Ofsted will resume visits to children’s services again this month. Most visits were suspended in March 2020 because of Covid-19 restrictions but in August 2020, Ofsted confirmed that visits to children’s services would be resuming again from 1 September 2020.
These “Assurance Visits” will be undertaken as part of Ofsted’s phased return to routine inspections. They will not take place under the common inspection framework, though the existing “principles for inspection” will still apply. Ofsted say they will evaluate the following during Assurance Visits:
- the experiences and progress of children and young people, taking into account the COVID-19 context
- how well children and young people are helped and protected
- the effectiveness of leadership and management, including arrangements to meet the needs of children as restrictions are eased
Providers will not be graded following the Assurance Visits, though they will receive verbal feedback the day after the visit, and Ofsted will then prepare a report for publication on its website. Ofsted will provide a draft copy of their report to providers following Assurance Visits and providers will have (only) 5 working days in which to comment.
Ofsted has published guidance for each of the types of services it will be making Assurance Visits to, which are available on the gov.uk website and we encourage providers to read and familiarise themselves with the relevant guidance for their services. Each guide contains further details about what Ofsted will look for when evaluating the three points above. Separate guidance is available for local authorities.
Ofsted makes it clear that whilst they will always consider the wider context of operating during Covid-19 during the Assurance Visits, they will report on any “serious concerns” they have about “practice and/or the experiences of children” and will “clearly identify and describe those concerns” in the visit report. They will also, where they see necessary, include requirements and recommendations for improvement in the reports. More serious enforcement action may also follow against providers where concerns are identified.
Whilst they are not strictly the same and might feel a little different in the context of Covid-19, we suggest that providers treat Assurance Visits like any inspection. A service should be prepared, and ensure staff are prepared, for inspection at all times. If they are not, even the best service can let itself down on the visit. With a few simple steps, providers can be better prepared for regulator visits to go smoothly, which is more likely to translate into positive comments in any subsequent report.
Sometimes even when a visit or inspection seems to go well and initial feedback seems positive on the face of it, a draft report can still be littered with negative comments about a service.
Readers of a published report will often take its contents as an accurate and true representation of the services offered. On the one hand, a positive report can be a huge marketing tool for service providers and can be taken as a clear designation of how well it is performing. On the other hand, a bad report can have a severely detrimental effect on a providers’ reputation and can significantly reduce demand for a service, which can have significant commercial and financial implications for a provider.
Further, historical reports are taken into account by Ofsted (and others) if they are looking to build up a history of non-compliance or deteriorating services. They will often be pulled out as evidence of poor regulatory history when Ofsted are seeking to use its enforcement powers later down the line.
Therefore, whilst providers do not have long in which to do it, factually inaccurate statements or misleading content in any draft report should be challenged following an Assurance Visit. Regulators are often loathe to make significant changes to reports but robust submissions, with well prepared, and properly evidenced comments, can make a significant difference.
Ofsted is proposing to undertake Assurance Visits to local authorities until the end of 2020 (and possibly beyond) and until March 2021 for regulated providers. These are expected to last 2 days in total and Ofsted hopes to visit as many providers as possible in that time.
If providers require advice on Assurance Visits or engagement with Ofsted, or need assistance in responding to a draft report, please contact Ridouts Professional Services plc on 0207 317 0340.