Posted on 9/03/2018 by David Burgess
A frontline social worker reflects on the impact of inspections on frontline staff
I am interested in how Ofsted impacts on an organisation during, before and after a monitoring visit and a full inspection, in particular how it potentially shapes an organisation’s direction, focus, and allocation of funds.
I admit I have found myself worried about whether Ofsted’s presence can have a negative impact; does the drive for a positive rating take precedent? Does this in turn have an impact on staff and local authorities? Critically does what Ofsted looks for and measure constitute an accurate representation of what good social work is?
There is a move in the sector to consider how we measure outcomes and Ofsted has rolled out a new framework to measure standards in local authorities.
The new framework sets out a clear change in the process of inspection visits; but what Ofsted does on a visit to a local authority remains more of an unknown.
Ofsted has been in my local authority recently and the feedback was positive, which was a little surprise to staff. It worries me if Ofsted can gain an accurate understanding of what life is like for children in the area from a two-day visit and whether the tools they use to measure this are accurate.
Are the judgements made of local authorities evidence based? How do they draw their conclusions?
The influence and power of an Ofsted rating for me is hugely significant. A poor Ofsted can lead to significant, whole organisation change which may in fact be more harmful to children.
The changes within my organisation and the drive to compliance in the run up to the visit was striking; emails flying round asking for things to be on the system urgently and being sent highlighting an apparent togetherness.
The disconnect between workforce and senior management appeared as an indirect outcome. I know this is only my personal experience, but it was notable.
This massive shift towards change for a short period of time enthused me but also led me to be confused; why all the urgency now to do things better for children and families? Why the lack of consistency?
I do not envy the challenges senior management teams have when thinking about how best to bring about change. There is an ongoing improvement plan in my organisation and I understand the pressure Ofsted can bring.
However, I worry about the narrative of inspection. We all know that in high-need authorities the challenge of austerity and high caseloads is not simply fixed.
A new model may be adopted, or new thresholds introduced, but if the money is not going into prevention then the levels of demand will remain the same.
My point is that at any given time, there may be a rating of ‘good’ but then this may change; will consistent inspection support or hinder? Is the trajectory towards a ‘good’ Ofsted rating, the same as a trajectory to doing the best for children and families? What would be interesting is to consider research into how Ofsted operates; I myself have not come across any.
It may appear that I am against Ofsted. In fact, I think local authorities should not go unchecked. I am more concerned about the relationship between Ofsted ratings, the direction taken by local authorities and the impact this has on the lives of children.
Perhaps I am not appreciating the impact of a ‘good’ Ofsted; does this improve retention and recruitment; secure innovation funding and appease local government? Is there a wider political discourse at play that necessitates Ofsted’s ratings?
I am curious to know whether Ofsted really looks into the whys, the deep meanings of what an authority is struggling with or is it all surface-level key performance indicators? Is Ofsted truly investigating what is most important?
An interesting example of this is the move from local authorities to really consider what practice model they want to adopt to best support children and families and facilitate change.
I wonder if Ofsted are invested in this as well. The idea of child safety, and the notion of safety, equating to good is for me the wrong focus and I worry this is the overwhelming focus of Ofsted.
I am not saying safety is not what we are working towards but an organisation of therapeutically and skilfully trained practitioners encouraging real change in families will lead to safety. For me, anyone can come into a family and tell people what to do to keep a child safe, visits can be logged on time, recording can be top-notch, but this is not ‘good’ social work.
Good social work is about the questions being used, the theories being employed, and the discussions and understanding shown to help that person change.
How is Ofsted measuring change, what are they looking at in respect of ‘how’ we are doing social work in local authorities?
That is what is critical; it is important to look at numbers and compliance but the ‘how’, as opposed to when seen and what was seen, is important. There is a real shift towards this in local authorities and Ofsted and the Department of Education need to catch up.
In writing this piece, I have discovered that I am curious to learn more about Ofsted, especially as the impact of a rating is so huge, and I feel it is important that practitioners gain that insight. The practice and decision making of Ofsted in this area should be subject to scrutiny and research.
It is important that local authorities, Ofsted and the Department of Education are all working to the same goal.
Andrew Matthews is a pseudonym. He is a children’s social worker.