Thursday, 26 January 2017

There is a better way

It saddens me to read about what is happening at Kirklees Council Children’s Services, following an Ofsted finding of ‘inadequate’. After the inspection, the director has resigned and the Unison branch secretary is quoted by Children and Young People Now as saying that others are resigning too. He speaks of staff members leaving in “droves”.

A decision to strike has been backed by 80% of union members who voted and the branch’s website lists the following causes of concern:
  • Poor staffing levels
  • Lack of permanent staff/use of agency staff/inability to recruit and retain staff
  • Lack of a travel plan
  • Poor IT systems
  • Inadequate workplace
  • Caseloads
  • Victimisation/bullying
  • Inconsistent management
  • Regrading
It’s the same sad, old story: failure, anger, conflict, fear, recrimination and blame. A damning Ofsted inspection ruins some people’s careers and puts others to flight in search of pastures new. Those that remain get to shoulder all the problems and cope with the increased workloads, while inspectors and civil servants and politicians and the media point the finger of blame. Management clamps down on the workers and workers resort to industrial action to try to protect themselves. It’s a tragedy because everybody suffers, most of all the children and young people who should be receiving what should be a high-quality service.

Inspection is a very crude and wasteful approach to quality. By the time an Ofsted inspection has amassed evidence of ‘inadequacy’ it is already too late for many children and young people who have been failed by the services they receive. And when the organisation implodes following the inspectors’ verdict, heads have to roll and in the ensuing chaos bad services get worse. In some cases, such as Birmingham, the turmoil continues for years, even decades.

W. Edwards Deming, the man who is often credited as the architect of the Japanese approach to quality, wrote in his book Out of the Crisis:

“Inspection does not improve quality, nor guarantee quality. Inspection is too late. The quality, good or bad, is already in the product. As Harold F. Dodge said, ‘You cannot inspect quality into a product.’” (page 29)

Deming believed that quality had to be designed into goods and services. It is, he believed, useless and dispiriting to allow groups of workers to struggle to produce high quality, only to be told at the last minute that they have failed and need to start again. On the contrary management’s responsibility is to ensure that workers have the designs, systems and tools to build quality products and services. Crucial to this is giving workers the ability to identify quality problems and to take steps to correct them. Only by constantly learning from the experience of production can true quality come about.

Child protection services in Britain, and elsewhere, seem to be a long way from this ideal. Top-down bureaucracies characterised by blame and fear are still to be found. Rather than empowering workers to do a good job, organisations often rob workers of their autonomy and the ownership of what they produce.

And the spectre of Ofsted haunts practice like the sword of Damocles. 

There is a better way. The first step in implementing it is to stop doing the things which prevent high quality. Most importantly we have to tackle the culture of fear and blame and put a culture of learning and growth in its place.