Ofsted begins shake-up of children’s services inspections following review

Ofsted has given a clear indication of how children’s services inspections will work in the future in its consultation on the child protection system.

The consultation follows the publication of Professor Eileen Munro’s review of the system in May, in which she argued that checks should examine how all local services – including health, education, police, probation and the justice system – contribute to the protection of children. She also said inspections should scrutinise the child’s journey and experience through services, from needing to receiving help.

The government accepted her proposals and Ofsted is consulting on how to put them into practice. The consultation, which runs until 30 September, includes plans to introduce more proportionate inspections, as well as two-week-long unannounced checks.

So what exactly is happening?

Ofsted is planning to replace inspections of local authority children’s services with no-notice checks lasting two weeks, from May 2012. The inspections, which will focus on the quality of early intervention and child protection services, will look at the child’s “journey” through services, but will not scrutinise council provision in isolation. They will also consider how all local services – including health, education, police and the justice system – contribute to protecting children.

What will be different?

Aside from the fact that local authorities will no longer be warned before an inspection takes place, the type of information Ofsted is interested in is set to change. Under the proposals, inspections will be largely based on the experiences of individual children and the outcomes they achieve. Inspectors will spend time meeting with children and families, as well as frontline professionals and managers, to find out what they think about the quality of services. The direct observation of practice will also be a central element of the checks. Inspectors might observe social work visits or attend child protection case conferences.

How often will areas be inspected?

Ofsted wants to introduce greater proportionality into children’s services inspections, by inspecting high-performing local authorities less than those that are deemed to be struggling. The inspectorate is proposing to re-inspect local authorities that are judged inadequate every 18 months; every three years for those that are satisfactory; and every five years for those that are good or outstanding. Inspections will be brought forward if there is “sufficient reason for concern”.

What will happen during the two-week check?

A small team of inspectors will arrive on-site at the start of the inspection. They will start by examining the quality of services at the point when a child is referred to social care. In the first two days, inspectors will evaluate the timeliness of referrals, the effectiveness of assessment, risk management, the provision of immediate help where required and the effectiveness of multi-agency work. The lead inspector will then work with the council to plan the remainder of the inspection, which will look at all the other aspects of the child’s journey through services.

How will agencies outside the local authority be held to account?

Inspectors will judge the effectiveness of multi-agency working by looking at the experiences of children, observing multi-agency meetings and evaluating the effectiveness of Local Safeguarding Children Boards. Ofsted is working with its relevant partner inspectorates to explore how they can share information.

Are the ratings for areas going to change?

Every area will continue to receive a grade for overall effectiveness – outstanding, good, satisfactory or inadequate – but the current range of judgments will be scrapped. Instead, judgments will be based around four key themes: the local authority’s capacity to improve; the effectiveness of the help they provide to children, families and carers; the quality of professional practice; and the quality of leadership and management.

What’s happening with inspections of services for children in care?

Inspections of services for children in care are changing, in part because Ofsted is “unlikely to be able to resource” a universal cycle of inspections for these services. The watchdog is therefore proposing to inspect a sample of between 20 and 25 local authorities annually. These “short notice” one-week inspections will look at the quality and timeliness of care planning, arrangements and support for children placed out of the local authority’s area, the effectiveness of corporate parenting and to what extent the local authority ensures that children’s wishes inform every aspect of their care.

How does this fit in with adoption and fostering services inspections?

Ofsted is currently consulting on whether it should inspect local authority fostering and adoption services at the same time. Existing regulations require each of these services to be inspected once every three years. Where possible, the watchdog will consider whether the inspection of local authority adoption and fostering services could be made to coincide with any inspection of services for children in care.