The scandals of Rotherham, Oxford, Hackney etc. have finally alerted government to the need for something more than reviews and reports. Ofsted, after turning a blind eye for years, have been told to get tough. On 14th December the Prime Minister announced that Sunderland children’s services will become a voluntary trust and new service leaders will be appointed to step in and tackle failings in Norfolk and Sandwell children’s services. Of course local authorities could, and should, do better. They see themselves held back not so much by budget cuts, as workloads and the calibre of their staff. The elephant in the room is that both of those problems arise from the bureaucratic, complex and cumbersome system imposed by Whitehall itself. Form-filling comes before child welfare. Child workers are judged on how they spend their time not on the outcomes they achieve. Lord Laming pointed that out in his report to government back in 2003 yet the Department for Education continues to point the finger rather than reform the system and the regulators.
If the system were streamlined, higher calibre staff could be recruited, morale would improve and outcomes enhanced. For example, Amanda Kelly, of iMPOWER, has shown that Ofsted is more part of the problem than part of the solution (http://www.impower.co.uk/insights/a-brave-new-world-is-inspection-improving-childrens-services).
The government chose Norfolk Children’s Services to be a whipping boy on the basis of the Ofsted October report. It makes interesting reading: many improvements are cited as well as faults. The casual reader would not be able to conclude whether the progress is, or is not, good enough. Ofsted, however, labels almost everything as “inadequate” without any evidence of that. No performance measures are reported still less comparisons with prior years, other local authorities or standards that should be met. There are no measures of achievements, i.e. outcomes, because Ofsted, as usual, is preoccupied with leadership and how child workers spend their time – not that there are any measures of that either.
The head of Essex Children’s Services has been appointed to clean out, within three month’s, Norfolk’s alleged Augean stable. Clearly Essex is deemed “best practice”. Put the latest Norfolk and Essex Ofsted reports side by side and something interesting emerges. There are no performance measures in the Essex report either. Some areas of improvement are noted along with some faults. The only substantive difference is that the word “inadequate” in the Norfolk report is replaced by “good” in the Essex one. No measurement of what is achieved versus what should be achieved.
With regulators like this, is it any wonder that our children are being failed?