The Yorkshire Post reports a record volume of child protection cases in Doncaster, said to be an increase of 330%. The main reason for this appears to be the reactivation of a large number of forgotten cases that were discovered during the turnaround of Doncaster’s children’s services department, which has now emerged from the special measures that were imposed by Ofsted. Sadly it seems that a consequence of doing the job properly is a whacking overspend of £2.6 million.
This is a good example of why inspection is such a blunt tool in the quest for improved quality in children’s services. Yes, Ofsted identified a failing service in Doncaster and yes, it has now been turned around, but in the course of these events hundreds of children have not received the service they needed and deserved and the taxpayers of Doncaster have been left with an unexpected bill.
The quality guru, W.E.Deming, always maintained that reliance on inspection in manufacturing processes was actually a cause of poor quality. The idea that quality defects may, at some later point in the process, be uncovered and rectified means that those who are producing components of the product are less likely to give attention to quality issues. That results in waste, when the defects are eventually discovered, and, of course, some of the substandard product may eventually slip through the inspection process to find its way into the hands of soon-to-be dissatisfied customers.
Services, which unlike goods are produced and consumed simultaneously, are more difficult to inspect than manufacturing processes. That is because the defect is only apparent to an inspector once the service has been delivered to the end-user. A defective television set can be taken out of circulation and recycled before it reaches the store, but by the time a child protection enquiry is recognised as being defective it is usually too late: the harm is already done.
I am not arguing for the immediate abolition of inspection of child protection services, but we do need to get away from the idea that inspection will ever deliver the kind of quality required in services that are safety critical. Rather than focusing on passing Ofsted inspections, managers need to become focused on creating the conditions in which everyone is constantly striving to achieve ever higher quality. That is the only way towards achieving more effective and safer services.