Thursday, 28 May 2015

Ofsted – the stamp of inadequacy?

I did enjoy Professor Ray Jones’ excellent article in Community Care on Ofsted’s children’s social care inspections.

He speaks of ‘skewed judgement’ by a “belligerent, bullying, battering and bruising” inspectorate that he compares to the Spanish Inquisition. He concludes that Ofsted inspections are “hit and run” affairs that create a climate of “threat and fear” and have the effect of de-stabilising local authorities. This is strong stuff, but he is right!

In similar vein is a recent report from the local government consultancy group, Impower. This argues that there is a "lack of clarity" in Ofsted’s social care inspection framework and that the inspectorate has not been capable of working out which approach protects children best.  The report’s authors blame this lack of consistency for a "catastrophic spiralling effect" on local authorities that are judged ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted. Often, it is argued, a negative inspection results in increased volumes of work and a higher turnover of staff, resulting in reduced levels of service to individual children and their families. The overall impact is that children are left less safe than before the inspection took place.

Negative reviews of Ofsted’s children’s social care inspection regime are now becoming widespread. Just before the election Labour’s shadow Children’s Minister, Steve McCabe was quoted as saying that Ofsted “… seems to pride itself on riding into town, having a press conference, and then riding out.” He questioned whether the inspectorate had lost touch.

I believe that Ofsted has fallen into the role of the purveyor of one-dimensional negative feedback. Rather than local authorities seeing an Ofsted inspection as an opportunity for corporate learning, the inspection process is has become a trial. If the outcome is not guilty a great sigh of relief is heard. If the outcome is guilty, heads have to roll. Key people resign or are sacked or see their careers blighted. The press and politicians point fingers. The authority is named and shamed. 

Does any of that destructive process help children and young people? The answer is ‘no’. Even in ‘good’ authorities the Ofsted inspection process is highly disruptive. The prospect of a sudden unannounced inspection distorts priorities and hangs like a shroud over practice. In authorities that are found ‘inadequate’ the clock stops. There are widespread changes of senior management and other personnel. Other permanent workers leave and the proportion of agency staff increases. Morale plummets. The authority is left to struggle to pull itself up by its own bootstraps. The problems can persist for years, as they have in Birmingham, which incidentally is the largest local authority in Britain, with one negative Ofsted inspection following another.

W Edwards Deming, who is widely credited as being the inspiration for the revolution in manufacturing quality in Japan that started after World War II, had strong views about inspection.  The third of Deming’s ‘fourteen points’ states: "Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place." Deming was not entirely against using inspection in all circumstances, but he saw it as an inefficient and disruptive process that absorbed resources, created rework and diverted attention from more effective ways of achieving quality.

I believe the kind of inspection children’s services and child protection require is not the pass/fail type that characterises the Ofsted regime. What is required is a much more supportive approach, that gives struggling local authorities the knowledge and skills to improve their services, not simply punishes them for failing to come up to an arbitrary mark.

Importantly inspection has to be part of a learning process. An inspectorate should itself be a learning organisation that should be at the forefront of learning about how to build quality into services in the first place. And inspection events should be opportunities for both the inspected and the inspector to learn how to do things better, not just brutal pass/fail examinations.

Because the stakes of an Ofsted inspection are so high it is hard for managers and practitioners to be frank with inspectors. There is a natural tendency to give the best possible impression. If the inspectors miss some negative aspects, who is going to draw that to their attention? For all we know there may be skeletons lurking in the cupboards of ‘good’ authorities that the last Ofsted inspection simply missed. Who would be so foolish to shout about them?

But safe organisations are those that search out and correct weaknesses and tackle ‘error traps’. Finding that something is wrong in the design or management of a service should not be a negative event. It should be a welcome opportunity to make the organisation even safer.

The anonymous informant quoted by Ray Jones is right to describe Ofsted as ‘dangerous’. The organisation is fostering a dangerous culture of denial. It perpetuates a system that inhibits honesty and improvement and leaves children at risk of harm. In short it is ‘inadequate’. It should go.