Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Ofsted, the core assessment and bureaucracy

Ofsted conducted an unannounced inspection of Wiltshire Council’s safeguarding services in March 2012. The report, just published, gives the Council an “inadequate” rating and generally says a number of uncomplimentary things.

I was struck by one of the inspector’s recommendations:

"Wiltshire Council to ensure core assessments are regularly used and updated to reflect and evaluate the impact of changing family circumstances."

That might sound sensible to somebody who has never seen a ‘core assessment’ before. But to me it sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare. I couldn’t find a copy of Wiltshire’s core assessment form on line so I downloaded one from another authority. That doesn’t matter because they are all very similar.

The most striking thing about the form is the length: SIXTY TWO pages. Yes, sixty two pages of box after box after box concerning such items of information as height and weight and whether vision is satisfactory, sleep patterns, diet, bed-wetting, punctuality/behaviour/performance at school, friends at school, relationships with parents/peers/siblings – it just goes on and on and on.

I cannot imagine how forms like this were ever thought to be helpful. The likelihood of there being sound reliable evidence for much of the information entered is inversely related to the length of the form. How can a social worker assemble and validate all this information in a relatively short space of time? Often, I suspect, the boxes are filled in as best they can be without much attention being given to how well-evidenced the information is or how useful it will be in providing a service to the child. The process supplants the purpose; ends and means are unhelpfully reversed.

And the idea that the assessments exercises be undertaken repeatedly every time there is some change in circumstances borders on the absurd. A file full of 62-page forms, each one subtly different, is mind boggling.  On the contrary, keeping track of at risk children is best done using what we used to call a 'running record' or what is sometimes referred to as a 'chronicling system'. We can make sense of changing circumstances through a narrative, but our brains are not wired to keep track of changes in discrete information captured in boxes in forms.

Nearly a year after Munro reported – stressing the need to get away from mindless bureaucracy – and we still seem to have Ofsted urging local authorities to tick all the boxes and keep all the paper work up-to-date, without any thought about what doing so is likely to do to the quality of service.

How much time will social workers have left to build relationships with children and their families, and how much time will they have left to carefully consider momentous decisions, if they are repeatedly filling out core assessment forms? Very little I’d say.

It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.