Saturday, 23 July 2016

The inspectors call ….

Ofsted’s chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, and the inspectorate’s Head of Social Care, Eleanor Schooling, have been giving evidence to the House of Commons Education Committee.

There is a nice summary of the event in Children and Young People Now.

Two themes emerged.  

When asked why so many children’s services departments were ‘inadequate’ Sir Michael had one clear answer for which he produced, as far as I could see, no cogent argument. It was leadership, leadership and leadership (or rather lack of good leaders) that was the problem.

According to Sir Michael, running children’s services successfully was just common sense. You made sure that you had enough social workers and checked that agency workers were properly developed and trained. And, of course, all the case files had to be up to date and the thresholds clear and transparent. Assessments had to be “appropriate” (whatever that means) and timely. It was as simple as that!

And yet those people in children’s services, according to Sir Michael, kept “getting it wrong again, and again, and again”. What was the matter with them? Perhaps Directors went to too many conferences and didn’t visit the front line often enough?

Note the lack of evidence for all this. But as Sir Michael pointed out, it is well known that good schools are good because they have good head teachers (just as he had been) and he clearly thought the same logic applied in children’s social care.

That other ex-head teacher, Eleanor Schooling, ploughed on in a similar way. She put forward the argument that effective early intervention leads to fewer children in care, which, she thought, means that good authorities had more money to spend on services other than looked after children. In addition to providing no evidence for her case she did not explain how an authority which has to support a larger than average number of children in care can move to being an authority which has pots of money to spend on early intervention. How that interesting transition is achieved remained completely obscure.  To her credit Schooling was opposed to big caseloads – apparently up to 40 cases per social worker in the worst instances have been witnessed by her inspectors – but how small caseloads (ideally less than 10) were achievable, given staffing and resource shortfalls, was not explained.

Both speakers seemed to feel that resources weren’t an issue. They said there were lots of examples of cash-strapped councils which had good services. But again there was no explanation of why or how this came about. I struggled to imagine how an authority could reduce its caseloads from 40 to under 10 without some extra resources going in somewhere. “You can’t get owt for nowt” as they say in thermodynamics.

I was left with no clear impression about how an ‘inadequate’ authority could be helped to become ‘good’. Sir Michael mentioned Birmingham disparagingly and despairingly but gave no clue about what he thought the largest local authority in Europe should do to save its chronically struggling children’s services. I expect he thinks it needs yet more new leaders!

It is the lack of real ANALYSIS that really worries me about the whole Ofsted approach to social care inspection. There is too much judgement and too little attempt to articulate and understand the problems. Anybody who agrees with Sir Michael that running child protection services is just ‘common sense’ needs to think again. Child protection services are complex professional services which are safety critical. Systems and processes to safeguard and protect children are complex and there is huge scope for unintended and unexpected outcomes. Motivating and retaining the right people is very difficult. Achieving real quality improvements is challenging. The system is under great pressure because of high demand and reduced resources. And the whole thing takes place in an environment dominated by a culture of recrimination and blame.

You need more than common sense to steer those treacherous waters.