I have been reading a letter sent by Ofsted to Norfolk County Council, regarding a monitoring visit in October 2016, following an earlier finding of ‘inadequate’. I struggled to get to grips with much of the contents of this missive, which may make sense to those in Norfolk, to whom it is addressed, but which largely passed me by. Statements such as “…managers have not been sufficiently strategic in their approach to transforming the way that the authority operates” give me a headache. I have the mental picture of something which looks like a tyre pressure gauge, but measuring units of ‘strategic intent’. Where one would plug it in is anybody’s guess. And I don’t like the idea that a few managers can ‘transform’ services if only they try harder. Transformation is not something that is easy to do. I wonder when was the last time the people from Ofsted ‘transformed’ anything? Come to think of it how many of us have ever transformed anything? Most of us just go to work and do our best. I also didn’t like the frequent references to ‘performance management’ (or more accurately its ‘under-development’) which seems to assume that we might have an understanding of what under-developed performance management looks like. I don’t.
And I don’t expect that many people working for Norfolk Children’s Services will be pleased to read the inspector’s comment that there are difficulties recruiting “high calibre managers and staff”. At the very least that’s dispiriting. If you don’t have the skin of a rhino it is just insulting.
But what really concerns me about this letter is its macho tone. It is peppered with aggressive phrases, including frequent use of the word ‘robust’. By far the worst and creepiest sentences are the following: “Leaders have not been ruthless enough in pursuing improvement at all levels” and “The local authority is not sufficiently ruthless or ambitious in tracking and chasing progress….” Oh dear, I now have the mental image of kicking down doors and shining bright lights in people’s eyes while slapping them around the face. ‘Ruthless’ indeed!
Encouraging macho management should not be a part of Ofsted’s brief. There is absolutely no evidence at all that improvement is brought about by tough guys. On the contrary, acting like a rugby scrum on steroids is likely to be counter-productive at best and at worst destructive. The challenge of improvement in children’s services is not how to take names and kick arse, but how to engage with the people who deliver very complex services to help them try to understand what is causing poor quality and how to remedy it. Putting the frighteners on people who are struggling to do their best is not likely to win many hearts and minds. It is likely to increase the number of unfilled vacancies.