Scrutiny and Inspection …. reliable or forced?

First published Thursday, January 23, 2014

This week my sons’ school has been subject to an inspection by a team of inspectors from Estyn (the Welsh equivalent of OFSTED). When I took my three monkeys in to breakfast club this morning, there were several members of the school staff team on site, greeting parents and children as they came in. There’s been new doors installed on some classrooms, paintwork refreshed and a proper display area made for the various awards the school has won in film competitions and others.

Now don’t get me wrong, it is great to see that work has been done around the school, and I am sure that much of it would have been done at some stage anyway. Fortunately this particular primary school is generally operating at a high standard, the children attending it are happy, and as a parent of three of them I personally have no concerns about the standard of education they are receiving. I am sure that the report will be a good one for the school.

What does grate a little however is the obvious ‘ramping up’ of everything in the run up to and during inspection week. Notification of the inspectors’ visit was received before Christmas, and so the school and staff have had time to prepare for this visit, “brief” the children and so on. I fully appreciate that they wish to portray the place in the best possible light, however does that mean that the inspection team get a skewed view of what happens there?

When I was working for a major retailer some years ago, the announcement of the Chairman’s visit would send a definite vibe of ‘panic’ through the store management team. Full scale stock sorting, tidying, rearrangement of the shop floor and so on would happen, and on some occasions as the Head Office visitor moved from one floor to another, staff would be sent scurrying up the back stairs to the next floor to make it look like the store was operating with a full compliment.

I get a sense that similar ‘manipulation’ happens across many organisations, and particularly within the public services. The news bulletin this morning was carrying reports that suggests crime figures and statistics for police forces in England are not reliable as they have been ‘tweaked and massaged’ by senior officers to make the forces look better. As more and more of these stories come to light, whether from health services, social services, education services, prison services or other government departments, it becomes apparent that adequate scrutiny and inspection isn’t always happening.

The Williams Commission Report published in Wales earlier this week makes a number of references and recommendations around the subject of scrutiny, picking up on the fact that often it is not carried out by the right people, or the outcome of such processes taken seriously. When scrutiny is being viewed as a means by which to find fault, it is understandable that there is a wish to try and portray things in the most positive light possible, as no one wishes to see the dirty laundry aired for all and sundry to comment on. However, used wisely and managed correctly, scrutiny allows a department or organisation to gain understanding about the areas of operation that require some support or development, in order to provide a better service, or be more efficient. It can also be a means by which to highlight best practice and share that with others.

For significant and appropriate improvements to happen in the delivery of any service or in the way an organisation operates, it has to be based on a sound scrutiny process combined with proper and thorough inspection of how things really are. A change in attitude is needed – these processes are here to help, to enable constructive criticism and raise awareness of areas requiring development. If there is an all out failure of something, then obviously launch an inquiry and investigate, however if scrutiny and inspection has been working effectively surely it reduces the risks?

As there is clearly an appetite for change at present, across a range of sectors, maybe it’s time to make a genuine commitment to that, and start being honest about practices and procedures. Surely it can only result in a shift towards more positive behaviours?

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