Since the exposure of epidemic abuse that swept through children’s homes from the early 1960’s into the 1990’s the restoration of trust and confidence in children’s social care has been a political priority. The Care Standards Act 2000 was intended to provide a level playing field for all providers and quality assurance through the introduction of new systems for the inspection of social care and regulation of social care staff by national social care councils to ensure that providers are competent in their duty of care. Responsibility for the inspection of children’s social care was transferred to Ofsted in 2005.
Ofsted itself was created in 1992 to ensure all schools were inspected regularly by a rigorous, and transparent process led by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools. The first HMCI was replaced in 1994 by Chris Woodhead a controversial character who by his own admission introduced a ‘fear led’ regime and defended his right to make significant alterations to inspection reports that changed the original meaning. Despite calls for his resignation from critics he was rated by Tony Blair and re-appointed by the education secretary, David Blunkett. He left in November 2000, but his legacy remained and less than a year later Ofsted assumed responsibility for the inspection of childminding, even though sixteen education professors had signed a petition for a Royal Commission on Ofsted.
By the mid-decade Ofsted’s remit had been extended to include the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Court Administration and the inspection remit of the Adult Learning Inspectorate in 1995. Then in 2007 the regulator also became responsible for the oversight of child protection in England and was severely criticised by the media and the government after Harringey children’s services received a rating of good following the death of Peter Connolly (Baby P) who was killed by his mother’s partner in August that year. This was also the same year that an Ofsted inspector failed to interrupt the routine use of dangerous and unlawful physical restraint in children’s homes operated by a private provider that only came to light when the business was sold three years later.
Logbooks containing hundreds of physical intervention reports revealed excessive misuse of dangerous physical intervention techniques, restraints lasting as many as ten hours at a time, untrained staff involved in prone restraints and failure to seek medical attention when injuries were sustained had gone unnoticed. Even the admission of one of the children to a psychiatric hospital failed to raise alarm, and when the home was inspected on 11 September 2007 the inspector confirmed, “the home records all sanctions and physical intervention appropriately, sampling these documents supported appropriate interventions and sanctions were being deployed.”
My business partner and I met the author of this report at a child protection strategy meeting just two months after raising the alarm. A child had suffered actual bodily harm during a restraint at school, the children’s home where the child lived had not been notified and concerns had been raised. The proprietor of the school (had been the senior manager responsible for this home and others in the group for ten years prior to the change of ownership) and the inspector were well known to each other, and to the senior social worker who chaired the meeting. Astonishingly the meeting went ahead without the medical report from the hospital and in the absence of the ‘looked after’ children’s nurse and the child’s own social worker.
The connection between the historical use of physical intervention in these homes and the school was completely ignored and the case was closed without a full child protection investigation. Efforts to rectify this proved to be pointless, complaints to Ofsted were not upheld, and almost a year later we were astounded to learn that our main concerns were outside the remit of the independent adjudicator whose role was only to investigate the manner in which Ofsted dealt with the complaints and make recommendations to improve processes and practices for dealing with complaints. Nevertheless, the adjudicator accurately recognised the relevance of the historical context and the responsibility we attributed to this inspector and noted in the report that none of these concerns had been acknowledged or addressed and Ofsted had missed opportunity for a more constructive dialogue.
But Ofsted were not interested in constructive dialogue, instead the responsible individual was threatened with a custodial sentence, one of the children’s homes was forced to close, the others were at risk of closure and in our minds, there was only one explanation. Serious child protection and safeguarding failures had gone unaddressed for years, and our efforts to reveal concerns arising from this were being blocked by this inspector and his superiors. When Sir Michael Wilshaw took up the role of HMCI in 2012 we requested a review of these concerns, but this was refused, in despair we brought this to the attention of the Children’s Commissioner, the Children’s Minister or the Ombudsman to no avail. But just a few months later stories of child abuse dominated the media that were not so easily ignored when reports surfaced that Jimmy Saville had sexually abused hundreds of child and adult victims throughout his life.
Years later, I came into contact with this inspector again at a meeting hosted by Ofsted, he was by then a senior manager working in children’s social care. Since our paths had first crossed further concerns about historical abuse had emerged, not least an online disclosure exposing historical mental, physical and sexual abuse, talk of a boy who had lived in an outhouse in the grounds of one of the homes to prepare for his independence, and a dubious inspection history dating back to the 1980’s. I had already written to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and been advised that it was not possible for the inquiry to investigate every allegation of institutional abuse so it came as no surprise that those responsible had not been held to account.
By then HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw had been replaced by Amanda Spielman, an appointment that went against the advice of the Education Select Committee who were concerned by her responses on child protection and doubted her ability to improve the lives of children and young people. This was one of just three appointments out of ninety-six that went ahead against committee advise between 2007 and 2017, the others being the appointment of Dr Maggie Atkinson to the role of Children’s Commissioner in 2010 and Chris Millward to the role of director for fair access and participation at the office for students in 2017. Soon after the arrival of Amanda Spielman I resigned from my senior management position in private equity owned children’s homes. Four years in the boardroom had left me in no doubt this was not the place for me.
In the months that followed my efforts went into working with care leavers in supported accommodation and organising the first Your Life Your Story event that took place during care leavers week the same year. Then in December 2018, at the request of a provider my business partner and I had known for years and following pre-sale discussions with Ofsted we returned to the sector to take over three small children’s homes at risk of closure. To our dismay within weeks a refused variation request forced a young person’s placement to end prematurely and our representations in response to this set us on another collision course with Ofsted. Over the next two years two of three refused manager applications resulted in two long serving, qualified and experienced members being disqualified from the children’s workforce, the third applicant also received a notice of proposal to refuse but this was withdrawn following pleas from the children affected, their social workers and the staff working at the home.
One of the two refused applicants took her case to tribunal. This was only possible because she had access to Pro bono legal representation that would otherwise have been in the region of £10k to £12k and unaffordable for someone who had been removed from paid employment without notice and prevented from progressing their employment without a waiver from Ofsted which had been refused. This case exposed a lack of employment law knowledge and the role of the local authority designated officer (LADO) at a senior level in Ofsted, serious whistleblowing failures, inaccurate and misleading records and willingness to rely on evidence arising from unfair disciplinary processes. The judge was of the view that the appellant should not be disqualified from the children’s workforce but bewilderingly the panel upheld the decision made by Ofsted which irrevocably carried the penalty of disqualification.
Incensed by the harm caused by these secretive processes and the lack of protection for those affected I had already launched the campaign ‘stop the unfair disqualification of caregivers’ and brought it to the attention of relevant members of parliament who completely ignored it. I connected with other refused applicants who have been permanently disqualified from the children’s workforce and my attention was drawn to applicants who have progressed despite a dubious track record. I also met other providers who had been adversely affected by refused manager applications, unfair inspection judgements and delayed variation requests and new home registrations, some had been forced into insolvency. But when I made a freedom of information request asking for the number of refused applications and the reason for refusal in each region it was denied. Ofsted claim that this information is protected by exemption, but that has never been legally tested.
If this is the case, it fills me with dread because we know there is “a natural tendency for organisations to morph into institutions. Their rules and behaviour then ossify, and they become closed and secretive, whilst their internally promoted leaders resist change with unusual passion” https://www.regulation.org.uk/index.html and, following the Jimmy Saville and Rotherham child abuse scandals Dave Richards and Martin Smith wrote about what can happen when regulatory organisations develop in this way. https://www.regulation.org.uk/library/2014-Richards_and_Smith-Institutions_and_the_Banality_of_Evil.pdf
Of course, care experienced adults and caregivers know that abuse was ignored by those in positions of authority because we were there, and there is simply too much evidence to refute this. We also know that when whistles were blown, and crimes were reported they were ignored, and abuse was allowed to continue. In response, layers of bureaucracy have been introduced because caregivers can’t be trusted, we are repetitively reminded of our duty to whistle blow in case we forget, whilst Ofsted’s fear led inspection regime is trusted to enforce compliance and punish non-compliance. But that only works as long as the regulator can be trusted, and I first began to doubt this when my own efforts to ‘blow the whistle’ on serious safeguarding concerns and regulatory failures in 2010 fell on deaf ears and left me exposed to the threat of malicious professional misconduct allegations years later. Since then I have experienced homes rated by inspectors without experience of the settings they were judging, massive discrepancies between verbal feedback and written reports, secretive decision-making processes and repetitive failure to respond to concerns raised.
As a result of these experiences it is just not possible for me to remain silent in the face of regulatory hypocrisy or the willingness of government to collude with this, or to standby while good people are ejected from the social care workforce, and children facing the loss of a trusted caregiver are forced to beg for clemency on their behalf.
Amanda Knowles MBE