Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The legacy of Rotherham: Ofsted gets some harsh words

This time it is the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee that has some very critical things to say about Ofsted in the wake of the Rotherham scandal.

In its report the Committee questions why repeated inspections of child protection arrangements in Rotherham failed to reveal the unchecked sexual exploitation of young people in the town.

The Committee’s chairman, Clive Betts MP, is quoted by ITV News as saying:

“Serious questions also need to be asked of Ofsted. Repeated Ofsted inspections in Rotherham failed to lift the lid on the council's shameful inability to tackle child sexual exploitation. As a committee, we will want to question Ofsted about their inspection regime and ask why their inspections were so ineffective in Rotherham.”

I think that Committee members are unlikely to be satisfied by anything Ofsted can tell them. Rotherham is not just a one-off failing of an otherwise ‘forensic’ inspectorate. It is par for the course.

When Oftsed conducts one of its inspections of child protection arrangements most of what is learned comes from agency records and from talking to staff and current service users, mostly in contrived situations. Talking to children and young people who have fallen through the net doesn’t feature – there are no files or computer records on them, so the inspectors don’t even know who they are or whether they even exist.

What is wrong is the whole model of inspection operated by Ofsted. Inspections are mostly a matter of inspectors turning-up, looking and sounding tough and spending most of the time checking that processes are being delivered according to the rules and regulations. An occasional bit of school-teacher-ish judgement also creeps in – ‘some of these assessments aren’t very clear’, ‘the records are not up-to-date’ ‘some appointments have been missed’.

The lip service by inspectors to the views of service users is little more than a gloss to hide the essentially bureaucratic and wooden approach to quality improvement that Ofsted adopts.

The Committee may give Ofsted managers a rough ride when they give evidence. In the long run that will make no impact at all. Ditching Ofsted and rethinking the whole approach to quality improvement in child protection would make a difference, but I doubt whether many politicians have the guts to challenge Ofsted’s very considerable vested interest.

The truth of the matter is that you cannot inspect quality into complex services. At best, even with relatively simple goods and services, inspection is a blunt tool. It delivers very limited outcomes, because it provides very limited knowledge and insight. Doing more of it harder just continues to broadcast the same unhelpful, two-dimensional messages. You can read them at the end of most Ofsted reports.