Social care common inspection framework (SCCIF): independent fostering agencies

12. The on-site inspection

What happens during an inspection.

12.1 The start of the inspection

At the start of all inspections, the inspector confirms their identity by producing their Ofsted inspector authorisation and identification card and identity badge. They don’t need to carry paper copies of Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks.

The inspector will always meet with the registered manager/person in charge at the beginning of the inspection to:

  • outline the plan for the inspection
  • make arrangements to interview the registered manager during the course of the inspection; if the registered manager is not available and the responsible individual is not able to attend the inspection, the responsible individual should identify who is to be their representative during the inspection
  • outline any lines of enquiry for the inspection, including those generated through the reading of the statement of purpose
  • provide the person in charge with the opportunity to share any current information or personal issues relating to any of the children, carers or members of staff that the inspector needs to be aware of during the inspection
  • ensure that Ofsted holds the correct details on the inspection database (as required by regulations), including email address and contact telephone numbers for the manager, registered provider and/or responsible individual, any other partners, or directors or trustees
  • arrange the approximate time that verbal feedback will be given and who is to receive this; feedback is normally given to the registered manager or senior member of staff present and the responsible individual; additional senior staff linked to the agency may also attend at the discretion of the inspector if agreed in advance

12.2 Case tracking and sampling

Evaluating the experiences and progress of children is a core inspection activity. This will be largely based on evidence from case tracking and sampling.

For tracked cases, inspectors take an in-depth look at the quality of the help, care and protection that individual children have experienced. For sampled cases, inspectors look at areas of practice within individual cases, usually to follow lines of enquiry.

We take into account individual children’s starting points and circumstances during inspections. We recognise that even slight progress in a particular aspect of their lives may represent a significant improvement for some children. We also recognise that for some children, because of their experiences of trauma, abuse or neglect, progress is not always straightforward. Progress in one area may result in deterioration in another as they work through the impact of their past experiences.

Children’s overall experiences and progress are, in part, a result of how well they are helped and protected and the effectiveness of leaders and managers. Inspectors consider the ‘help and protection’ and ‘leadership and management’ judgements first so they can take these into consideration when reaching the ‘overall experiences and progress’ judgement.

Inspectors track the experiences and progress of at least 4 children. This can be reduced to 2 in an agency with fewer than 10 children placed or increased to at least 6 in larger agencies.

Inspectors also sample elements of other cases to follow specific lines of enquiry. The size of the agency and the nature of any line of enquiries determines how many cases are sampled.

Tracked and sampled cases should be selected by the inspector from the case list provided and usually includes (where relevant):

  • children who have recently been placed with new carers
  • children who are in long-term placements and have been living with their carers for at least 12 months
  • children who are regularly missing from their foster home
  • children at risk of, or subject to, child sexual exploitation
  • children who live a considerable distance from their placing authority
  • where the agency offers short breaks only, any child who is subject to a child protection plan
  • young people who are nearing their 18th birthday - to look at the arrangements for their future, including any ‘staying put’ arrangements
  • parent and child placements

Inspections also assess the management of a recent serious incident (where relevant) so that they can understand how the agency has responded to complex and difficult circumstances and whether the actions and responses of leaders, managers and staff are focused on promoting and safeguarding the welfare of children.

When tracking cases, the inspector usually reviews:

  • the assessment of the carer (if undertaken in the last 12 months)
  • how the decision was taken to approve the carer/s (if taken in the last 12 months)
  • the matching report or recorded matching decision taken to place the child with the respective carers
  • local authority care plan, if available
  • any documents that show young people’s progress, including school or health reports
  • minutes/reports from the last 2 statutory looked-after children reviews
  • the most recent foster carer review
  • notes of the supervision of the carer from the last 3 months
  • minutes of any professional meetings
  • training records of the carer
  • the foster care agreement

Case files (either electronic or paper-based) are usually discussed with the allocated supervising social worker (unless on leave), using their knowledge of the case, file structure and recording systems. In the absence of the allocated worker, a suitable colleague will be asked to assist.

Case files are only 1 aspect of tracking the child’s journey. Inspectors increase their understanding of the child’s experience through evidence from other sources, such as observation of practice and discussions with individuals involved.

Inspectors examine, discuss and evaluate cases in line with the evaluation criteria. Inspectors look for evidence that the agency has had a positive impact on the experiences and progress of children and that managers, staff and carers know they are making a difference to children’s lives.

The detail of activities undertaken and discussions held varies depending on the lines of enquiry for each individual inspection.

12.3 Listening and talking to children and young people

The views of children provide important evidence of their experiences and progress.

Inspectors assess how well the agency consults with children. The views of children that have been gathered by the agency will be taken into account as part of the inspection evidence. Inspectors should bear in mind the limits of verbal consultation with some children, particularly those who are disabled or have complex health care needs, and take this into account in their evaluation.

Inspectors always try to meet with children during the inspection. Inspectors may make alternative arrangements to speak to children, such as telephone calls at a pre-arranged time.

Inspectors must take into account the specific communication needs of individual children. For some children, the inspectors may request the assistance of staff or carers who know and understand the child’s preferred means of communication, particularly if this is unique to the child. In other instances, it may also be appropriate for inspectors to spend time observing children and how they interact with carers and professionals and respond to their environment.

Inspectors can request the services of an interpreter to join the inspection. This is helpful when the children are fluent in British Sign Language. Inspectors request this service via the inspection support team and give 2 weeks’ notice where possible.

Many of the experiences of children take place after the normal school day and it is essential that inspectors are able to speak to children at this time. Inspectors should involve children in inspection activity wherever they can. Opportunities to gather the views and experiences of children may include:

  • meeting them during pre-arranged meetings, such as review meetings or placement agreement meetings
  • speaking to children on the telephone or at their foster home
  • attending children’s groups that may run during the inspection

Children, including those with limited or no verbal communication, may wish to share their views in a letter to the inspector.

Inspectors demonstrate safe and sensitive practice by:

  • telling staff and carers where conversations with young people are taking place and who is involved
  • being sensitive to the fact that some children may not want to be involved in the inspection
  • explaining to children that they will not include comments that will identify them in the inspection report or in feedback to staff without their permission
  • ensuring that staff are aware of any arranged meetings between inspectors and children, and that children may leave the meeting at any time
  • where appropriate, explaining to children that information suggesting that they or another child or young person is at risk of harm will be passed by the inspector to an appropriate person able to take necessary action about that concern

12.4 Observation of activities

Inspectors can use the agency’s scheduled activities as opportunities for observing and following lines of enquiry. These activities could include:

  • foster carer support meetings
  • placement planning meetings
  • fostering panel meetings (inspectors may, by negotiation, attend part of these meetings)

The privacy and confidentiality of personal information are respected at all times by inspectors. The inspector always involves the agency in any decisions about children’s involvement in the inspection.

Inspectors will always try to strike a balance between the time it takes to observe an activity and the significance of the likely evidence to be gained.

12.5 Gathering views of other professionals

Inspectors consult with a range of professionals to inform the inspection findings. This is usually through a telephone call during the inspection and may not take place on site. These professionals may include:

  • social workers
  • independent reviewing officers
  • school staff
  • local police
  • designated officer/s
  • youth offending teams
  • independent visitors
  • advocates
  • the panel chair and/or vice chair
  • the agency decision-maker

Inspectors ask providers for the relevant contact details (see notice of inspection letter. Inspectors should always take account of privacy and confidentiality when talking to stakeholders on the telephone during the inspection.

12.6 Discussions with managers and staff

Individual interviews are held with the registered manager (or in their absence, a nominated representative from the agency) and other staff. The number of staff depends on the size of the agency, but includes a sample of staff working in the agency at the time of inspection.

The inspector always asks to interview the responsible individual where:

  • there is no registered manager in post
  • there are concerns about the quality of care and/or the effectiveness of monitoring arrangements or the quality of the leadership and management of the agency
  • evidence indicates that the agency is failing to protect children
  • there are concerns about staffing, the premises or resources to manage and run the provision

During the inspection, the inspector shares emerging findings about the agency’s key strengths and weaknesses with the registered person (usually the registered manager) so that they fully understand the issues. The inspector usually meets with the registered person at an agreed point in the inspection to share emerging findings. The inspector normally sets out for the manager what they intend to consider later in the inspection so that the manager can prepare or direct inspectors to any specific information or evidence required.

Shortfalls that could have an immediate impact on the safety of staff or children are brought to the attention of the manager or the senior person in charge as soon as the inspector has identified the problem.

12.7 Listening and talking to foster carers

Inspectors may have the opportunity to meet with a group of foster carers during the inspection. This meeting is time-limited. If a group meeting is not possible, inspectors will ask to speak to several foster carers by telephone. Examples of likely items for discussion include:

  • the quality of support, training and supervision they receive from the agency
  • their contribution to matching decisions
  • the quality of foster carer reviews
  • the opportunity to contribute to the development of the agency
  • the ease and facility for the children and carers to make a complaint or raise concerns
  • the additional support provided to meet children, such as health, education, behaviour, advocating with the placing authority
  • how effective the agency is in obtaining children’s views
  • any matters they wish to raise with the inspector

12.8 Assessing financial viability

The fostering services regulations state that the ‘registered provider must carry on the fostering agency in such a manner as is likely to ensure that it is financially viable for the purpose of achieving the aims and objectives set out in its statement of purpose’ (regulation 37(1) of the Fostering services (England) regulations 2011).

Inspectors are only expected to undertake a lay person’s assessment of the financial information. Where, during the course of a routine inspection, the inspector has concerns about the financial viability of a provider due to, for example, lack of payments to foster carers, they should follow the guidance set out in Ofsted’s social care registration handbook (2015).

The financial information Ofsted can request ranges from professionally produced business plans to a collection of accounts and balance sheets (regulation 37(3) of the Fostering services (England) regulations 2011).

12.9 Examining records, policies and procedures

The fostering agency’s statement of purpose and children’s guide should be available on their website and form part of the pre-inspection data. We should also hold copies in our database because agencies are required to submit these documents to Ofsted whenever they are changed.

Inspectors do not routinely examine all policies and procedures. Documents are examined where they are part of a line of enquiry for that individual inspection.

Inspectors will focus on the impact of documents such as risk assessments and how they work in practice, rather than the on the format. What matters is that they are fit for purpose and provide sufficient information to all relevant people so that those people can care for the children safely and appropriately.

Where the agency uses the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) update service to check the status of an individual’s DBS certificate, the agency should be able to demonstrate how it manages and records details of any check it carries out. If any lines of enquiry require additional information, then the inspector may request that a small sample of full personnel records are made available at the inspection visit.

Where members of staff are subject to TUPE arrangements, we recognise that the new employer is reliant on the previous employer for all recruitment records relating to those staff. In some instances, the new employer may not be able to access all the information including documents required by the regulations. Where this is the case, we still expect the new employer to hold enough relevant information to make sure staff are suitable, including criminal record checks or vetting records. Where there are any gaps in requirements, the new employer should have taken steps to assure themselves that the person is suitable to work in their role. This should include reference to employment records such as appraisals.

12.10 Implications of the Equality Act

The Equality Act 2010 came into effect on 1 October 2010. The Act makes it unlawful for an employer to ask a potential employee questions about their health or disability before they are offered employment, whether on a conditional or unconditional basis.

Social care providers must comply with both the Equality Act and the remit-specific regulations that require them to employ people who are fit, both physically and mentally, for the work. In order to comply with both laws, this means that providers may give conditional offers of employment to potential employees after the recruitment process, subject to appropriate medical and health checks. However, there are a number of exemptions to the provisions in the Act. If a provider believes that an exemption applies to their recruitment of staff, they should take their own legal advice on the matter.

Inspectors will assess whether providers have a rigorous recruitment and vetting process in place, including ensuring that their employees are mentally and physically fit before they commence work as part of their inspection.

12.11 How inspectors record the evidence

Inspectors must analyse the information they gather on inspection and use their professional judgement to assess the impact on the experiences and progress of children and other service users.

Inspectors’ evidence should be clear, evaluative and sufficient to support the judgements.

The evidence should tell the story of the experiences and progress of children and other service users, as appropriate. Evidence should not include information that could identify individuals unless it is necessary to protect a child or to support further action. In these instances, inspectors can use individuals’ initials.

Inspectors can record direct quotes from children, adult service users and other interested parties in evidence to support judgements.

The record should clearly indicate the source of the evidence (for instance, whether the evidence is from observation, a written record or a face-to-face interview). If evidence is comes from an interview, the record must indicate the time of the interview and the interviewee’s job title or relationship to the child.

Throughout the inspection, inspectors maintain a record of their evidence. Electronic evidence is recorded within the inspection database. Summarised evidence must be sufficient to support the judgements and any recommendations or requirements. Inspectors must ensure that the provider understands the evidence that the judgements are based on and any requirements that stem from the judgements.

After the summarised evidence has been placed in the inspection database, any duplicate handwritten evidence should not be destroyed by the inspector until at least 10 days after the inspection. In some circumstances, inspectors will be required to keep any handwritten notes they have made during the inspection for longer. This may, for example, be necessary when legal action or a complaint about the judgement is being considered.

All handwritten evidence should be legible and dated. Handwritten evidence that has not been summarised forms part of the inspection evidence base, and should therefore be scanned and added into the inspection database within 5 working days of the end of the on-site visit.

Evidence may be scrutinised for quality assurance and will be considered in the event of any complaint.

12.12 Feedback at the end of the inspection

At the end of the inspection, the inspector will give verbal feedback of the main findings and provisional judgements. This feedback will usually be given to the responsible individual (as appropriate). Additional senior staff from the provider may also attend, if agreed in advance with the inspector. In some circumstances, an inspector may need extra time after the inspection fieldwork to take advice before giving feedback. The day of feedback is counted as the last day of the inspection.

The inspector should:

  • cover the main findings of the inspection, including both strengths and weaknesses
  • clearly communicate the likely judgements
  • indicate likely recommendations, with clear reference to the relevant national minimum standard or quality standard (where relevant), providing a clear direction for improvement
  • use the grade descriptors and the evidence to clearly indicate how the judgements have been reached
  • confirm when the report will be sent to the manager for comments on factual accuracy (see ’timeframe‘)

Inspectors will not provide a written summary of the inspection or written feedback in advance of the inspection report being sent. Providers may choose to take their own notes at feedback.