This is about much more than missed inspections

Posted by Dan Breslin / Monday 22 January 2018 / Early intervention

New Action for Children analysis has looked at the number of children's centres in England which are overdue an inspection by Ofsted. Just at a glance, the 969 figure is clearly worrying. Inspections are important to gauge how centres are working, the outcomes they are delivering for disadvantage children and where they can make improvements to be even better.

But this is about much more than just missed inspections. 

It is another sign the government is turning its back on children's centres - a service that can make all the difference in the world to disadvantaged children and their families.

young boy rubbing eye on white backdrop

Just think for a minute, would the public be happy if schools weren't inspected for years at a time? Would it be ok for hospitals to miss checks year-on-year?

It just wouldn't be acceptable.

That’s because we know how important both are to children, parents and grandparents – and we know how crucial education and health and wellbeing are to building a stronger economy and a fairer society. It is why we spend billions on these services every year. And yet, children's centres - which help with young children's health, wellbeing and development to succeed at school - are overlooked.

This has all come about because of the shelving of the government consultation into the future of children's centres. In September 2015, it was announced that the Department for Education would shortly be launching a consultation, in part to improve the existing Ofsted inspection framework. To avoid centres being inspected by a framework that was going to be changed the Department announced a short-term suspension of inspections. Short-term is key here - the consultation was supposed to have a final outcome in spring 2016.

Ofsted graphic resized

It is now over two years since inspections where suspended. Four Ministers have held the brief for early years - which covers children's centres - but no steps have been taken to launch the consultation or any form of review of early years services. In that time over £1 billion of government funding has been allocated to children's centres. Even with room for improvement, Ofsted inspections are well respected by government ministers and parents. They help to demonstrate the difference children’s centres are making and justify ongoing investment. As council budgets shrink, being able to demonstrate value isn't a luxury, it is a necessity.

The inspection framework was far from perfect and in need of change. There is not enough focus on practice, an overreliance on hard to collect data and, more broadly, it has struggled to keep pace with the rapidly changing shape and focus of children's centres across England.

But in many ways, these challenges reflect the government's failure to provide oversight and direction to councils in shaping their children's centre offer. The emphasis on local approaches has led to a variety of models and ways of working across England. Two local authorities bordering each other might have radically different approaches. This creates a challenge for Ofsted working from one inspection framework for all centres. And as funding cuts bite specialist staff used to collect evidence and data have disappeared.

But turning a blind eye to this is not the best way to go about overcoming the challenge. Ofsted, or any form of independent inspection, has a place in helping local service do their best for disadvantage children. A fair, proportionate, non-burdensome inspection regime can help identify areas for improvement.

So, what now?

The essential next step has to be a review by government of early years services. We have already seen local councillors, including over a third of Conservative councillors, say a lack of central government direction and funding is leading to children's centres closing or reducing the services they provide. Funding has been cut year-on-year, leading to an average of one centre closing every week.

That’s despite the fact that these services being key to achieving priorities the government has set. For example, the recent social mobility action plan which wants to close the development gap - a key focus for children's centres - and improve the home learning environment. Something we know centres have been shown to do.

So there are many reasons why the government should be urgently looking at the future of early years services. But getting the message across to the new Secretary of State is going to take a big push. That is why we need you to add your name to our petition - the more voices telling the government to act the more likely it is to listen.

The scale of overdue Ofsted inspections is deeply worrying but this is about much more than this. This is about the Government letting a local service that is literally a lifeline to families slowly disappear.



How did we work out the number of centre overdue an inspection?

We asked both Ofsted and the Department for Education (DfE) if they had records on the number of children's centres which would have been inspected if the suspension had not been announced. Unfortunately, neither could provide a figure. To create our estimate we used publically available records of previous Ofsted inspections and a list of currently open children's centres from the Getting Information About Schools (GIAS) portal operated by the DfE.

Inspections of children's centres work on a five year cycle, so we added five years to the last inspection date for each centre in the Ofsted records. This gave us a deadline for when these centres would need to be inspected again. We then removed any centres which had closed since their last inspection by comparing the Ofsted records against the GIAS list - using addresses to match centres on the two lists. Due to the changes in the Ofsted inspection process, some centres may have been inspected as a standalone centre and then inspected as part of a children’s centre group later in the same cycle. We removed all these centres from our estimate.

Finally, we removed any centres which are now deemed a link site. Linked sites are formerly children's centres in their own right, but they no longer meet the statutory definition of a children’s centre. However, they offer some early childhood services on behalf of another children's centre. These sites are likely to form part of a single inspection with the lead children’s centre they are linked to. This will create a single report and judgment. We removed any centres from our estimate that may have been inspected as a standalone centre and then inspected as part of a children’s centre group later in the cycle. This left us with an estimate of currently open centres which would have been inspected at some point during the suspension.

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Government 'letting down' families as 1,000 children's centres not inspected for over five years.

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