Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Putting in the boot ... in Manchester

I may grumpy and cantankerous, but I can’t help feeling some justification for fulminating just a little (is that a contradiction in terms?) when I read Ofsted’s report of its inspection of services for children in need of help and protection, children looked after and care leavers in Manchester City Council. 

It’s not just the fact that the report uses the word ‘embedded’ three times and the word ‘robust’ seventeen (yes, 17) times, including four times on page 32 alone. Rather it is that you don’t have to look very far into this report to see that the elephant in the room is resources, a word that was only used just once in the report and then in relation to ‘community resources’ not money.

We are told that there were 486 cases in Manchester on what was effectively a waiting list for an assessment. Sadly you have to read quite a long way into the report to understand that these were cases of children in need and not in need of protection. Indeed the inspectors undertook an audit of a sample of these cases and found that no child had been left at risk of significant harm. (Paragraph 59)

Then there is the issue of caseloads. The report says:

“Caseloads are variable and for too many social workers they are too high. Some social workers had over 40 cases each and two workers had 50 cases. High caseloads mean that social workers do not have time to spend establishing meaningful relationships with all children on their caseload and are not able to effectively prioritise all their work.” (Paragraph 62)

These are eye-watering figures. You only have to ask yourself whether you could remember critical information about forty of your friends or acquaintances to appreciate that social workers with caseloads this high cannot be on-top of their work.

But rather than some kind of analysis about why caseloads are so desperately high in Manchester, and perhaps some advice about how they could be brought down, all the inspection gives us is an unhelpful counsel of perfection:

Ensure that there is a sufficient number of suitably experienced and qualified staff to deal effectively with current demand.”  (Paragraph 11)

I bet that went down well with people on the ground who are probably pulling their hair out trying to work out how to cope with ‘current demand’ given current resources!

Of course a bad Ofsted report brings out the lurid headlines, like the one in the Manchester Evening News.

And that sort of headline, and the tone of the article, which speaks of ‘nasty little-surprises’ and makes frequent references to Rotherham, will all serve to deepen Manchester’s problems, rather than improve them.

I’m beginning to think that Ofsted is not “… raising standards and improving lives…” as its strap line proclaims. Rather it is putting in the boot on hard-pressed and chronically under-resourced providers of services. And it is passing responsibility downwards, mostly to those at the bottom of the tree.

The report’s 24 recommendations (paragraphs 11 – 34) seem to disproportionately target those who actually do the work, who are the targets for what must inevitably be described as more robust management. They are enjoined to ensure case records are up-to-date, to ensure timeliness of completing assessments, attend more case conferences, ensure that looked after children have personal education plans and a host of other things.

Things may be bad in Manchester, but I can’t help feeling Ofsted is doing a good job of making them worse.