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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 100-119)


22 MARCH 2010

  Q100 Ms Buck: Is there a potential worry that you have these different levels of advisory arrangements supporting the local authorities? Is it better for local authorities to have specialist skills coming from different parts of the system, or should we really be looking to integrate all those labels of inspection and advice more closely?

  Christine Gilbert: Local authorities felt that they didn't have an easy point of contact. They had it for schools, and what had happened over time was that essentially what used to be the Chief Inspector, Schools met what was then called the link HMI. They would meet them and have some discussion. But I remember going to a meeting of East Anglia's directors, and there they were saying that they wanted somebody who could give a broader overview. They themselves, the directors, would want to see these people. And that is what is happening with this new system. As I say, it has been going about three months, so it is a bit early to say.

  Q101 Chair: Who is giving the broad overview under this new system?

  Christine Gilbert: We have regional directors, which we have had for several years but with a slightly different role; but essentially three regional directors—one based in Manchester, one in Bristol and one in Nottingham. They link in with the relevant government office in their areas. But they don't go in and out of the local authorities; that is a link with HMI.

  Chair: I share Karen's worry about anything that the regional offices are getting involved in, but never mind. Helen?

  Q102 Helen Southworth: I don't disagree with your last comment. Can I take you on to a discussion on the process for your new inspection framework. Some people have accused you of being process-driven in the way you're approaching inspection. In particular, they have said that the annual performance assessment is an isolated event—a desktop exercise. Can you fill us in on what engagement you have with local authorities on the annual performance assessment?

  Christine Gilbert: The annual performance assessment was essentially desk-driven, and that is what we stopped a year ago. It looked at data of various sorts. Now, we look at the inspection outcomes; we look at the inspection of schools, children's homes, colleges and so on in an area. We look at the results of the unannounced inspection and the rolling programme, if there's been one. The third element is the data. The first two have been the most important. We look at the picture that is emerging from those elements to arrive at the annual children's services rating.

  Q103 Helen Southworth: Chair, before I go on to the next question, I would like to put on record that I will be referring to my own local authority in Warrington. Ofsted has said—I think everybody agrees with this comment and would support it—that "Managers and staff across the council and partners demonstrate motivation and commitment to providing quality services for children and families." I want to open with that comment, because I want to look from the perspective of the children who need safeguarding in local authority areas and of the staff who are trying to provide a quality service for those children and who are very dedicated and committed. I want to ensure that they get the support and the information that they need to do that. I want to refer to the annual performance assessment for Warrington for December 2008 and to the ratings in it. The assessment rated the overall effectiveness of children's services at three, which is good. It rated a number of other areas, including staying safe, at three, which is good. The capacity to improve, including the management of services for children and young people, was rated at four, which is outstanding/excellent. I want to contrast that with the report produced 11 months later, following an inspection that had taken place in November 2009, nine or 10 months after the previous assessment. The report said that safeguarding services, outcomes for children and young people, including ensuring that children and young people are safe, the quality of provision, and leadership and management were "inadequate". It said that the services for looked-after children were "adequate", but that the leadership and management were "inadequate". There is a very serious difference between the two documents. In terms of outcomes for the children, Ofsted's 2008 report found, "The council performs very well in relation to securing permanency and stability for looked after children and in ensuring that their needs are reviewed on time." It goes on to say, "The council demonstrates a clear commitment and determination to close the gap between outcomes for children and young people who are vulnerable or in the less advantaged areas of the borough". But less than a year later, the outcomes for children and the overall effectiveness of safeguarding services in Warrington were "inadequate". The report said, "Inadequate action is taken to ensure that initial and core assessments, child protection enquiries and child protection plans are effective. This results in poor outcomes for some children." It also says, "There are substantial weaknesses in the safeguarding of children and young people most in need of protection" and "There are substantial weaknesses in the safeguarding of children and young people in need of protection". It notes that "There are unacceptable delays in undertaking and completing initial and core assessments, with the result that some children, including those on the edge of care, remain at risk." It adds that "For some children, there has been an unacceptable delay in identifying the need for them to become looked-after|Child protection planning is poor|the absence of systematic planning means that some children do not receive an appropriate level of protection." Which of those reports was right, and how were the staff supposed to deal with the difference between them?

  Christine Gilbert: The assessment that's just taken place—the most recent one—is based on inspection. The reason I changed the approach to our assessment of children's services is that I felt that the previous approach was based too much on data and was insufficiently focused on what was going on on the ground. I made that clear in the proposals that I published in September 2008, and would have done it earlier if I could, as the directors will tell you. I wanted a very different approach. What happened with Warrington is that there was an unannounced contact assessment referral inspection, and Warrington did very badly. There were some very serious concerns. Children looked to be at risk, and a number of very basic things didn't seem to be happening effectively, so much so that we decided that it needed a full safeguarding and looked-after children inspection. That's exactly what we did. We followed it up with the longer two-week safeguarding and looked-after children assessment. The full safeguarding inspection reinforced the things that had been seen in the shorter 24-hour inspection. I think there's no argument—the authority wouldn't argue—about the things that were seen on the ground during that time. I said when I had to do the press coverage in December that you couldn't compare the results from one year to another, because it was two markedly different approaches to the assessment of children's services, this one much more rooted in inspection and what was being seen on the ground. Data can tell you so much, but it cannot give you the whole picture.

  Q104 Helen Southworth: But those were both Ofsted inspections.

  Christine Gilbert: They're a different approach to inspection. The first, as I said—the annual performance assessment—was essentially data-driven. I changed that—

  Q105 Helen Southworth: Can you give us an absolute, categorical assurance that there are no other authorities where your assessment is data-driven, and that every authority is based on proper inspection that has the involvement of all the stakeholders in the process? Currently, today, does every authority have that level of inspection to rely on in terms of its own planning?

  Christine Gilbert: No. We won't finish the unannounced inspections until July this year. It's a one-year programme that we finish in July; we have inspected 87. We have got more to do of the rolling programme—it is a three-year rolling programme, and we have only done 15 of those so far.

  Q106 Helen Southworth: Is that good enough?

  Christine Gilbert: Well, it's as good as we can make it, given the resources that we have. We have looked at those areas that were worrying us most. I should say that there were areas that weren't worrying us that we also inspected, before that one goes up. We looked at—

  Q107 Helen Southworth: Well, in fact, yes, because you had given Warrington an "outstanding" and "excellent" for its capacity to improve, including the management of its services for young people.

  Christine Gilbert: But when we did the unannounced inspection, we went in pretty quickly afterwards to do the rolling programme and looked at that. As I said, I don't think Warrington itself is complaining about what we found. They say what we found is absolutely as they see it. They are not arguing with our findings at all.

  Q108 Helen Southworth: How many other authorities have had that kind of variation between performance ratings? It would be very helpful to know that.

  Christine Gilbert: I don't know. I'd have to look back and see.[1] But you can see my statements on record that these are assessing different things. There were more authorities in December classified as inadequate under the new system than the previous December.

  Q109 Helen Southworth: But in terms of safeguarding children, it isn't really good enough to say, "We've changed the way we did it and we're measuring different things," if you haven't done that in every authority.

  Christine Gilbert: We can't do everything at once, so we're doing it systematically.

  Miriam Rosen: I'm not quite sure whether you appreciate that we stopped the APA a year ago, so those assessments no longer take place.

  Q110 Helen Southworth: You have stopped the assessments, but you have not reassessed. What I am hearing from you is that the annual performance assessments were flawed, so you have stopped doing them. Is that right?

  Christine Gilbert: They were data-driven. I have always said that I thought they needed more of a focus on inspection, to see what was absolutely happening on the ground. I also have to say that, even with inspection, things don't stand still. Things change, people leave—

  Q111 Helen Southworth: What I am asking you, therefore, is this. Are there a number of local authorities that have only had an assessment that is based on data, or has every authority had a proper inspection that is based on engagement and the involvement of all the stakeholders?

  Christine Gilbert: We use the joint area reviews, as Miriam has said, but the things that we assess are also different. So we now look at the outcomes—

  Q112 Helen Southworth: I understand that. Has every authority had that?

  Christine Gilbert: I'm not only talking about the inspections—the unannounced inspections and the safeguarding inspections. In the range of things that we look at—the profile for the local authority—we now look, for instance, at what inspectors are saying about the children's homes, in a way that we didn't before. We look at what is being said about special schools. So we are looking right across the piece.

  Q113 Helen Southworth: So has every authority had an inspection that has looked right across the piece and engaged all the stakeholders?

  Christine Gilbert: No, not with the new system. By the end of July, we will have inspected—

  Q114 Helen Southworth: Then are you secure and confident that every current Ofsted assessment of every local authority is giving a clear picture of that local authority?

  Christine Gilbert: We think inspection gives a clearer picture. We cannot do everything at once. We have got a three-year rolling programme. We have tried to make an assessment of risk, to look at those areas that we were most concerned about and to go in and look at those first. For instance, there was an area that also might have looked quite good under the old—

  Q115 Helen Southworth: Perhaps I can ask you in a different way. Have some authorities currently got an Ofsted assessment that is based on the desktop paper exercise—the data exercise?

  Christine Gilbert: Yes, but it is different from the one that operated before, because it is rooted in inspections, and the one that operated before—

  Q116 Helen Southworth: But you said to me before that every local authority hadn't had an assessment that was based on inspection and the engagement of stakeholders.

  Christine Gilbert: We look at every area of our inspection of children's services; as I say, it might be children's homes, schools or nurseries. We present a profile, which is giving, if you like, an aggregated picture of what inspectors have seen on the ground. For instance, one area had a number of children's homes graded as inadequate and that would show, in the profile that we were looking at, that there was something going wrong there. We would then make sure that we sent that to the local authority.

  Q117 Helen Southworth: So has every authority had that assessment?

  Christine Gilbert: They have had the first bit of it; they haven't all had the unannounced and the rolling programme.

  Q118 Chair: Chief Inspector, let us suppose that someone from outside—someone who pays your salary, such as the people I represent or the people whom Helen represents—looked back. What you are really saying, reading between the lines, is that we had a pretty ineffective Ofsted system of assessing children's services, because it was desktop and inaccurate. That is what you are saying. You are saying now that a year ago you put it right.

  Christine Gilbert: But I have said that consistently, that things are of their time. I came into Ofsted and that system was in operation. It was data-driven, but there was, as Miriam said, a joint area review or JAR.

  Q119 Chair: Chief Inspector, that is what we are trying to drill down on. I think that it looks to an outside observer that because of Baby Peter—it may not only have been because of that case, but Baby Peter and a couple of other high-profile cases—suddenly you realise that what you're doing is giving comfort to the local authority children's services department that they were pretty good and indeed they were outstanding in some categories. So Haringey, Warrington busily carry on doing their business thinking they're pretty good. Actually, when there is a crisis, and a child dies, and you're sent in to do a new inspection, you do it in a totally different way. That's what happened, isn't it, chronologically?

  Christine Gilbert: Absolutely it's not what happened, chronologically. We presented proposals for change. The APA (Annual Performance Assessment) came to the end of its life and I presented proposals for change before the Baby Peter case emerged in the December—the proposals were out for consultation. As I said to you, that did not mean that I didn't go back and look hard at what we had proposed, to make sure that what we were proposing was fit for purpose. And we did things like double the number of days. We were going to go in for a day's unannounced and we went in for two.

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