Child and Youth
MARK SMITH FROM SCOTLAND
An inspector calls
The past decade here in Scotland has witnessed a mushrooming of regulation in child care and in the public services more generally. We have Councils and Commissions and Care Standards and a whole regulatory apparatus that inspects agencies against the various expectations of these bodies. Inspection has assumed a taken-for-granted status. We are led to believe that it is implicated in better quality care. The whole discourse that surrounds the regulatory agenda is of improvement and modernisation. In fact, everything about our present government is thoroughly modern. And who other than some unreconstructed throwback could be against modernising?
Well! A more critical view of the spate of regulation might locate it within a context which isn’t particularly modern at all. Regulation and inspection derive from the managerial philosophies of the 1980s and 90s. These sought to apply the rigour of the marketplace to public services deemed to be corpulent and self-serving. Professionals were not to be trusted. In the absence of the hidden hand of the market ensuring that services stayed lean and efficient we needed rigorous and transparent regulatory mechanisms to keep public servants on their toes. The introduction of more and more private care agencies was similarly calculated to keep public care at its fighting weight. Care of course is not particularly productive in any economic sense. It is labour intensive. The most obvious way to make care more economic is to reduce salaries. So in recent years there’s been a retreat from aspirations towards a better qualified workforce. Instead we’ve seen a trend to lower the qualification threshold and to bring in more ‘managers’ to keep this army of care staff in line. We give these managers a template against which to manage and call it care standards or if we really want to go for an oxymoron, ‘quality’ standards.
My own experience of inspection was that there are particular rituals attached to it; a bit like spring cleaning before your mother-in-law descends. And in truth I found some inspections helpful, not because I was being measured against pre-ordained standards but because I had some respect for the credentials and understanding of those conducting the inspection and trusted their ability to see beyond the surface. Any process that involves someone from outside your own place of work casting his or her eye over your practice in the manner of a critical friend can only be positive. Indeed this is a model that universities utilise very effectively. It is collegial and involves dialogue among equals rather than the assumption of some universal and objective ‘best practice’ against which practitioners are to be measured.
Personally, I didn’t care much for standards. I knew they weren’t neutral. They reflected particular political and organisational imperatives. And of course inspection against standards only measures what is measurable. It’s OK for passing judgement on the size of a room but less good at saying much about the felt experience of care or the quality of relationships built up there. Nor in my experience were inspections good at setting observations within a wider context. Organisational and structural deficits were overlooked and the poor beggar providing care at unit level was hung out to dry when things were deemed to be amiss. Inspection can lead to a beggar-thy-neighbour culture where units take some pleasure in other units’ poor reports. It also inhibits the sharing of practice through professional dialogue.
Inspection is not then an unqualified force for good. It can have destructive consequences as well. This latter potential is to the forefront of my mind just now due to experiences at my own kids’ school. I have three kids, all of whom attended the local primary school. The eldest has since moved up to high school. All three have had very good experiences of school. They seem to be doing well academically. Indeed my daughter’s cohort who moved up to high school together seems to be doing particularly well there. Aside from academic achievement however, I have always been impressed by the school’s ethos. Despite the fact that its catchment area has always been very mixed, there is always a sense of calm, of order, of community, and of kids being happy there.
Last summer the inspectors called. They came in with a pre-conceived agenda about leadership. Like anyone else, the school’s headmaster was not above reproach. However, he was well liked by pupils and staff. His leadership style was essentially pastoral. Something about it seemed to work for the school. This obviously wasn’t what the inspectors wanted, though. The school was slated in their report. As they do in such circumstances, the local authority took steps to be seen to be acting on the inspector’s recommendations. They brought in trouble-shooters and took steps to monitor the situation. Improvements were noted, as of course they had to be otherwise the council would look silly, although as one experienced teacher pointed out, the school had always done the things the inspection required them to do; only now they had piles of box files to prove it. That seems to be symptomatic of current approaches to inspection. They are based upon a lack of trust in the ability or inclination of professionals to do their job. ‘If it’s not written down then it hasn’t happened’ seems to be the mantra. This lack of trust contributes to a kind of reductionist thinking where following procedure becomes what matters most. Inspection becomes an exercise in how well things are recorded rather than how well they’re done.
The consequences of this are serious. In this case parents began to withdraw children from the school. Others took the decision not to send their children there. Morale has gone down the tubes. Experienced and committed staff began to look around for other jobs and a number have now left. This is the improvement of the philistine. And it is but one example. I can think of a number of others where inspectors have come in with their improvement agenda and created chaos. I could live with this a bit more easily if I felt that inspectors had any privileged knowledge or expertise on which to base their judgements. The reality is that like all of us they were themselves flawed practitioners, some of them more flawed than others (and some of them more practitioners than others). But now they have become doyens and arbiters of good practice. Practitioners really need to be asking a few more questions of inspectors and those of us in academic positions should stop being seduced into believing or stating the trite view that regulation is linked to improvement. Improvement is far more likely if we are freed from the current regulatory strictures and allowed to enter into open and professional dialogue about how to make education and care better places for kids. That might take us far beyond our current standards and our fixation with accountability. For my part I wonder who is accountable for the unintended consequences that can arise when an inspector calls.