Examination of Witness (Question Numbers
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
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 partnersparticularly
those partners who might feel slightly more distant from the duty
to co-operate that is now defined in the statutory guidanceto
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 partnershipsthat
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
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 onsorry,
Annetteto 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 processcertainly
the ratings that you have been givenwhat 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 Goldupthe director of
social care at Ofsted who asked front-line staff how they see
the new inspection of social carea "useful process"?
Is that your impression from your staff?
Tony Howell: We need to tease
out the framework for various aspects of social care inspectionwhether
it is residential homes, unannounced inspections of assessment
or care managementfrom 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
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
Q69 Mr Timpson: I think that Ofsted
has agreed to amend some of its language.
Shireen Ritchie: There has been
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 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.