Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Ofsted – and the TIWPIR problem

I’m becoming an Ofsted bore. I’m the kind of person you encounter in pubs, blowing the froth off a pint of beer while ranting on and on, in what is obviously an obsessive way, about how Sir Michael Wilshaw - the former head teacher who is now Ofsted’s chief inspector - is really an alien from outer space who is fiendishly planning to abolish early childhood altogether!!

[See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-26853447 for details of Sir Michael’s latest foray into the world of policy and http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10740041/Ofsted-early-years-overhaul-will-have-catastrophic-impact.html for why nearly 250 experts describe his proposals as ‘catastrophic’.]

I may be a bore, but sometimes bores are right. And I think I am right about one thing at least. Some Ofsted reports concerning local child protection arrangements are simply not much use, they are a waste of time, they are unhelpful, they are not beneficial – I could go on … and on.

An unhelpful or useless report just describes a situation, without providing much evidence or analysis. There is not a lot of point knowing, for example, that assessments take a long time or that there are cases that haven’t been allocated, if we do not know why. And, perhaps naively, I would expect the inspector to look at alternative explanations of the shortfalls and to evaluate each of them in turn. After all it’s not uncommon for different groups within an organisation to offer radically differing accounts of how and why things are going wrong.

Unhelpful inspection reports can also be spotted by the quality of their recommendations. If I were marking a management student’s assignment I would expect some consideration of the various options, each one weighed according to its pros and cons. Most Ofsted reports don’t do that – in fact I haven’t seen even one that does. We just get the inspector’s opinion. That’s fine if it happens to be right, but what if it is wrong?

However the most unhelpful reports are the ones that resort to making crass and blunt recommendations of the TIWPIR (“This Is Wrong, Put It Right”) variety. Several of the recommendations from the recent report on Coventry’s Children’s Services have TIWPIR written all over them. http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/local-authorities/coventry

Take for example just three of the twenty-one recommendations for the ‘inadequate’ Coventry Council to action.

At paragraph 31 the inspector says: “All plans for children and young people should be focused on their assessed needs, with clear outcomes and timescales by which progress can be measured.” Clearly the inspector doesn’t think that some child protection cases can involve uncertainties and dilemmas that can make simple planning and objective setting difficult!

At paragraph 41 the inspector tells the Council to: “Ensure that there are sufficient adoptive and foster placements to meet the specific needs of children for appropriate permanent placements.” That’s simple then! Perhaps the inspector hasn’t heard that there is a national shortfall in the number of foster parents and long established difficulties in finding adoptive parents for some children with high or special needs.

And at paragraph 43, the unfortunate people in Coventry are told to: “Ensure that findings from audits, together with reliable performance reporting, are driving improvements to promote high standards of professional practice so that children are safe.” If it were that simple then all managers would have to do is to gather a bit of data, analyse it and improve. Hey presto! There would be no more child protection tragedies and no more re-abuse following intervention. It all sounds so easy … until you think about it for a couple of seconds, after which you might realise that knowing what to measure and how to improve in child protection are fundamental difficulties which have consistently defied simple solutions. Maybe the inspector hasn’t heard?

I don’t like TIWPIR. But just imagine how it feels if you are a member of staff struggling to deliver a service in an organisation under great pressure and in very difficult circumstances; an organisation with acute staff shortages and high levels of sickness absence, resulting in high caseloads and unallocated cases, combined with failing computer technology and mindless bureaucracy driven by decades of governments believing that people can’t work effectively unless they fill out a form …

Just imagine how it feels to those people to be told by somebody with a nice little job working for a nice little inspectorate: “This Is Wrong, Put It Right!”