Professional dialogue between Ofsted and practice leaders in children, young people and family services

08 October 2018

Research in PracticeJane Shuttleworth and Susannah Bowyer

‘It would be much better to have a critical mass of people who say ‘it’s ok; they are longstanding professionals, they’re deeply passionate about children and have specialist knowledge’. It is really interesting to have a professional dialogue with people who are kindred spirits. It will never be cosy but it can be helpful professional dialogue.’

Yvette Stanley Ofsted Social Care Director. Children and Young People Now, June 2018

In May 2018, seven Social Care Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMIs) and representatives from nine local authorities and a Children’s Trust came together for just such a professional dialogue - to share views on permanence, planning, supervision and how best to articulate what needs to improve. Participants included Directors, Heads of Service and Principal Social Workers. The event was facilitated by Research in Practice (RiP) and supported by the Association for Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).

This was a different type of conversation between Ofsted and the sector; participants reflected that this was a rare (and for most a first) opportunity to meet outside the ‘hothouse’ of a live inspection. The event was structured with a focus on developing clarity of thinking and communication on key practice issues, rather than on the performance of individual local authorities.

The roundtable arose out of discussions with between RiP and two Partner local authorities that had recently been judged ‘good’ by Ofsted. RiP approached Ofsted, who welcomed the opportunity for a developmental dialogue, and ADCS nominated organisations to invite.

For this initial discussion, practice leaders were invited from local authorities/Children’s Trusts in each region who had received an overall Single Inspection Framework judgement of ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’. Participants came with a genuine desire to learn and improve and to be in the ‘high support, high challenge’ space illustrated in the diagram below:

Adapted from Challenging Coaching (Blakey and Day, 2012)

There was a consensus that the dialogue was useful:

‘Beneficial to build relationships and have shared understanding between the sector and the regulator.’

‘Helpful, collaborative approach.’

‘Good dialogue and engagement. Helps to myth bust.’

‘Thoughtful and productive. Shared language. Adult. Discussions and learning outside of the pressurised environment of inspection.’

Key messages

There were some key messages and underpinning themes that arose from the dialogue. Overall key messages included:

  • Timeliness is about moving forward at the pace appropriate for each individual child, rather than measurement by arbitrary timescales.
  • Locate the child/young person’s wishes, feelings and lived experience as the central driver for decision-making to achieve sustainable outcomes.
  • Strength-based, relationship-based, holistic assessment and planning requires the development of specific skill sets for social workers and managers.

Underpinning themes

Permanence is not just about being in care or adoption

  • Permanence and security are important concepts to inform working with all children and young people:
    ‘Permanence is the long term plan for the child’s upbringing and provides an underpinning framework for all social work with children and their families from family support through to adoption. The objective of planning for permanence is therefore to ensure that children have a secure, stable and loving family to support them through childhood and beyond and to give them a sense of security, continuity, commitment, identity and belonging.’ (Department for Education, 2015).
  • Think permanence for all children in the care system, not just those for whom adoption is the plan – but in relation to Special Guardianship Orders, reunification and all other placement options. This will be reflected in early consideration of sustainable positive outcomes in the wider context of planning for children.
  • Open minded social work considers all options for children – not closing down creative care arrangements.
  • Ensure attention is paid to factors that might lead to instability now or in the future – for instance contact arrangements.

Timescales, timeliness and plans

  • Work with children, young people and families to co-author plans that reflect an understanding of lived experience and strengths. This will inform what timeliness means for them and their situation.
  • Plans should take consideration of wider milestones and reflect a holistic understanding of individual child/young person’s aspirations for the future – i.e. focused on more than placements and permanence. Plans can then be developed outlining small steps from that individual’s starting point towards future goals.
  • Think whole system – whole experience – whole life. An ecological perspective on family, school, community etc.
  • Use clear, straightforward language – avoid hiding behind professional jargon.
  • This work will be supported by workforce knowledge about infant/child/young person’s development. For instance, older children and young people’s need for an increased level of control/participation.  
  • Effective independent scrutiny and regular review of plans should be a genuine means for driving forward – not rubber-stamping – plans. Make the plan dynamic and flexible with an eye on the future, based on experience and progress.

Supervision and management oversight

  • Management oversight is more than supervision and supervision is more than management oversight.
  • Ensure clear practice standards are understood and drive good outcomes for children.
  • Senior leaders’ clear line of sight to practice is important for ensuring quality. This will involve triangulating evidence and information from different sources. Key quality assurance sources are:
    • Audits, in tandem with other methods such as:
      - Supervision – a key method for understanding and improving quality and a means to focus on the difference made.
      - Good quality data indicators – proxy measures – that point to areas to check.
      - Feedback from children and young people.

Framing inspection reports

  • The Ofsted ‘what needs to improve’ items should be understood in the wider context of feedback given during the inspection or visit and the narrative in the report or letter. They are not intended to be ‘stand-alone’ items.
  • It would be helpful if the ‘what needs to improve’ items are linked to what this means for children and young people.

Participants were keen to build upon this initiative, share the learning and open up similar opportunities for others in the sector. RiP, ADCS and Ofsted will come together to consider how we might build on this initial conversation.

About the authors

Jane Shuttleworth  is a Senior Research in Practice Associate and Independent Consultant.

Susannah Bowyer is the Assistant Director of Research in Practice.

Related Research in Practice resources

Building a quality culture in child and family services: Strategic Briefing


Blakey, J and Day, I (2012) Challenging Coaching. Available online: http://ow.ly/9pin30m8BJy

Department for Education (2015) The Children Act 1989 guidance and regulations Volume 2: care planning, placement and case review, Department for Education. Available online: http://ow.ly/x1xI30m8BoF

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