews or child death. Together, we have to make sure that we address that so that we are doing something about it and so that the public understand what the quality of some children's lives is like. In a population of more than a quarter of a million children, I am afraid that there will be child deaths that will need a serious case review to find out what happened.

  Q48 Chairman: This Committee understands that very well, Tony. We have certainly looked at this in the past. We do hear directors express the opinion that the system is unfair and that media coverage in particular may lead unfairly to the hounding of a local authority.

  Kim Bromley-Derry: One of our big concerns is the inconsistency of the judgments. When I speak to directors, they sometimes tell me that they can't understand the causal relationship between a judgment and the evidence that has been found. If the public are to have confidence in the system, it would be a good start if the sector had confidence in it. Otherwise, we will get into fairly unhelpful discussions about whether we agree with the judgment, whether the evidence base is right and whether the process has been rigorous enough. We want everyone to have confidence in the system, because if you are excellent you want people to have confidence in the fact that you are excellent, and not suddenly to feel that you are inadequate the next week. If you are inadequate, we, as a sector, are absolutely committed to supporting authorities that are inadequate and to help them improve. We have a lot of expertise in the sector that can help those authorities that are struggling or having difficulties, but you have to start by having confidence in the system. The general view is that that is not as strong as it should be and that it is lacking. The result is that too many authorities spend too much time and money preparing for inspection, because of the impact that inspection has on them—as you say, an inconsistent media approach to authorities. One small authority told us that it spent 9,500 hours preparing for its safeguarding inspection, yet it had no confidence in the judgment being matched to the evidence base at the end of the 9,500 hours that it had corporately spent preparing for that inspection. Actually, we want people to spend their time working with children and delivering services, and not preparing for inspection. That is the inconsistent lack of confidence that is out there.

  Chairman: Graham has been very tolerant of me.

  Q49 Mr Stuart: As ever, Chairman, but it is right that I should be. It seems to me, Shireen, that there is plenty to be said about dual accountability—not getting into this idea that the inspector comes in and you are purely a victim doing 9,000 hours of preparation. It is harder for the directors of children's services to do it. Is it not a job for you to go and see Ofsted and start holding it to account and say, "On behalf of the Local Government Association and of local government overall, we need change."? You should make it see that it is accountable, too, and it is not just local government having to account for its performance to it.

  Shireen Ritchie: I think that you are right. The Local Government Association is obviously talking to Ofsted. We are also talking to the director of children's services. We realise that we should not be criticising unless we are coming up with some positive and helpful comments. It feels as if there is some shift in the way in which Ofsted is looking at inspection. We understand that there will always be a need for external inspection, but feel that it needs to be more supportive, particularly around areas of high impact such as safeguarding. We understand that there is a real need for rigorous inspection, but we think that the focus needs to be clearer and that self-assessment needs to be built on. We need peer challenge and greater flexibility within local authorities to play a greater part in performance management within their own sector. We want to make our contribution through self-assessment, peer challenge and looking at our own localities. The answer to your question is that we are having conversations; it would be irresponsible not to have conversations with Ofsted. We are also talking with ADCS. There is, if you like, a sector conversation going on.

  Q50 Mr Stuart: I was struck by Tony when he said that the inspectors will not give advice. The idea of inspectors—critical professional friends—not giving advice sounds extraordinary. While there is enough distance to be able to maintain objective analysis, surely there should be a sense of partnership?

  Shireen Ritchie: Which goes back to my comment about the inspection framework and the improvement in it.

  Q51 Mr Stuart: I started by asking you about the inconsistencies in different assessments of local authority children's services. Do you think that national inspectorates have had their credibility damaged by the recent differences in the performance of certain health trusts, because we seem to have the same problem there? Is there a risk that they will have a loss of public confidence in what such inspectors tell us?

  Chairman: Nick, you have been everywhere. I know that we can ask you this question.

  Nick Jarman: I am not sure that I wish to be described in those terms.

  Chairman: You've been to Wigan, at least.

  Nick Jarman: Speaking from recent experience, and this applies to Ofsted's evaluation of serious case reviews as well, much greater effort has been made by Ofsted on ensuring consistency of judgment so that you don't get authority A, which in objective terms is as good or as bad as authority B, having completely different judgments made about them. It has slowed down the promulgation of evaluations of serious case reviews. There is a set time scale in which they have to get back to you after an unannounced inspection, but considerable effort is invested in moderation and ensuring consistency of judgment. I can't talk about the business about health care trusts, as it is not in my field of experience, but I think that more is being done to ensure consistency—and quite rightly so.

  Q52 Mr Stuart: I understand that because directors like yourself are now very much involved in health—the whole point was to have an integrated system—that the quality of pronouncements on health would come within your area of responsibility. Others might want to comment on that, but I am struck by the fact that it is not only Ofsted. Dr Foster comes out and says that some people are not very good. The Times said that "Eight trusts among the 12 worst performers in the latest Dr Foster Hospital Guide were rated good or excellent in the CQC's own annual health check ratings". It's a kind of wacky world in which we don't know on whom to rely.

  Tony Howell: May I comment on that. One thing that concerns me as a director of children's services is that there are some aspects of performance on which I am jointly held to account with other people that are rather outside my direct remit. The performance frameworks, when we think about the agenda that your Committee is looking at, are about safeguarding children and protecting them. The three key agencies that work with them are the health service, the police and the local authority. Although I get concerned about whether there is consistent application of the inspection framework for health services, I find it interesting that it is always the local authority—and usually it is children's social care—that ends up being identified as the critical service. But actually all services are important, which is why it is important to think about how children's trust arrangements and local safeguarding children boards can work to achieve this. We need to ask this question about regulation, inspection frameworks and performance frameworks across the whole range of agencies that work with and influence the lives of children, young people and families.

  Kim Bromley-Derry: May I comment quickly. I think there are two issues. It is about the qualitative and quantitative approach and looking at services in the round. I am sure, with local authorities, that if you chose another set of performance indicators other than the ones that were measured, you might change the ratings. Inevitably there is a risk, with some authorities and some trusts, that you focus on the things that you are being measured on. If someone comes along and measures something different, you might perform differently. I think there is some truth in that, if you don't take a rounded view of everything and triangulate that evidence. One of our criticisms of some of the inspection regimes that are around now is that they do not take that rounded view of services—where you look at practice, you actually experience practice. It still happens in schools to a large extent, where you have classroom observation going on and where you see teaching and learning really happen. That is much more difficult in some of the other services, but you still need to triangulate evidence through whatever mechanism is appropriate—talking to young people, which was mentioned earlier, talking to staff and looking at the experience as well as the PI.

  Q53 Helen Southworth: May I ask two things about the nature of the relationship between children's services and the inspector. What is needed to make it work properly, and how does it measure up against what happens? We have to consider what has happened over the past 18 months rather than whether things are rapidly changing once more.

  Kim Bromley-Derry: It is having an enduring relationship with the inspectorate that both looks at your performance and what you need to do to improve, and how you improve it and support that. I think the separation of functions to government offices and Ofsted was a fundamental flaw to start off with. Interestingly, I had my first meeting with my new LINk inspector yesterday, who effectively is the replacement for the old Business Link that we had in the days of CSCI. However, coming in once every three years or once a year to look at something over a very short time frame does not make for the discussion or debate to create that rounded view or, more importantly, what we need to improve, how we improve, what the support we can broker in is and how we can look at the rest of the regional sector, or nationally, to bring in the support to improve. At the end of the day, we want the best for our children and young people. We want to improve, and to improve outcomes, so we need to work with the regulator, the inspection and the development agencies to make that happen. At the moment, if you look at it over the past 18 months, inspection tends to be at a point in time, using a limited evidence base to give us a proxy of performance. Then they go away and you have to do something about it. That is the fundamental flaw in the process and system.

  Q54 Helen Southworth: I have to say, I want to use the example of my own local authority and to set it in the context of saying that I find this bewildering and quite shocking. The impact that this has on front-line social workers and managers who are trying to deliver a service for very vulnerable children is equally shocking and bewildering, so we have to be able to unravel these things to make them work right.

  Chairman: You are aware we are talking about Warrington?

  Helen Southworth: And this is happening not just in my own authority, but in other authorities as well. It is a systemic set of issues here, which I am trying to unpick at the moment, within the context of understanding the impact this also has on my own front-line social workers, who do fantastic work. That authority actually went from the situation, of 17 December 2008, of having either good or excellent assessments to having, in September 2009, inadequate or adequate inspection. How can that kind of pendulum happen? What do we need to do to make sure that there is a monthly assessment, a monthly discussion and a monthly debate to identify issues if they are coming up? This is so demotivating and difficult for people, either because they are aware of problems that are not being picked up by an inspectorate, so they are not being given proper consideration, or perhaps because in other circumstances they might think the assessment is unfair. How can that be dealt with?

  Chairman: Nick, you must have had a pretty demotivated work force when you got to Doncaster.

  Nick Jarman: I think that would be an understatement, Chairman—the work force were in meltdown. My own observation about this is that there has been a propensity for things to be driven by events in the past 15 months. Doncaster is a similar case. I think that after the baby Peter case, hugely more attention was focused on child protection in general, and referral and contact in particular, and people all suddenly started saying, "This is the area we must focus on", as a consequence of which the focus of inspection intensified. In the case of Doncaster, in November 2007 it had been judged as adequate for staying safe, but it was judged in the wake of the baby P case the following year as inadequate. The weakness in the system—again I speak from my experience of Doncaster—is that the government office for the region, which ought to be the Government's eyes and ears on the ground, failed to understand the gravity and depth of the problems in Doncaster, notwithstanding a significant amount of available evidence that clearly said that. For example, there was a report that had been in existence since March 2007 which stated with the utmost clarity that there was backlog in referral and assessment. It took a further—I don't know—six months to pick that up, but in fact the organisation had been in crisis for many years. The thing is—I don't think the point here is about inspection regimes or anything else—it put children at risk and that is completely unacceptable. It is immoral.

  Kim Bromley-Derry: The issue is quality ongoing dialogue and interrogation of the information that is coming forward. Performance information is happening on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. One danger is that if you only use a three-year cycle of inspection to make a judgment, you get a major shift. Also, some of those proxies for tripping over into inadequate are very marginal bits of a total service. I do not know Warrington particularly well in that context, but we have seen authorities that have tipped down from good to inadequate on the basis of quite a small element of their service. It might be that large parts of the service are very good. There is the whole picture of the ongoing relationship and the reality testing of the information and data on a constant basis, not just in inspections. At the end of the day, if you take an unannounced, it is two days and still partial, and yet it could trigger an authority becoming inadequate. It might be quite legitimate that it is inadequate, but that would be much stronger if it arose as a result of ongoing dialogue and an interrogation of the available information.

  Q55 Helen Southworth: You are taking me on to the next part of what I wanted to ask about, which is how you believe the inspection process can best reward people who are robust and transparent in their self-assessment, and who are open about near misses and discuss them. How can we ensure that the process rewards those people, because it is about striving to do well and something that is based on evidence, and does not reward people who are not self-aware and have allowed things to go on for years?

  Tony Howell: That is absolutely right. That is the relationship we would like to have with Ofsted and with the government office. I have a good relationship with the government office for the west midlands. We had identified many of the challenges in our children's social care service before Ofsted came in. The Ofsted focus on children's social care changed after baby Peter. On fairness, I have a copy of the dialogue I had with Ofsted raising some of the issues where there was a kind of balance about what evidence was taken into account and what evidence was not taken into account. Some of it was about the timing of the evidence rather than the existence of the evidence itself. We do need to have that ongoing dialogue with Ofsted to get the relationship right so that we can all focus on ensuring that things are right for children and young people.

  Chairman: It appears that two inmates have escaped today.

  Shireen Ritchie: If I could add to that, it is really about a trusting relationship as well as a supportive relationship. In some cases, it does not feel as if that trust is there currently.

  Chairman: Could you repeat that? The sound of the bell is still ringing in my ears.

  Shireen Ritchie: I said it was about having a trusting and supportive professional relationship. In some instances it doesn't feel as if that trust between Ofsted and the sector is there.

  Q56 Chairman: Will it always be the case that with particularly ghastly cases like baby Peter, everyone, including politicians, gets absolutely swept away, even though we know they will happen again and again? Is it a sensible system when everyone feels that they are under siege at times like this?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: You are right. The stakes are high in terms of the difference between excellent and inadequate in our performance. Many local authorities are seeking critical friends who can challenge them from a knowledge base. Many local authorities now use peer arrangements with other local authorities coming in to look at their children's service and do unannounced inspections prior to Ofsted inspections. Those critical friends will not pull any punches, but will talk about their experience of improvement. That is increasingly a feature in the local authority landscape. We would argue that there needs to be more of that, because that is where a lot of the expertise is. Many authorities pair up simply because the stakes are so high, because it can paralyse front-line workers in terms of what they do and it can paralyse middle and senior managers. That is just preparing for an inspection and the aftermath of inspection. At the end of the day, you have to learn, you have to do things differently and you have to base that on best practice, and that lives in the sector, not in the inspectorate. Therefore, you have to get that information from other local authorities and other services that are performing well. That is why we also need to have confidence in the framework so that we know the ones that are performing well and we can use their expertise.

  Q57 Helen Southworth: In terms of how frequently you think that the inspection process should test against self-assessment, Dame Denise tells us about the norm being monthly, but that it could be quarterly if there was excellence, or fortnightly if there was more need. This is in terms of the relationship directors. Do you think that that is effective and should continue?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: I think that it should be proportionate, and obviously in some local authorities it should be there every month or every day. There are some places where you can have a much lighter touch, but with a minimum level. We have swung from a cycle of four years to an annual cycle to a three-year cycle. I am not sure that any of us think that there is a right length of time, but the important thing is that if the quality of the self-assessment, the reality test and the challenge of that assessment are accurate, there will be a judgment about the frequency of inspection, whether that be a small-scale inspection or a more robust one. I think that we would be comfortable that those authorities that are seen to be struggling the most or have the weakest performance have a much higher level of regulation, inspection and input, and even intervention, than those that have a much lighter touch but still have inspection and regulation.

  Q58 Annette Brooke: Could we try a quick-fire question to start. Obviously we have been touching on issues all the time about how you would like the inspection process to change and improve. From your perspective, can you give your top three priorities of what would make a good inspection process for you, other than getting an excellent?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: Do you want to ask me later?

  Tony Howell: The top three priorities for me would be a transparent framework, first, so that we all had absolute trust in the analysis of the information and the processes that we were going to use for evidence. Critically, inspection is about gathering evidence of real practice, so there should be a transparent framework. The second priority is the relationship with the people who are inspecting us from outside, particularly the lead inspector. For other aspects of regulation, we have very positive ongoing relationships. Finally, there is the issue in connection with the other partners who contribute to the well-being of children. Part of the difficulty is that that particular data set is quite often seen in isolation and is not connected to the other performance frameworks that apply, particularly to health, police and schools. It is almost as if we are seeing this particular group of children as having such separate lives that they do not connect with the other inspectorates. So, a transparent performance framework, relationships and the other agencies being involved.

  Nick Jarman: My three would be largely similar to Tony's. I think that it should be transparent, that it should be something on which the public, elected members and politicians nationally feel that they can rely, and, thirdly, that it should be proportionate and not unduly time-consuming at the expense of delivering services for children and young people.

  Chairman: Shireen is nodding.

  Shireen Ritchie: Yes, I think that an increase of the burden on already hard-pressed local authorities should be as was intended through the Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA). It should be a streamlined process, which it does not feel as though it is at the moment. Obviously, there are the issues that others have raised as well.

  Kim Bromley-Derry: Yes, trusting the judgments and having clear criteria for making those judgments are critical. Some knowledge of the services that you are inspecting would be quite helpful and would make for quite a good inspection. Thirdly, there is the link between inspection regulation and development improvement. There is no point in having an inspection if you are left not knowing where you are going to go with it. You need to know how to improve; you need some judgment about that.

  Q59 Annette Brooke: May I follow up that last point. Improvement is really quite critical. Do you see with the new LINk inspector that that is now in place? Or is there a long way to go?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: I had my first meeting yesterday with my LINk inspector, so it is early days, and they have only just been established, so we would hope that is the case. Certainly, as local authorities, that is what we will be intending to use LINk inspectors for, and to develop that relationship with the LINk inspectors. But obviously it is early days and I guess many local authorities will not even have had the opportunity yet to meet their LINk inspectors. They have only just been announced.

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