Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Ofsted issue - inspection and quality in child protection

The heated row between Ofsted and ADCS continues. ADCS president, Kim Bromley-Derry, has forcefully criticised Ofsted's Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) methodology as flawed and condemned some draft reports as not making sense. ADCS has published a position paper on inspection which makes some good points. It criticises Ofsted's inspection frameworks for being "process-driven" and for using conformity to process as a proxy measure for quality. It is argued that this leads to inspectors falsely concluding that a process failing (e.g. late recording of an assessment) equates to an outcome failing (e.g. putting a child at risk).

In reply John Goldup, Ofsted’s director of social care, has defended the inspectorate's work as a key element in improving child protection services. His boss, Christine Gilbert, has been more forceful saying in a BBC radio interview that there can be no hiding place for poor practice.

There is a pervasive assumption that inspection is central to quality improvement in public services, but there are several reasons why we should be cautious in accepting that this is so. In the first place there is no reason to believe that an inspectorate like Ofsted is a repository of wisdom about how a complex professional task, like child protection, should be achieved. Even accepting John Goldup's protestations that some of his inspectors were inherited from CSCI, and so have many years dealing with children's services (as opposed to schools), there is little evidence that Ofsted knows best. They do not seem to draw on academic expertise in the field, nor do they conduct thematic research to explore issues like quality and service development. Instead they appear to derive their assumptions about what is and what is not good practice from statutory guidance and associated performance indicators, such as the timescales laid down for completion of assessments, holding of child protection conferences etc.

Secondly we need to question seriously whether inspection is an activity which "drives" quality at all. One of the 20th century's most important quality "gurus" was the American engineer W. E. Deming, who is often credited with inspiring Japan's quality revolution in the 1950s and after whom the prize awarded by the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers is named. Deming did not like inspection. He lays down as one of his key principles for achieving quality that the need for inspection must be eliminated by building quality into the product in the first place. Inspection, he says comes too late. It is ineffective and costly and it does not result in quality improvements which come only from direct efforts (such continuous improvement methodologies) to improve the production process.

Putting resources into inspection, rather than into service delivery, has a number of perverse consequences. Staff find the inspection process stressful. Negative feedback is always demotivating. Being told that work is inadequate is not the same as being helped to improve. And, of course, inspections disrupt normal services, are distracting and use up scarce staff time and other resources while adding no value.

Often inspections result in pointless recommendations such as the one I quoted in my post on the Cornwall inspection a few weeks ago:  "Ensure children’s social care team managers have the appropriate skills and expertise and consistently follow guidance, procedures and protocols". This tells the inspected authority nothing of value about how to improve its services. It just waives the critical stick in a high-handed and self-serving manner. It is both pejorative and self-righteous. It makes nothing better.

The ADCS position paper very rightly stresses the importance of supporting continuous improvement and calls on Ofsted to help in this. But continuous improvement can only take place where those who are delivering the services themselves investigate and understand where improvement needs to happen. Being dictated to by detached outsiders will frustrate and dispirit those best placed to improve quality.

Ofsted's John Goldup is quoted in Children and Young People Now as saying “If inspection isn't helping to drive improvement, it is a huge waste of money." He is right but I would be more inclined to put it slightly differently: "Inspection isn't helping to drive improvement and that is a huge waste of money".