One of the best parts of my job is when we get to acknowledge and celebrate good social care practice. And no more so than when we give a judgement of outstanding to highlight the excellent work leaders and social workers do.
During the single inspection framework (SIF) programme however, there was one area of practice where an outstanding grade proved elusive. Across all the local authorities (LAs) we inspected, we did not give any the highest grade for ‘help and protection’.
Why should this be? Well, when developing the new inspection of local authority children’s services (ILACS) inspection system, we challenged ourselves to understand what the barriers were to awarding this judgement. We also wanted to understand how, as a force for improvement, we can contribute to a better shared understanding about what outstanding help and protection looks like.
I’m going to discuss here what some of these barriers were, but, most importantly, what LAs can do to achieve this high bar as we move into the new ILACS framework.
The barriers to ‘outstanding’
Two issues in particular stood out when we looked at the outstanding grade for help and protection:
- There may have been apprehension from some inspectors to give the judgement in the first place. Even the highest performing LAs will have areas for improvement – nowhere is ‘perfect’
- We haven’t provided enough clarity to inspectors and LAs about what outstanding under the SIF actually meant
We all know that social care operates in a complex environment, where context and risk are dynamic and subject to a wide range of variables. I want to be very clear here. It just isn’t possible for any LA to always make the ‘right’ decisions, but they can consistently make the best ones given that complex context.
Professor Eileen Munro said that child protection should, at its most basic level, focus on ‘doing the right thing’ (i.e. checking whether children and young people are being helped).
Crucially, she argued that the complexity and associated uncertainty of child protection work cannot be eradicated – and that it was important to have a culture of learning.
This really resonates with me. While the best LAs don’t always get everything right, they do absolutely make sure they cultivate a culture of learning and an environment where good social work can thrive.
So even in the very best performing LAs, there will be areas for improvement and learning. They will constantly seek to improve practice learning from serious incidents, near misses and from feedback from children and families and they will use management oversight and reflective supervision to support social workers in consistently doing their best work and to develop themselves as practitioners.
Outstanding child protection requires that senior leaders of the organisation have a clear line of sight on casework so they can challenge and support the judgements of managers in a way that ensures the culture of the service is not risk averse but one which supports learning in a complex and challenging environment.
Leaders, managers and staff are caring, professionally curious, committed to understanding the experiences of the children they work with, and unwavering in their determination to make them safer.
Outstanding and the way forward
The new ILACS inspection system is now underway. It includes amended criteria for outstanding. The experiences and progress of children who need help and protection is likely to be judged outstanding if:
‘The response to children and families is consistently good or better, and results in sustained improvement to the lives of children, young people and their families.’
This is a simpler definition. It focuses on the impact of social work practice on children and their families, and whether it makes sustained improvements to their lives.
There’s no mistaking that this remains a high bar, but in my view it is one that is achievable.
So what does this mean in practice?
Put simply, outstanding does not mean ‘perfect’. Nor does it mean that there aren’t areas for improvement, or there will not be a serious case review/learning review.
Identifying areas for improvement does not in itself preclude a LA from an outstanding grade if it has taken swift, appropriate action to address them. Indeed, we see this as evidence of effective leadership, knowing yourself and responding appropriately.
We want to support LAs to be confident in being transparent about where things could have been done better, so that they can take the right action to improve practice in future. There will always be significant risks when making decisions about child protection. Our focus is on how well these risks to children are managed.
Equally, we did not and do not expect each and every family to receive the same level of intervention. Proportionality is key, as the ILACS evaluation now sets out. It is not possible, or indeed appropriate, that every family gets an intensive response.
Ingredients for success
There will always be key ingredients that are necessary to be outstanding. I won’t list them all, but it’s timely to highlight some of the main elements (which we have discussed previously) here.
Strong and effective leadership in help and protection is of course vital, but LAs also need:
- a focus on getting basic social work practice right
- a consistent understanding and application of thresholds – essential for making good decisions.
- well-supported, confident and knowledgeable managers who understand the quality and impact of practice
- performance management and quality assurance arrangements that support managers in monitoring work and to take action where necessary
- manageable caseloads and a stable, knowledgeable and committed workforce
- a strong learning culture and a strong focus on practice
- effective working with other agencies
- a system that focuses on providing help early to children and their families and a “preventative” approach across all the levels of need, vulnerability and risk
- a child-centred system with robust arrangements and processes
- a focus on achieving sustained improvements in the lives of children and their families
As part of the new ILACS system, Ofsted will have more regular contact with LAs. We will gather evidence about the quality and impact of practice on an ongoing basis outside of inspection. In my view this will better support authorities to achieve outstanding judgements in help and protection.
There’s much to be optimistic about moving forward. Do I think we’ll be celebrating the achievements of leaders, managers and social workers in delivering outstanding ‘help and protection’ in the future? I have a feeling we will.