Sunday, 23 November 2014

Ofsted – fiddling while Rome burns?

Ofsted’s thematic inspection – The sexual exploitation of children: it couldn’t happen here, could it? – was published last week. It is based on an inspection of eight local authorities, including two (Rochdale and Rotherham) in which there have already been major concerns about poor responses to child sexual exploitation. 

The report’s conclusions will come as no surprise to anybody. The inspectors say they found that “… local arrangements to tackle the problem are often insufficiently developed and the leadership required in this crucial area of child protection work is frequently lacking.” Local authorities are described as being “too slow to face up to their responsibilities”. They are said not to be implementing the statutory guidance issued to them five years ago and not been treating child sexual exploitation as a priority. The inspectors conclude that “… local arrangements to tackle the problem are often insufficiently developed and the leadership required in this crucial area of child protection work is frequently lacking.”

Had this report been published five years ago, or for that matter even one year ago, it might have been just a little informative. As it is, it seems to be a classic case of shutting the gate after the horse has bolted. But my biggest concern with it is that it provides no attempt to explore or explain the underlying causes of local authorities’ failings. It does not even consider whether wilful disregard or lack of awareness or competing priorities or lack or resources or absence of expertise are involved in the poor responses to child sexual exploitation.

The inspectors say that among other inspection activities, they spoke to 150 children – just under-20 cases for each local authority inspected. The ‘methodology’ section of the report makes no reference to how the cases were selected or how the inspectors overcame what are well known to be the considerable difficulties involved in getting young people to talk about sexual exploitation. We are not told if there were any children who had been groomed and entrapped in this sample or indeed whether the inspection uncovered any cases of children who were being exploited, but who had not been identified as such by their social workers.

It seems manifestly clear that the inspectors spoke to children already known to the local authority. There is no mention in the report of speaking to sexually exploited children who are not in receipt of statutory services – children who have completely fallen through the net.

I began to get just a little more than irritated when I came to the report’s recommendations. Given the kinds of gross failures that have occurred, in places like Rotherham, I would have expected something more than a few suggestions about how the bureaucratic cogs could be oiled a little bit better. But Ofsted never fails to disappointment me. I rate the anodyne list of insipid recommendations as being on a scale somewhere between shocking and disgraceful.  Two examples will give the flavour:

“(All local authorities should) ensure that managers oversee all individual child sexual exploitation cases; managers should sign off all assessments, plans and case review arrangements to assess the level of risk and ensure that plans are progressing appropriately” (page 8)

“(Local authorities and partners should) develop and publish a child sexual exploitation action plan that fully reflects the 2009 supplementary guidance; progress against the action plan should be shared regularly with the local authority Chief Executive, the LSCB, the Community Safety Partnership and the Police and Crime Commissioner” (page 8)

It makes me want to scream!!

It is as if someone at Ofsted had put down their copy of the newspaper and said, “Gosh, there seems to be a lot in here about sexual exploitation, perhaps we should do a report? Cobble something together, as quickly as you can, and don’t forget to scold people about not doing the paperwork!”