Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Is Ofsted learning from Serious Case Reviews? Are pigs flying?

As someone who has, on more than one occasion, exhorted Ofsted to do more thematic research, I should be pleased to see what is described as a “… thematic report of Ofsted’s evaluation of serious case reviews from 1 April 2007 to 31 March 2011”. I know I should be pleased, but the report left me feeling sad … or was it angry?

Why? My first disappointment was only to be expected. To ‘learn lessons’ from Serious Case Reviews requires an analytic and enquiring approach which is largely absent from this report. All too often the authors simply gainsay their findings to form a recommendation: pre-birth assessments were sometimes undertaken late, so “ensure that pre-birth assessments are undertaken in a timely manner”; fathers were sometimes marginalized, so “both parents need to be supported. The father is as important as the mother and they need support to help them to become good parents”.

That’s just like saying that the plane flew into the side of the mountain so pilots should take care not to fly too close to high ground: true but blindingly obvious! And it doesn’t explain anything. What we want to know is why the assessments were undertaken late or why fathers were marginalized.

The authors of this report also appear to show no awareness of an important methodological shortcoming with their approach to this research. Simply listing all the things that weren’t done ‘properly’ in a case that went badly wrong does not provide a causal explanation of what went wrong; at best it only provides a description. And, most importantly, we don’t know if in all the other cases, that didn’t go badly wrong, many of those same things were not done ‘properly’ as well.

This is not just a philosophical debating point, but a vitally important consideration, because we may end up spending vital time and resources addressing things that are not done properly but which don’t result in tragedy. So we might spend money on training to improve the quality of assessments or put time and effort into developing procedures to speed their production only to find that children continue to die just as before.

That sounds to me pretty much what has been happening ever since Maria Colwell. As the Welsh inspectorate CCSIW once wisely observed: "Time and again serious case reviews identify the same issues as contributing to not protecting children, yet still the problems keep recurring" (see

So I’m afraid that this report from Ofsted, in the words of Shania Twain, “don’t’ impress me much”. It makes little attempt to get behind the obvious facts and to ask questions about why things happen, or don't as the case may be. And some of the recommendations are really quite insulting, for example: "Assessments of pregnant teenagers must take into account their family background". I think most people would struggle to conceive what kind of assessment could be made that didn't!

On the positive side there does seem to be anecdotal evidence that Oftsed is trying to improve its approach to inspecting child protection services. I was please to read in Community Care that in future they intend to send inspectors out with social workers on home visits. But, if this report is anything to go by, they still have a long way to go before they begin to deliver the goods.