In the last Blog I argued that leadership and commitment was essential to creating organisational change. That is true, but we need a deeper change to create lasting improvements in Children’s Services.
In recent years I have frequently been struck by a paradox. Most of the senior managers I have met are intelligent, hard-working and committed. Yet the system is not delivering high quality practice as standard. Why not? Why are smart leaders so often leading poor services?
One obvious reason is that leaders are under multiple pressures, to balance budgets, to keep staff happy, to avoid serious incidents, but more than anything – swamping everything else – to do well in the next Ofsted inspection. And the reason Ofsted has become so overwhelmingly important is that it has become virtually the only way by which senior managers are judged. Directors and ADs keep or lose their job as a result of inspection results. They move to bigger, better paid jobs if they do well. If they do poorly then… well, who knows where they go? Some sort of hell for managers who do badly in an inspection, perhaps, where they constantly have to check their KPIs and live in a perpetual state of inspection anxiety.
Given this, it is no wonder that the intelligent people running Children’s Services orientate themselves to Ofsted. This is just human nature. Students learn to pass exams. Teachers teach to a test if that is what they are judged on. Business people try to increase profits. Human beings are rational. We orientate ourselves to the rewards and punishments in a system.
As a result our current system is orientated – to an almost absurd degree – on Ofsted compliance. And the reason that the system is broken is that for many years now Ofsted inspections have had little to do with good practice.
So far, so uncontroversial. I doubt there are many people (who are not Ofsted inspectors) who would disagree with anything written so far. The problem is that critiquing Ofsted is easy; making a coherent suggestion for better ways to run the system, well, that is a whole lot harder.
There are lots of reasons why it is complicated, and in forthcoming Blogs I will explore some of them. This includes the massive complexity of knowing what outcomes we should be measuring, and more fundamental questions about what Children’s Services are for that (I believe) we are not clear about. Yet what is clear is that the system of rewards and punishments needs to be changed if we are to have better services. Until that is done we rely on exceptional leaders – leaders so committed that they focus on good practice despite the external rewards for this being few and the risks many. This is not a sustainable way to run a system. Exceptional leaders are – as the name suggests – exceptional. And even if a local authority has one, they will move on and then what happens?
The challenge is to create a system that recognises and rewards good practice. If we did this then genuine innovations and better services would flow naturally, because social workers and leaders at every level would be freed to pursue their vision of great social work. This requires us to think in depth about how we might better recognise good practice – to see whether we could move beyond the current focus on procedural inspection, or indeed inspection at all.