The role and performance of Ofsted - Education Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the Local Government Group

The Local Government Group is made up of six organisations that work together to support, promote and improve local government.

Local Government Leadership

Local Government Association

Local Government Improvement and Development

Local Government Employers

Local Government Regulation

Local Partnerships.


The Local Government Association is the single voice for local government.

As a voluntary membership body, funded almost entirely by the subscriptions of our 422 member authorities in England and Wales, we lobby and campaign for changes in policy and legislation on behalf of our member councils and the people and communities they serve. We work with and on behalf of our membership to deliver our shared vision of an independent and confident local government sector, where local priorities drive public service improvement in every city, town and village and every councillor acts as a champion for their ward and for the people they represent.


Ofsted's current role in inspecting children's services

1. Ofsted is currently under a statutory duty[36] to provide an annual assessment of performance for each council's children's services - this includes the full and integrated range of services from education to specialist services such as looked after children. Ofsted also leads a programme of inspection of safeguarding services and services for looked after children. It can also undertake inspections on its own initiative, or triggered by a direction from the Secretary of State.

2. However, we believe that the future role of Ofsted in inspecting and assessing children's services needs to be seen within the context of the new coalition Government's commitment to replace the current top-down approach to managing the performance of local public services with stronger accountability to local people and communities.

The Local Government Group's proposals for a new performance framework for local public services

3. The Government has already dismantled significant components of the current performance framework. Public Service Agreements have been abolished and a number of national indicators have been removed. The Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) has been brought to an end, the Audit Commission will be disbanded and the Government Offices for the Regions will be abolished. These steps represent a radically different approach to performance management and hold significant implications for the future of the remaining Inspectorates—including Ofsted.

4. We have welcomed this new Government approach to the performance management of local public services and we are currently consulting councils on a new approach to self-regulation. We are keen to make sure that any new approach is "owned" by local councils and is based on a coherent set of principles and approaches that is shared by all the bodies inspecting local public services. The consultation paper[37] is attached as an Appendix to this submission.

5. Key elements of the new approach on which we are consulting include:

  • Stronger accountability to the public through greater transparency. Councils would make the performance management information they use to manage their own performance available to the public in a format that local people can understand and use. This will enable local people to hold their council to account and compare their performance against other councils;
  • Self awareness. Councils and local partners will develop stronger local arrangements for monitoring and assessing their own performance through regular self evaluation and peer challenge. An annual self evaluation (encompassing services to vulnerable children and adults) would provide the basis for an annual report to local people about the quality of life of the area. The local government sector will collaborate to support councils through sharing best practice, peer review[38] and support, benchmarking, etc.
  • Managing the risk of failure. The Local Government Group and its performance partners will work with the inspection and regulatory bodies to draw on data to provide "early warning" of potential major financial, governance or performance failure so that preventative support can be provided and service failure avoided.
  • As a result of these proposals the burden of assessment and inspection can be further reduced.
  • The current plethora of data returns and information requirements should be scaled back. Councils spend as much responding to Government and inspectorate requests for data as they do responding to inspection. The onus in future should be on reporting to local people.
  • Further reductions in the burden of inspection and assessment need to be made. Currently, Local Government Group continues to receive examples from councils where multiple inspections are taking place simultaneously and requiring the input of council officers for multiple purposes. Inspection (and/or intervention) should, in future, only to be triggered once the local government sector has had the opportunity to support areas facing performance challenges.
  • Statutory financial audit would continue, addressing financial resilience, value for money, probity and the reliability of local data.

6. The consultation paper explicitly recognises the importance of specific reassurance around children's and adult services, and particularly safeguarding. So it includes the question:

Is there still a need for inspection for adult and child safeguarding, or is a more robust approach to self assessment and peer challenge sufficient?

We have asked for responses by 1 November, so would be able to update the Select Committee on the response if asked to give oral evidence.

A new approach to assessment of children's services

7. Building on these principles, and subject to the proviso that we are still awaiting the views of councils on the issue of safeguarding, we propose a new approach to the assessment and inspection of children's services. We believe this is necessary to support the current drive to reduce inspection burdens on councils and to correct the current emphasis given to publicly highlighting weakness, as opposed to supporting improvement. Key elements of this approach would include:

8. Ending the annual rating of children's services. The majority of councils' children's services are already performing well or excellently, so there are diminishing returns from continuing annual assessment. The current process requires reform in any event to reflect the changes to the nature of Children's Trusts and the removal of a requirement for a Children and Young People's Plan recently announced by the Government.

9. Establishing a regular process of local self assessment. This would be led by the Director of Children's services and involve the other partners in the local children's services partnership, building on the Local Safeguarding Children Board's (LSCB) report on the effectiveness of local safeguarding arrangements. The results of the assessments would be reported to local people.

10. Replacing Ofsted's programme of inspecting safeguarding services and services for looked-after children with self assessment and peer review. The current annual unannounced inspection of local authority contact, assessment and referral centres have been criticised by councils for placing too much reliance on data at the expense of direct engagement with local safeguarding teams. There are also concerns at the knowledge and direct experience of safeguarding of inspectors. We propose that these inspections, and inspections of services for looked-after children, should be replaced by self assessment, backed up by short notice multi-agency peer reviews. These peer reviews would focus on driving improvement and would include councillors and officers from an outside authority, supported by practitioners from other agencies involved in child protection.

11. Ofsted would retain its statutory powers to inspect where it believed it was necessary or where instructed to do so by the Secretary of State. However inspection is one of a number of potential responses to the risk of underperformance and Government has acknowledged the importance of councils' ownership of their own improvement. In this context we propose a new "dual key" arrangement involving the Inspectorates and the Local Government Group to authorise any inspection involving a council or council services - following joint consideration of alternative responses e.g. peer support.


The role of Ofsted in providing an accountability mechanism for schools operating with greater autonomy

12. In a letter to councils' Lead Members for Children's Services on 26 May Rt. Hon. Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education, said "Strong local authorities are central to our plans to improve education. The Coalition Government has partnership at its heart and I want to work in partnership with local authorities to drive up standards for all children in all schools." [39]

13. In our report Local freedom or central control?[40] we proposed a new role for councils, as active commissioners of education provision in their areas. Central to these proposals is a stronger role for councils in monitoring school performance and constantly challenging all local schools to improve.

14. In response, the Secretary of State has established a Ministerial Advisory Group to consider the council role in education. The outcomes of the work of the Group are expected to be included in the forthcoming education white paper. They will impact on the role of local authorities in school improvement, in commissioning services for children and young people and in work with vulnerable groups and children who are excluded from school. The results are therefore likely to have a significant impact on the local authority role and the role of school inspection in the future.

15. We see councils as having a key responsibility at a local level in championing the interests of local parents and children and providing an accountability mechanism for schools operating with greater autonomy. But councils will only be able to play this role effectively if they have access to accurate and timely information about school performance.

16. So we support the continuation of institutional inspections of schools. However, in our discussions in the Ministerial Advisory Group we are proposing that if councils are to have a strategic role in driving continuous school improvement, they will need to have powers to ask for an inspection of a school to be carried out where they are concerned about educational standards. Such action could come in response to concerns expressed by parents, teachers or schools themselves, or issues that are giving rise to concern such as a high turnover of staff, loss of senior staff or a significant dip in results. The Secretary of State would also retain powers to initiate inspections where there are concerns.

The impact of the inspection process on school improvement

17. We believe that the inspection process has supported school improvement. It is the framework for inspection, as much as the inspection itself that has added value through the sharing of the tools used to support evaluation. The "raising of the bar" through successive frameworks has sharpened the focus of schools as they strive to be self-improving. The result has been to up-skill schools in their ability to review their own provision against a series of "quality indicators".

The consistency and quality of inspection teams in the Ofsted inspection process

18. Ofsted's wide remit should not be confused with the undoubted need to ensure that inspectors assessing particular aspects of service delivery or planning should be highly trained and familiar with that area.

19. The consistency across teams is still an issue. Schools are still experiencing variety in how inspections are carried out. The best inspection teams are those that are prepared to engage in a constructive dialogue with the school. Inconsistencies remain in relation to the knowledge and skills of the individual teams. For some inspectors there remains an over reliance on data, particularly those who lack the experience to "get behind" the figures and understand what the school is really achieving. However, we acknowledge that Ofsted has recognised this as an issue and made efforts to improve inspectors' training and inspection quality.

The weight given to different factors within the inspection process

20. There continues to be an over-emphasis on levels of attainment rather than achievement and subsequent 'knock on' effect upon other judgements, such as leadership and management. The inspection process should give greater credit to those institutions which demonstrate good or outstanding learning and progress even if they are still below national averages for attainment.

21. Not enough emphasis is placed on good governance. Ofsted seem to find this a difficult judgement to make. Perhaps Ofsted should put greater weight on pupil and parent views and the local authority may have a role to play in this regard. Whether inspection of all organisations, settings and services to support children's learning and welfare is best conducted by a single inspectorate

22. The Local Government Group has consistently argued that there should be a single inspectorate with a remit across all organisations, settings and services to support children's learning and welfare. We believe this is important because, on the ground, frontline services for children and young people are required to act in concert to ensure effective provision and outcomes—it would be counter-productive for systemic or area wide improvement to have assessments made by a number of different inspectorates that do not liaise or learn from each other.

October 2010

36   Education and Inspections Act 2006 Back

37   Sector Self-Regulation and Improvement: Consultation Document LG Group, September 2010 - Not published on the Committee's website. Back

38   Peer review is the process by which councils invite a small team of members and officers drawn from other authorities (and, as appropriate, from other sectors such as health, police, voluntary and community sector) to review their leadership and corporate capacity or other element of their service provision and give constructive challenge and advice on how to further strengthen what they do. Our experience is that peer reviews are a successful improvement tool and the Local Government Group has long experience of delivering a wide variety of reviews. Back

39  Back

40   Local freedom or central control? Why councils have an important role to play in local education July 2010  

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Prepared 17 April 2011