Yvette Stanley, National Director for Regulation and Social Care, talks about our children's social care visits that will start this Autumn.
Just a few weeks ago, a more normal, pre-COVID life was beckoning with restrictions eased and a greater sense of freedom. Although this continues to some extent, it’s clear that the sense of normality we all crave will be on hold for a while to come, as colleagues in the north of England know only too well.
Children’s social care has been under tremendous strain since lockdown began. Protecting and caring for the most vulnerable children, while contending with the impact of COVID-19 on staff and services, has been one of the greatest challenges that the sector has probably ever faced, certainly in my career.
Despite this, we’ve seen much resilience and adaptability: new ways of working, and local authorities, schools, early years and wider services going above and beyond for children. Some of this we’ve seen first-hand, through our inspectors deployed in local authorities to help with their wider COVID-19 efforts.
But there is also anxiety about what lies ahead, as the full impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on the most vulnerable begins to bite. Tensions are rising behind closed doors, and there is an inevitable rise in numbers of children entering the child protection and care system. Some of you may be seeing this already.
While lifted restrictions give us a sense of progress, local lockdowns and other setbacks mean that the recovery is uneven. But collectively, we will get back on our feet. And I believe that Ofsted has a role to play here.
Lines of sight
The normal lines of sight to our most vulnerable children just haven’t been in place in recent months. We want to get back into local authorities and other providers to make sure that children are safe and getting the care they need. We also want to use our position and insight to highlight the excellent work going on in the sector, as well as describing the barriers and challenges you face to those in power.
So, from September, we will be carrying out visits to schools and the social care and early years providers that we inspect and regulate. This week we published more detail about how the social care visits will work in practice.
This is not about judging. These are visits, and we won’t be making a graded judgement. We’ll publish our findings, setting out what is going well and what could improve. And for the services we regulate, we will use our enforcement powers if we have serious concerns.
Although regulated providers won’t receive an inspection grade, the reports will have all the information that commissioners need to help them make the right decisions for children.
We’ll be visiting as many providers and local authorities as possible, prioritising those we have concerns about. And we’ll be looking at a sample of local authorities judged good or outstanding at their last inspection so we can highlight learning and good practice.
We already carry out focused visits to local authorities between inspections, so in many respects our autumn visits will seem familiar. We haven’t created something new – rather, adjusted our approach so that we get the assurance we need about the decisions being made for children.
Inspectors will look at the experiences of children and how local authorities and providers have made the best possible decisions for children in the context of the pandemic. For local authorities, that includes how they have joined up schools and social care services while schools were closed, to stop vulnerable pupils from ‘slipping through the net’.
We’ve had plenty of support and understanding from the sector about our plans, though some anxiety is natural. We are acutely aware of the pressures you are under, and the potential for a spike in referrals come September when children return to school. We will do everything we can to minimise the burden of these visits and to be sensitive to demands placed on staff.
Full inspections of local authorities will not resume until January 2021 at the earliest, and routine inspections of social care providers such as children’s homes are on hold until April 2021.
We may be living in the ‘new normal’ for some time to come, but I have no doubt that children’s social care will continue to meet the challenges of these extraordinary times. Ofsted stands ready to help, sharing your focus on children’s best interests.
A version of this article was published in the Municipal Journal.