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31st March 2015

Inspecting children’s services in a different way

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), the Local Government Association (LGA) and Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (Solace) today publishes a tri-partite policy position paper outlining a new approach to the inspection of children’s services.

The three associations are seeking to advance the case for a more focussed, flexible and proportionate regime. The paper proposes that Ofsted’s universal Single Inspection Framework (SIF) is stood down and that the unannounced inspection of ‘front door’ arrangements (contact, referral, and assessment) is reintroduced on a single or multi-agency basis (dependent upon local arrangements). This would result in a narrative report that describes whether practice meets the required standards along with codified suggestions for improvement. If this exercise identified significant concerns then the authority, and its partners, would be subject to a wider, multi-agency joint inspection, with a narrative judgment.

Alongside these arrangements ADCS, the LGA and Solace are calling for the significant expansion of thematic studies in order to understand issues and disseminate good practice. A rolling, modular programme of multi-agency thematic studies should be developed and deployed, in conjunction with the sector. This has the potential to become the bedrock of the improvement offer.

The themes would focus on multi-agency issues or matters all local areas struggle with e.g. improving outcomes for NEETS or tackling domestic abuse, and would be identified via analysis of the available data and in consultation with the sector. The teams that undertake this work might usefully include leading experts in the field, say an academic, in addition to practice and corporate leaders from the relevant statutory agencies and voluntary sector organisations too.

Support for local areas is currently brokered in response to a critical incident or a negative inspection report. Smarter use of the rich body of data available to a wide range of government departments and organisations would allow regulators to be more confident in their judgements and crucially, declines in performance to be identified earlier and addressed, before issues become entrenched and outcomes for children and young people are adversely affected.

Alan Wood, President of the ADCS, said: “The UK has one of the safest child protection systems in the developed world yet the SIF results to date do not reflect this reality. The ADCS believes this is because the current framework does not get to the heart of how well services are working, and, with a single worded judgement it tells a partial and excessively negative story, which runs the risk of weakening the very services it seeks to improve.

“A new regime is needed, one that takes into account the input of all safeguarding partners and contributes much more positively to achieving better outcomes for children and young people. This must sit at the heart of inspection activity in the future, not institutional boundaries.”

Cllr David Simmonds, Chairman of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Parents, communities, and councillors need to have confidence in the credibility and independence of Ofsted’s judgments and this proposed new framework is an important contribution to the wider debate we need to have on the future inspection of children’s services.

“There is a need for an urgent, back to basics review of Ofsted, as there are big question marks over the quality of judgements following what has happened in Rotherham and Birmingham, among others areas. We are concerned that by trying to be an improvement agency as well as an inspectorate, Ofsted is marking its own homework.

“Keeping children safe is the most important thing that councils do, but we know we cannot do it alone. Protecting children does not fall only to councils, but to the police, health services, schools, and local groups. Inspections must reflect this and ensure children are at the heart of what we do. It is not fair to the children we are working to protect that Ofsted inspections only focus on council children’s services, failing to properly assess the essential work done by other organisations.

“We have long called for a scrutiny process to adopt the same approach, so every organisation involved in child protection is examined during an inspection. This new framework would ensure inspection was proportionate and effective. Councils are committed to joint working; it’s vital the inspection processes adapts so nothing falls through the cracks.”

Mark Rogers, President of Solace, said: “Our children deserve an inspection regime that focuses where the risks are and can follow them across organisational boundaries. We currently inspect around artificial boundaries using blunt judgements. A more sophisticated, flexible approach would provide more responsive inspections, and help organisations working with children across our towns and cities to improve.”