Speech to the Association of Directors of Children's Services Annual Conference

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, spoke about education and the part that local authorities play in improving schools.

Sir Michael Wilshaw

This is the third year in succession that I’ve had the pleasure of coming to Manchester to speak at your conference. When I addressed you from this same platform 12 months ago, I reflected on just how much had happened since the first time we came together. It’s probably fair to say the past year has been even more eventful - and tougher – for all of us.

I’d like to make it clear from the outset that Directors of Children’s Services and their colleagues do a vital job and I thank you for it. As I have made clear many times before, local government has a vitally important role to play.

But today I’d like to focus specifically on education and the part councils play in school improvement. To that end, I’ll remind you what I said a year ago.

The education landscape has shifted profoundly in the last few years. It’s up to you whether you really want to be part of this landscape. If you do, you must not retreat into a position where funding constraints and academisation provide an excuse for inertia. You have to demonstrate you have a role to play.

A year on, my views haven’t changed. As I said at the Select Committee earlier this week, I believe there is already a middle tier in England’s education system – and that is the local authority. Your responsibilities are still enshrined in statute and they haven’t gone away. The question is, are you taking those responsibilities seriously and are you stepping up to the plate, or have you already thrown in the towel?”

Last chance saloon

In all honesty, I have to say that the evidence is, at best, mixed and that is worrying. Worrying, because, as I said last year, local authorities, to use an old cliché, are ‘drinking in the last chance saloon’ in relation to their role and function to raise standards in our schools. Your concern should be that if you do not use your remaining powers wisely, the political pressure to curtail your role further will only increase. Indeed, to continue the analogy, the pub might shut, the last drinker turfed out and the brewery turned into a free school.

Recent events in Birmingham have, perhaps more than anything else, thrown into sharp relief the question of who is accountable for what goes on in our schools.

These events have confirmed that the debate about the oversight of schools in an increasingly autonomous and some would say atomised system isn’t going away. In fact, it is a question that will be more fiercely argued as the clock counts down to the date of the General Election. But it’s also worth bearing in mind that, whichever party wins the election, none is promising to reinstate local authority powers, let alone the budgets, that local authorities used to enjoy.

How has it come to this?

How has it come to this? Historically, the track record of local authorities in education has been patchy and in some cases poor.

My experiences when first becoming a secondary head in the 1980s were shared by many: councils had power but too often were reluctant to exercise it responsibly. Elected members and council officers spent more time conceding to vested interests than standing up to them; more time worrying about control, rather than standards.

Too many were happy to put up with average exam results and mediocre performance. Too many only sprang into action when schools failed, and sat back for the rest of the time, if things were just ok. Too often, councils were incapable of sustaining improvement, or urging leaders to aim higher. The emphasis, too often, lay in keeping the peace and maintaining the status quo, rather than challenging a complacent educational establishment content to preside over national educational decline.

Times have changed and many of the worst practices and excesses we witnessed back then are no more. But I’m afraid we haven’t exorcised all those ghosts.

Many councils, for instance, are adept at responding to problems but fail to anticipate them. They may know what a failing school is but have real difficulty recognising what makes a really outstanding one.

There are honourable exceptions – many of those exceptions are in this room today. But, overall, councils are seen by many Westminster politicians as part of the problem and not the solution.

At best, they perceive the type of sluggish and half-hearted local authority response to emerging problems, which we have seen and reported on in Birmingham, as all too typical. At worst, they suspect some councils are actively colluding with those who have an interest in resisting change.

That may well be outdated or downright unfair but it’s a perception you need to acknowledge and to overturn – and quickly. I note that the Local Government Association this week tried to make the case for councils to regain oversight of all schools in their area. This follows hard on the heels of their call a few weeks ago for new powers to intervene in troubled academies and to trigger Ofsted inspections.

All well and good, but local authorities can already take action if you’re worried about a non-maintained school in your patch. As I reminded MPs this week, you can write to the Department or to the sponsor or, indeed, to me as Chief Inspector. The problem is, far too few of you are doing this. My postbag is not exactly bulging with letters from concerned DCSs, imploring Ofsted to go in and inspect a poorly performing school within their boundaries.

While I’m persuaded that you still have a role to play, I’m less certain that enough local authorities have come to terms with just how fundamentally the nature of their relationship with schools has changed.

There is absolutely no point in councils yearning for a return to some all-controlling relationship with schools – that has already been consigned to history.

But you do have a role. You are still responsible for safeguarding, for special needs and for school places. You may no longer deliver education directly in many of your local schools but you certainly have an obligation to know how well children are being educated in all of them. As far as child well-being is concerned, the buck stops with you. You hardly need me to remind you of that.

What is your response?

The question is, will local authorities respond to the changed realities in education wisely or badly?

And as I said at last year’s conference, Ofsted’s decision to hold you to account for the quality of your school improvement services is precisely because we think you still have a pivotal role to play in raising standards.

But what’s hard to deny is that the window of opportunity for convincing others that you still have a meaningful part to play is closing rapidly – simply because the view prevalent in Whitehall and in the newsrooms of many national newspapers is that local authorities haven’t done enough to tackle low standards in our education system.

Put simply, words alone are unlikely to be enough.

Therefore, I urge you to persuade elected members, if you haven’t done so already, to break free from the shackles of the past and grab the new agenda with enthusiasm. There is no other option, because the time for harking back to a golden age – which was anything but golden from where I was standing – is well and truly over.

Now is the time to look, not backwards. Your role is no longer to manage the suppliers of education, but to champion its consumers. You must be relentless in the pursuit of excellence, not resting until every school within your boundaries is providing the standard of education your children deserve and that you would want for your own child.

You need to be dynamic and proactive agents for improvement, well before Ofsted intervenes.

This means being inventive and resourceful. It means making the very best use of the good people you already have. It means, for example, persuading the outstanding school leaders in your area – be they academy or maintained school heads – to lead clusters or pair-up with colleagues who need support. And yes, it means being prepared, where necessary, to challenge the unions and the professional associations.

Good headteachers have got to see that you are supporting them in raising standards. Good headteachers have got to see you supporting them in tackling unreasonable people, who too often defend the indefensible. Good headteachers have got to see you supporting them against the bullies, who support incompetence and poor performance.

There are many local authorities that are doing these things and more. Look at the tri-borough councils in London. Look at what’s happening in my old stamping ground of Hackney and the neighbouring authorities of Islington and Camden. Look at what’s happening in North Yorkshire, and here in the North West; in authorities like Liverpool, Wigan and Trafford.

But we don’t yet see this good practice matched or embedded in every part of the country.

The clear message for councils must be this: if you genuinely want to be part of the new education landscape, you must embrace change. You cannot wash your hands or offload your obligations. There is no point complaining about being pushed to the margins or stripped of power.

Instead, you need to figure out how best to work with the grain and in partnership with the new regional commissioners or directors of school standards or whoever else will be roaming the educational landscape in the years ahead.

This is your great challenge. If you don’t rise to it quickly then I fear that your role will become irredeemably diminished and lost forever.

Children’s services

Can I now turn to children’s services and our inspections of them?

I know the ‘Single inspection framework’ will be at the forefront of your minds. I understand many of you have already had a session on it with my colleagues Debbie Jones and Kath O’Dwyer. I am pleased that Debbie will join me to answer your questions after this talk, and to reflect on what she has heard over the last couple of days.

But first, I want to recognise that children’s social care is not an easy sector to work in. You are under intense pressure and are increasingly constrained financially. And, as I said when I introduced the ‘Social Care Annual Report’ in October last year, social care professionals are working in a really challenging environment. I acknowledge that Ofsted inspections can add to that pressure, but I make no apologies for that. That is the price of the greater transparency and accountability that come from Ofsted’s scrutiny.

As the stakes are so high, it is essential that Ofsted gets these inspections right. I am sure you will want to give me your feedback later, but I wanted to comment on the outcomes of our recent review of the first 11 inspections of children’s services, which included an independent analysis from Professor Eileen Munro.

This is, without doubt, one of our most complex inspections. That’s why I was so pleased to read about the support for the framework, something which Professor Munro described as a ‘major achievement’.

The primary aim of the new inspection arrangements is to ensure that the experiences and outcomes of vulnerable children, young people and their families are at the heart of help, protection and care offered to them by their local authority.

It is heartening that feedback from local authorities showed that Ofsted is looking at the right areas of work and has the right ambition for children and young people.

Significantly, Professor Munro found emerging evidence that the ‘Single inspection framework’ is playing a powerful role in driving cultural change in local authorities, as recommended in her 2011 review. What we want to see is an increased focus on help for children and families, rather than compliance with rules and distracting targets. We want to see early intervention, not a last minute response to family breakdown and abuse.

As well as focusing more explicitly on impact, inspectors are looking at the quality of the professional tasks performed: for example, the quality of inspector interaction with social workers while on site is much more important than adherence to procedure and process.

So what did Ofsted find in the first few inspections? About half of those inspected so far require improvement, with just over a third judged to be good, and 17% inadequate.

What strikes me on reading these reports is that strong local authorities focus on what matters, and what matters is that leaders have a firm grip on practice at every level.

They use all the levers available. They ensure early help and intervention and take robust action when it is needed.

In the weakest local authorities, a lack of leadership is palpable throughout the system. I am emphasising this because strong leadership is critical, not only to the overall effectiveness of the local authority, but also to the future of the new integrated inspection framework.

Inspectors from Ofsted, CQC, HMI Probation and HMI Prisons will want to know not only how you are liaising with the different agencies to protect children, but also how the Local Safeguarding Children’s Board (LSCB) is holding your work to account. You might argue with this and possibly suggest that LSCBs do not have this function and responsibility. If you do, I will beg to differ.

The LSCB must, in the new arrangements, play an increasingly important role in ensuring that leaders in the local authority, including the Chief Executive and elected members, know whether inter-agency cooperation is working effectively.

In this context, our separate judgements of LSCBs make for worrying reading.

Our reviews confirm that too many LSCBs don’t know what’s going on, don’t develop strategies for finding out, don’t work well with each other or the independent chair, and don’t develop clear lines of communication to the DCS and Chief Executive.

This is serious stuff, especially when inspectors comment that the LSCB had no idea that an inadequate judgement for child protection and looked after children was on its way.

Again, I urge government to do much more to define the work of the LSCB, and to find independent Chairs with sufficient expertise and quality to do what is an absolutely critical, and an increasingly complex, job.

Our reviews show that the two characteristics of a strong LSCB are the degree to which the board understands, reviews, and challenges the quality of practice amongst all partners, and the rigour with which partners challenge each other’s performance.

So there is much to do. I am very happy now to take any questions you may have, including on our new ‘Single inspection framework’, and what I have had to say on your role in school improvement.

Thank you.

Published 14 July 2014