Friday, 21 May 2010

Are Inspections Working?

Suppose an inspector had made the following comments about the child protection services in your area:
  • Workforce planning is ineffective
  • There is a significant shortage of front line social work staff
  • Demand for service, particularly referrals and re-referrals, has increased by 43% resulting in children not being effectively safeguarded
  • The (low) level of skill, knowledge and experience of social work staff is significantly impairing the quality of service provided
  • In some offices there are too many newly qualified staff carrying heavy caseloads
  • The threshold for access to children’s social care is not always consistently understood or applied by all agencies resulting in some children are not receiving the services they need
  • The number of children who are subjects of child protection plans has increased over the last year by 40%, with an increasing number of children subject of a child protection plan for over two years
No-one would blame you for being outraged and worried. It certainly sounds like the service is imploding. It seems to be at breaking point. Necessary services are not being delivered adequately. Children are suffering.

If similar comments were made about an airline you would never fly with it.

Now suppose that you are the manager of a service like this and you receive the inspectors' report. You agree with their findings (you know just how stretched the service is) and you eagerly turn to their recommendations to find out how you might improve. There you might hope to find some guidance on how limited resources might be used most effectively to deal with unprecedented increases in demand. Perhaps the inspectors have made some helpful suggestions about where additional resources could be found? You might also expect some proposals to help you deal with the shortage of suitably trained and experienced staff, or advice on how such people could be recruited. At worst you might find some useful thoughts on how services could be made safer even if the vacancies cannot be filled or the shortfalls remedied.

You might expect ... but if you were Nottinghamshire County Council this is what you'd have been given by Ofsted in their report 36564 of the 21st May 2010. The advice comes with the helpful qualification that it be implemented "immediately":
  • Revise the existing child protection, safeguarding and looked after service improvement plan to take account of the priorities for action set out in this report.
  • Ensure all children and young people are effectively safeguarded and are not left at risk of significant harm with priority given to tackling the backlog of cases.
  • Review and streamline the arrangements for making contacts and referrals to children’s social care.
  • Undertake a full evaluation of the allocation of children’s services resources to ensure that the capacity of the workforce is sufficient to meet the demand for service while applying the published thresholds for access to service.
  • Tackle the unacceptably high social work caseloads and insufficient team manager capacity, and ensure newly qualified social workers are protected from carrying high and complex caseloads.
  • Improve the quality and timeliness of initial and core assessments.
  • Ensure the local partnership provides effective challenge to drive the improvement agenda.
  • Ensure all partner agencies are adequately resourced to meet the needs of the most vulnerable children and young people who require safeguarding and are at risk of harm.
The three I like the best are the second, the fifth and the last (highlighted). But they all have a hollow, sanctimonious ring to them. How precisely is this struggling authority meant to ensure all children are effectively safeguarded when it self-evidently doesn't have the capacity and resources to achieve this task? Where will it find the resources to reduce unacceptably high caseloads? How can partner agencies be "adequately resourced" when there are no resources to achieve even barely acceptable levels of service?

I expect the answer is that the inspectors don't know. They state what might be technically referred to as "the bleedin' obvious" and then it's "over to you mate".

We need to ask some very serious questions about whether Ofsted Inspections of children's social care are working. The point of inspections, if there is one, is that they are intended to help improve services; not patronise hard pressed managers and dispirit overworked staff.