Joint Inspections are an opportunity to embed the principles of contextual safeguarding into local reviews

In this week’s blog, Carlene Firmin describes how and why sharing research findings with inspectorates is relevant for achieving better safeguarding. Carlene is a Senior Research Fellow in the International Centre, and founded the Msunderstood Partnership to improve responses to young people’s experiences of gender inequality.

Yesterday I addressed Ofsted’s children’s social care inspectors at their annual conference – and I did the same last year. In 2015 I presented on the nature of young people’s experiences of abuse and exploitation and the challenges that this presents to local safeguarding practice. This year I was asked to share messages from research on what effective practice looks like. The debate is moving on – and rightly so. Even though there is still a long road ahead, the progress made over recent years means that I am often asked to focus on developing responses to violence and exploitation, rather than outlining the nature of sexual exploitation and the need to address it.

But why does this kind of conference matter? It would be naïve of me to write this post assuming that all professionals hold the same view on inspections or their impact. A range of inspectorates, including Ofsted, have been subject to criticism in recent years with questions raised about the impact of inspections on staff morale, motivation and target setting for example. But while this debate rages on I remain committed to seeking to inform the frameworks used by inspectorates as a means of shaping frontline practice. I don’t believe that if inspectorates say ‘jump’ local managers will always say ‘how high?’ I have been working alongside, and co-creating knowledge with, local practitioners long enough to know that the relationship between inspection and practice is more complex than that. If practitioners, managers and leaders within a local area recognise an issue is important, or that a way of working is ineffective, they will not necessarily wait for an inspection report to tell them so. We regularly meet local practitioners who know their young people, and the issues they face, and are keen to address them regardless of an inspection timetable. However, inspections do provide one source of authorisation for practitioners to innovate, address local needs (instead of national agendas) and develop effective practice rather than simply follow process.

And that is why I am keen to work with inspectorates. Over the past three years I have worked with local practitioners to co-create responses to young people’s experiences of peer abuse and exploitation. In recognising that the risk of exploitation often sits beyond the familial context, areas I have supported are seeking to identify, and engage, the peer groups, schools and public spaces in which exploitation can escalate. These approaches are in direct response to research into peer-on-peer abuse which suggests a need to work in public and social contexts in order to safeguard young people. It is now critical that inspectorates recognise this dynamic and review practices in ways that encourage local innovation and research-informed responses.

This is challenging. It is easier to have a template approach to inspecting a local response to an issue like child sexual exploitation or other forms of violence and abuse, and to be concerned with processes rather than impact. Does the area have a local strategy? Is the strategy supported by an action plan? Is the action plan based on a local problem profile? Is there a strategic multi-agency group dedicated to overseeing the strategy – and so on. But what I sought to stress during yesterday’s event was that these exercises tell us little about the child’s experiences of local services, or the overall difference a local response makes.

“Are these responses competing or aligned with one another? Does it all add up to a local area that is actually going somewhere?

Inspectorates can’t assume that having the right nuts and bolts in place will necessarily add up to a coherent and effective child protection response – do they produce a clunky or smooth piece of machinery? At risk of labouring the metaphor a little further, the response to sexual exploitation may be a well-oiled engine. But that’s no good if you have separate engines responding to female genital mutilation, serious youth violence, radicalisation, domestic abuse, children going missing and harmful sexual behaviours.  Are these responses competing or aligned with one another? Does it all add up to a local area that is actually going somewhere?

The introduction of Joint Targeted Area Inspections (JTAI) is an opportunity for inspectorates to create an environment in which multi-agency partners are encouraged to develop area-wide, holistic and contextual responses to young people’s experiences of abuse and exploitation. JTAIs bring together inspectorates concerned with health (Care Quality Commissioner), policing (HMIC), probation and youth justice (HMIP) and Ofsted (children’s social care) to conduct themed inspections on a local area. In doing so, inspectorates have the opportunity to consider how all the different elements of a partnership come together to address social issues. In relation to child sexual exploitation this is critically important. Research tells us that sexual exploitation impacts upon a young person’s health and well-being, that responses need to address the perpetration of abuse as well as the impact, and much of this work sits beyond the sole remit of children’s social care. JTAIs should be equipped to review responses in the light of these insights and draw conclusions about the combined efforts of multi-agency partnerships.

However, there is a risk that each inspectorate involved in the JTAI focuses on the extent to which the individual agencies under their oversight follow their own processes and procedures. Did the sexual health service act in line with its own guidance? Did children’s social care act in line with theirs? Taking such an approach will simply reinforce siloes that already seem to impede effective responses to sexual exploitation. With this in mind in late 2015 I produced a briefing for all four inspectorates taking part in the JTAI process, outlining the implications of research into exploitation and abuse for thematic inspections. It outlined principles, rather than processes, of practice that inspectorates should consider together when assessing the effectiveness of local responses to sexual exploitation. Inspectorates circulated the document to their inspectors, invited me to present at their training on the issue, and produced a short film that documented the messages from the briefing.

As I said at the outset there is a long road to travel. But I hope that by working with inspectorates I am using research to create a climate in which contextual and holistic responses to violence and abuse will be recognised, promoted and encouraged – even when legislative processes do not require them.