Beyond leadership: why has inspection become so dominant in Children’s Services?

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.


  • Maggie Danesfahani

    Great post and unfortunately true. It is possible to get a service to a rating of good and keep it there but it does require a commitment to consistency and simple systems that make everyone’s job easier.

  • Chris Mills

    “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.”

    It is easy to criticise Ofsted – and rightly so. They have developed a received view of what services should look like and they are the arbiters of whether individual local authorities conform to that vision. The problem, of course, is that the received view is a bit hazy, being surrounded with soundbites and clichés (e.g. ‘robust management’, ‘a child’s journey’, ‘too many children at risk …’ etc.). There is no clear methodology underpinning their inspections and their reports judge but seldom analyse. Authorities are left with statements about what is perceived to be wrong, but given no understanding of how they got there and no advice about how to put it right.

    Services in general are very difficult to inspect, because the service is produced and consumed simultaneously. Hence what tends to be inspected is often records, data, systems and reflections about the service, not the service itself. Highly complex services (as opposed to services which are just complicated) are ones where a great deal of customisation needs to take place at the point of service delivery. Often that customisation is difficult to capture in a record or a statistic – consider for example a social worker who helps a child disclose abuse by being a good listener as opposed to one who moves the interview on and misses the opportunity.

    It is therefore very unlikely that real quality or safety improvements will ever come from inspecting children’s services. Inspection will always be a distraction. As Deming – the inspiration for the Japanese quality revolution – said “Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for massive inspection by building quality into the product in the first place.”

    Building quality into the service or product is partially an issue of design, but formal design cannot cope with complexity such as that encountered in a social worker / service user interaction. Rather the issue needs to be stood on its head and focused on improvement, not specification. Very high quality goods and services are usually the ones that are continuously improved using feedback from the frontline about where the service (or good) falls short of expectations. As Matthew Syed puts it, we have to embrace learning from failure. Mistakes and service failures are opportunities for learning and improvement – not occasions for blame and recrimination.

    Only too often, however, we are unwilling to admit our failures and so unable to learn from them. That is why Ofsted is part of the problem rather than part of the solution, because Ofsted fosters the fiction that failure is always a bad thing and that those who fail deserve punishment – a rating of ‘inadequate’.

    Other safety critical industries have been quicker than social work to learn these lessons. The approach to safety in civil aviation adopted widely since the 1980s relies on what Professor James Reason calls the ‘system’ view of human error and organisational accidents. To become safer (to achieve higher quality) we need to learn the free lessons from near misses and adverse or unwelcome events. We need systems which aggregate and communicate messages about where corporate defences fail and we need to analyse, not just describe, what goes wrong so that we can begin to build better defences for the future. Civil aviation is a long way down this path.

    So, there is a coherent suggestion about how to move on from Ofstedism: build just reporting cultures and foster continuous improvement.

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