Saturday, 17 December 2016

Bottom Up

While I agree with the report of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, published this week, that the Department for Education (DfE) lacks a credible plan for improving the child protection system, I am not convinced by the report’s recommendations.

In particular I don’t think much of the Committee’s suggestion that the DfE work more closely with Ofsted to obtain “more timely assurance on the quality of children’s services”. That presumes that Ofsted itself has a coherent model of quality of children’s services (which it doesn’t). And it fails to address the problem, which to be fair the report recognises, that the Department is solely reliant on Ofsted inspections to measure the quality of local authority services. To my mind Ofsted is a part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The associated recommendation that the Department steps-up its use of “leading indicators” to intervene in local authorities, before they are deemed to have failed by Ofsted, is weak because it is not clear how reliable or informative the so-called leading indicators are or how well they predict the outcomes of Ofsted inspections; let alone the question of whether or how they relate to quality and safety.

Then there is the recommendation that the DfE should set out for the Committee its plans for evaluation, dissemination and embedding good practice. To my mind that seems to assume that the DfE, which has still to open its ‘what works’ centre, is a repository of what constitutes best practice. I may be accused of being an incurable pessimist but I expect that any statements the DfE concocts concerning good practice are likely to be either unrealistic counsels of perfection or empty sound bites and probably a mixture of both. So I’m not recommending anybody to watch that space.

Finally, I was disappointed to see that the Committee fell into the trap of supposing that the primary response to workforce shortfalls should be more recruitment, when the real issue to be addressed is how to retain the people we already have. Unless the job of children’s social worker is made more attractive, people will move on, creating unfilled vacancies. It’s as simple as that.

My despair with all of this is that the model of improvement which the Public Accounts Committee seems to share with the DfE is essentially a top-down one. According to that view of the world, clever elite people, such as DfE civil servants and advisers and Ofsted inspectors, come up with prescriptions for best practice and improvement which are then dispensed to humble front-line practitioners, who are in turn expected to be appropriately compliant in seamlessly implementing the dictates of their betters.

It will never work as anybody giving the issue of improvement much thought knows. If the people who do the work and the people who are on the receiving end of services are not at the leading edge of improvement, changes will simply fall flat. If change is to bring about higher quality and safer services it needs to be bottom-up.