Have you ever read an Ofsted report of inspection of local authority arrangements for the protection of children? No? You are lucky. I have just been reading the report of the inspection at Somerset County Council (http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/local-authorities/somerset). It is hard work.
The first thing you notice about these reports is that there is a lot of repetition in them. There is a section on ‘overall effectiveness’ and then a section about ‘the effectiveness of help and protection to children, young people, families and carers’ which seems to repeat some of the points made in the ‘overall effectiveness’ section. Then there is a section on the ‘quality of practice’ where some points are recycled again. That is followed by a section on ‘leadership and governance’ which seems to focus on the same issues from the leadership and governance perspective.
And it goes on and on and on .... In the Somerset report these sections occupy ten pages. They are written, as is typical in these reports, in a strange rambling style where points fall thick and fast, but evidence is hard to find. Take, for example, paragraph 12 of the Somerset report which concerns ‘overall effectiveness’:
"12. The overall effectiveness of arrangements to protect children in Somerset is inadequate. Most children who are at risk of harm are identified and receive help to protect them. However inspectors also found a number of cases where not enough was done to protect children, and where the risk of harm remained present for too long. New referrals to children’s social care services normally receive a prompt and proportionate response, but there is a lack of clarity among the different agencies about thresholds for children’s social care involvement. Somerset Direct staff are not always assertive enough in pushing cases back to referrers where a social care response is not needed. As a result, some children and families receive help that is disproportionate to their needs. "
What does “… a number of cases where not enough was done to protect children, and where the risk of harm remained present for too long” mean? Does it mean 25% or 10% or 1% of cases and for how long – a day, a week, a month or a year? We are not told.
And what is meant by the assertion that there is “…a lack of clarity among the different agencies about thresholds for children’s social care involvement”? Does that mean that a couple of people seemed a bit confused or that hundreds have signed a petition to say that the thresholds are not clear? Again the report does not enlighten us.
Finally what do we make of the statement that “Somerset Direct staff are not always assertive enough in pushing cases back to referrers where a social care response is not needed”? “Not always assertive enough” is an oddly equivocal phrase that is not very informative. I would like to know how often, compared with elsewhere, these people are not ‘assertive enough’ and I would like some standard by which to judge what is ‘assertive enough’ and what is ‘not assertive enough’. The report does not give us any of that: we are just being asked to trust the inspector’s judgement without being given any details.
Paragraph 12 is a good example of what I call Ofsted-speak. The whole report is full of phrases that are uninformative or puzzling. ‘Robust’ is a favourite word, with, for example, management of cases and quality assurance procedures not being ‘robust’. I also spotted at least three uses of the word ‘embedded’, with “routine senior-level case file auditing” being one thing, among others, that was not embedded. Oh dear …
My main objection to the report, however, is that it tends to focus on process rather than outcome. It centres on poor quality assessments, plans and what it says is under-use of the Common Assessment Framework (CAF). These are process issues if ever I saw them.
And nowhere in the report can I find a clear, well-evidenced statement to the effect that the arrangements in Somerset serve children worse than elsewhere. We are told referrals to CAMHS are slow, but there is no explanation of how much slower they are in Somerset, or why.
Another sad thing is that in the case of Somerset – which Ofsted found to be ‘inadequate’ on all counts – the report makes often puzzling recommendations for improvement, such as the following:
“Ensure that early help provision is coordinated, operates to clearly defined thresholds and aligns with social care services to enable children and their families to get help at the right level, and to move between the different levels of help as their circumstances change.” (page 3)
I pity anyone who has to demonstrate that that has been implemented. I’ve read it several times and still don’t really know what it means.
I’m currently awaiting some developments on the Ofsted front, but hope before long to bring you a raft of suggestions about how the inspection regime could be improved. Watch this space …