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

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 60-73)


20 JANUARY 2010

  Q60 Annette Brooke: I want to pick up a point that Tony made. With one of the local authorities I cover as an MP, my greatest concern is the lack of understanding between the main services about how they should talk to one another, particularly housing, which I think is my bugbear. How could the inspection process be improved? I have reported a case to Ofsted, but I do not think it is going to do much about it. The Every Child Matters agenda included no training whatever in housing. How could this be improved to test whether your services are giving you leadership in the community and all the relevant agencies are involved?

  Tony Howell: It is a fundamental issue. It links back to the question that was asked of Dame Denise about children's trusts. Until we get all the partners—particularly those partners who might feel slightly more distant from the duty to co-operate that is now defined in the statutory guidance—to see that they will make a difference, we are constantly going to have these potential fractures in service. Some of that is up to us. I spend a lot of time linking with other service groups, speaking to their staff and meeting housing staff, to explain how they make a contribution to the improvement of outcomes for children. But in my view, the statutory guidance that we have just received on children's trusts is not strong enough. There is still the opportunity for various agencies to choose which partners of engagement they have, and always to fall back on their performance framework and their inspection regime. They are inspected on very different things, sometimes just a different nature of performance indicator, which does not necessarily tell me whether the quality of housing that people are receiving is actually the kind they would expect to receive, and certainly does not necessarily make a direct link to children and families. In fact, in most of the other inspection regimes, whether it is for health or housing, there is very little particular focus on children and children's lives. There is still work to do to pull these things together.

  Q61 Annette Brooke: Is another dimension needed in the whole inspection process?

  Tony Howell: Yes, I think it could be. That is what CAA should have brought together. The whole issue about a common area assessment that looks at particular dimensions is an opportunity to pull that together. Unfortunately, it has not got that in the framework as a particular focus at the moment.

  Shireen Ritchie: Strategic partnerships—that should be part of their role, but they are working in a variety of ways, some much more effectively than others. But some of them really are not working and, as Tony was saying, the inspection regimes of our different partners just do not appear to synchronise with some of the things that local authorities are being asked to do.

  Chairman: I am trying to get all the questions in, so let us have short, sharp answers to questions.

  Kim Bromley-Derry: To link into that, increasing the work where local authorities are focused on chaotic or vulnerable families seems to be showing exactly what Tony is saying, that actually your housing policy is critical in terms of dealing with a chaotic family and things like antisocial behaviour, youth crime and safeguarding, so if you allow multiple occupancy in a property, it is likely to have a set of impacts on a whole range of other outcomes. Shireen was right. The CAA process, and the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) process, was supposed to pull those bits together. It just did not do it, so it does need a re-focus on things like vulnerable and chaotic families, as well as just the single pathway of a child, young person or adult.

  Q62 Annette Brooke: Finally, I will quote from the ADCS position paper. It states that "grade descriptors which largely measure conformity to process should not be used as a proxy to measuring the quality of practice or outcomes." Are these gradings and the things that you get out of the various inspection processes useful and a good way of motivating you?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: The short answer is no. I think that they should pose the question: so, for example, if you are not completing all your initial assessments within seven days, why? What is the story behind it? That's what the grade descriptors and the PI should be used for. Increasingly, they are used in isolation to make judgments. Certainly, in many previous regimes, I remember that the PIs used to have a range of performance, and if it was outside that range, it said, "Ask questions", and the next stage was "Ask questions urgently", if it got even more polarised. You need to know the story behind it. The indicator on its own tells you very little; it just allows you to ask a question.

  Q63 Annette Brooke: So box-ticking by itself is no good?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: No.

  Chairman: We need to move on—sorry, Annette—to Ofsted's new inspection framework. Edward, do you want to kick off?

  Q64 Mr Timpson: Nick and Tony, you have just had, in December last year, your annual ratings, and we have seen the accompanying copies of the Ofsted letters setting out how it awarded them. Do you agree with the findings?

  Nick Jarman: Yes, I do. I agree with them because, certainly as measured by my own examination of the services when I went to Doncaster, they accorded with what I found by and large.

  Tony Howell: No, I do not, and I have a whole batch of correspondence with Ofsted, explaining why we didn't agree and why I think the process didn't reflect the full views and evidence about what was happening with the totality of children's services in Birmingham, and including a proposal and agreement that I will meet the chief inspector to talk through some of my concerns.

  Q65 Mr Timpson: On the basis that you have given completely polarised answers, I therefore ask Kim this. Going back to your position paper, you didn't reek of confidence in the annual rating process. Are you concerned that Tony and Nick have come out with such different views? What does it tell us about the process?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: It is a concern because directors give us a mixed picture. There are some, like Nick, who say that it matches exactly with their self-assessment and think it is right. Equally, there are as many who either challenge or disagree with the judgments that have been made. We saw that in last year's annual performance assessment process, and we have certainly seen it replicated this year. I don't think that has improved at all over the last two years. The worry is the inconsistency, and how to get beneath that. There are obviously fundamental reasons why in one area there is a generally agreed acceptance and agreement with the judgment, but in another there isn't. So it is very concerning to us. The whole system is based on confidence, and public confidence is based on everyone else having confidence in the system. So if the public are making judgments about local authorities and the services that they are receiving, how do they know where they stand when in one everyone is confident, and in another no one agrees with it. It is very difficult.

  Q66 Mr Timpson: Perhaps we could briefly go back to Tony again. If you and your staff, on the face it, appear to not have confidence in this annual rating process—certainly the ratings that you have been given—what is the feeling on the ground, with the staff who have been involved, and who have now seen that rating? Do they consider that the new inspection framework is, in the words of John Goldup—the director of social care at Ofsted who asked front-line staff how they see the new inspection of social care—a "useful process"? Is that your impression from your staff?

  Tony Howell: We need to tease out the framework for various aspects of social care inspection—whether it is residential homes, unannounced inspections of assessment or care management—from the overall rating from Ofsted. We object to the overall rating from Ofsted. We are not protesting that we do not have things that need to be improved in children's social care. We were already working on that. The staff in our social care service are part of the dialogue and have accepted that things need to be improved, and that things have improved over the past year. It was interesting that we had the unannounced inspection of safeguarding with a positive feedback from the inspectors. We have a good relationship with the inspectors, in fact. It was a positive letter but it still did not impact on Ofsted's overall rating, which is of everything that goes on in children's services. I not only had the job of explaining to social workers and their support staff why we were still working on aspects of improvement, but I had to write to all the schools to say that the rating was also about them as well as children's health services. That was my concern about the annual letter. I thought that it was so light-touch, and to try to capture all the performance of Birmingham on one side of A4 is too difficult.

  Nick Jarman: Let me explain the apparent polarisation between Tony and me. If, for example, an authority is given an inadequate grading, it is a fairly wide band width. Based on my experience of failing local education authorities, I fully accept that the scale of failure in authority A might be considerably worse than the scale of failure in authority B. Nevertheless the same label is put on them. It probably would be helpful if the descriptors were more explicit and there were more of them. It would then be possible for anyone, including members of the public, to draw appropriate conclusions about the difference in the scale of failure or, for that matter, in the scale of excellence between authority A and authority B.

  Kim Bromley-Derry: May I say something about the letters and the general concern about how to encapsulate the performance of a huge, multi-million pound organisation in five short paragraphs that seemed to have been cut and pasted. It was creating a link between five paragraphs and, in some authorities, more than £1 billion-worth of services employing 8,000 to 10,000 staff. It was apparently written by a 12-year-old for a 12-year-old, and it was very demoralising for the whole sector.

  Q67 Mr Timpson: I want to ask you about unannounced inspections. Nick, you said that you felt yours was rigorous and fair. Tony, you told us that you had a positive outcome.

  Tony Howell: Yes, it was.

  Q68 Mr Timpson: Shireen, do you have any concerns about the unannounced inspection process, and whether it provides a full picture?

  Shireen Ritchie: We are still feeling how they are working out, but the comment that was made about the descriptors was key. The consistency of the regime being applied across local authorities, the consistency of the judgments against the various aspects of the system has been referred to, the focus on process rather than quality, and the language and presentation of the final reports, which are then interpreted by the media and the public, are our key issues in respect of unannounced inspections.

  Q69 Mr Timpson: I think that Ofsted has agreed to amend some of its language.

  Shireen Ritchie: There has been some—

  Q70 Mr Timpson: Was that reflected in the unannounced inspections that Tony and Nick had?

  Tony Howell: I don't know whether there were any changes in the language, but it seemed much more informative about the unannounced inspection than it was about the annual performance last year.

  Kim Bromley-Derry: The change of language happened during last summer. The words being used were "serious concerns". That then got shifted, so most of the inspections since last summer have used slightly different language. The worry was that someone had ticked a box on a computer a day late and that then became a serious concern for the local authority, whereas it was actually an area for development, an area for further investigation or a priority area for action, which is how the language changed. We have to be fair to Ofsted. It is listening. It is making changes, but obviously some of them need to be significant and quicker perhaps.

  Q71 Mr Stuart: The Association of Directors of Children's Services, namely Kim, last November said that the general feeling is that the system isn't working. Would you agree with that sentiment? I suppose, Shireen, does the LGA feel that the system isn't working?

  Shireen Ritchie: We definitely feel that there should be some improvements in it. It is putting a lot of pressure on a very pressurised sector with the increase in referrals, the sort of averse-to-risk process that is going on. It is not working nearly as well as we would like it to work, that is true.

  Q72 Mr Stuart: We talked a lot about processes. Kim said at the beginning that some of the frameworks are fundamentally flawed. I don't think we've got time to go into that. I would be grateful, Kim, if you could write to the Committee and let us know what frameworks you think are fundamentally flawed. None of the processes and procedures deliver a decent-quality inspection and may get in the way, I think Dame Denise said, and then there are the people. In a system where the general feeling is that it is not working, is the problem more with processes and procedures being too mechanistic and getting in the way or is it that we haven't yet got the quality inspectorate that we need? And if we did have that could it get past or work around processes that will never be perfect? Which is the bigger issue?

  Tony Howell: That is a very difficult question. I think we need to work together to get the processes and procedures right. That will bring with it the issue about a much fuller understanding by all the people involved about what it is we are really looking at. The issue about improving the number of both highly experienced and qualified inspectors is a longer-term issue. I think we should be engaging in the debate about what we are trying to talk about here. Our self-assessment is as valid: I want Ofsted to validate the self-assessment because I want it to be absolutely honest. I don't want us to be playing games in inspection. I want it to be absolutely honest.

  Chairman: Do you want to come in on that Nick?

  Nick Jarman: No, I agree.

  Q73 Helen Southworth: Can I ask you about serious case reviews. In its evidence the Association of Directors of Children's Services describes Ofsted's evaluation so far as being "inconsistent, ill-defined and poorly moderated", which isn't a very good inspection report. Could you unravel that for us a little more and describe what you think needs to be done?

  Kim Bromley-Derry: Some of the same flaws appear in the rest of the system. We had and have serious concerns about the judgments around the adequacy of a serious case review. Some of those things are less meaningful than others. A serious case review being marked as inadequate on the basis that the terms of reference are not right, or the terms of reference are poorly written, may well be important but does not say anything about the quality of the learning or the quality of the intervention, and the impact it would have on children. The concern was that that makes for quite a poorly moderated set of judgments. How do you benchmark all the inadequates against each other if they are looking at different dimensions? What we are really interested in is the practice and what went on in the case. Those are the things that we feel we should focus our energies on. That was a serious concern and in a sense the judgments seemed to vary depending on who was making them and where they were going. That has improved, but those were serious concerns that we had and they still exist to an extent.

  Tony Howell: I agree with what Kim said. In addition, because we have a number of serious case reviews in Birmingham, there are sometimes aspects of whatever the framework used for evaluating serious case reviews that suddenly appear in a particular case. It is only in the debriefing with the inspector after the serious case review has been published that there is any real full discussion on this aspect that Ofsted was looking for. Ofsted has recently written to directors of children's services with a proposed review of the framework for the evaluation of serious case reviews and we will welcome that engagement with Ofsted so that we can get this right. What is most important is that it is a true evaluation of the serious case review, not simply of a document that was submitted.

  Nick Jarman: We had an Ofsted evaluation of a serious case review this very week. My colleagues and I felt that it was analytical, fair and accurate.

  Chairman: We have had a very good session. The quality of your evidence has been superb. Will you remain in touch with us? We want to make this short inquiry as good as it can be. If there are things that you think you should have told the Committee or we should have asked, will you contact us because we genuinely want to make this a report that can make a difference. Thank you very much.

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