Social care inspection: setting the record straight

Far from disregarding the expertise of social care professionals, Ofsted has it locked into its current programme of inspection and won the respect of children’s services staff, writes Jon Goldup

Ray Jones is concerned about the loss of what he calls the ‘developmental responsibility’ of the Commission for Social Care Inspection. However, the sector has moved on considerably since the abolition of CSCI. Local government itself is firmly committed to the principle of sector led improvement – of individual local authorities, and the sector as a whole, taking responsibility for their own performance and improvement.

As Professor Eileen Munro emphasised in her report to the government on child protection, and as everybody directly involved now agrees, this is not a substitute for external, independent inspection. Both inspection and sector-led work are part of a single system; each has a distinct and discrete role, but they need to interact with and support each other, not pull in opposite directions and get in each other’s way. This is the systems model Ofsted is strongly committed to developing, in close and continuing dialogue with the sector. Spending time trying to reinvent inspection as an improvement agency, or as a reincarnated field force, would be an unnecessary distraction.

As I have repeated on many platforms in the last two years, the debate about the relationship between inspection and improvement is not a debate about whether inspection should support improvement – it’s a debate about how it can do that most effectively. Supporting improvement in the services we inspect and regulate is one of Ofsted’s first statutory duties.

Inspection doesn’t drive improvement – it’s the hard work of thousands of people day in day out working to do their best for children that drives improvement, it’s local leaders and managers – the people whose experience, expertise and wisdom Ray Jones suggests we are ignoring. But the evidence that inspection can strongly support improvement is clear. It does this by being really clear about both the strengths of local systems and the areas where improvement is needed, by highlighting and disseminating good practice and, where necessary, shining a ruthless spotlight on failure.

Evidence that Ofsted’s inspections support improvement is demonstrated by the improvements made by local authorities between the first and second unannounced inspection of contact referral and assessment arrangements, documented in the chief inspector’s annual report published on November 22. It’s also there in the local authorities for whom a judgment of ‘inadequate’ on their safeguarding services has been the catalyst for change that means children are now better protected in those areas than they were before. It’s captured in the comments of the directors of children’s services who, for example, took the trouble to write to us after an inspection to say ‘Thank you for supporting us with a strong programme on which to take forward our improvement agenda’, or who said that his staff found their dialogue with our inspectors one of the best professional development experiences of their careers.

We are two-thirds of the way through a programme of full safeguarding and looked-after children inspections that are, I am confident, now almost universally recognised as robust, rigorous, focused on practice, and supporting improvement. We have recently consulted on a new programme of inspection which will be wholly unannounced and absolutely focused on the experiences of individual children and the primacy of professional practice, rigorous management oversight, and strong leadership.

As Ofsted’s director leading social care inspection, supported by a strong team and an outstanding cadre of inspectors, all of whom, like me, are professionally qualified and have decades of experience in social care, I refute the claim that Ofsted does not recognise the need for deep experience and expertise to take on what Ray Jones rightly defines as its ‘major national responsibilities for crucial, life-defining, high-risk and high-exposure social care services.’

We are not in any way complacent, but it is at least encouraging that 100% – every single one – of the directors of children’s services who have responded to our post-inspection questionnaire agreed with the statement that ‘the outcome of the inspection process will help us to improve the services we offer to children and young people’. This is not, as Ray Jones suggests, an inspectorate that has lost the respect of those it inspects.

John Goldup is national director for development and strategy at Ofsted