Tony Gallagher on youth work and Ofsted’s new inspection framework.

13 Apr 2018

Tony Gallagher is a former Her Majesty’s Inspector.  He was Ofsted’s national lead for youth support for some time and oversaw the inspection programme of youth services. He has had extensive experience across many areas of Ofsted’s work. The NYA invited Tony to reflect on what youth workers, youth support workers and their managers can bring to inspection. Ofsted recently published a framework and guidance for inspecting local authority services for children in need of help and protection, children in care and care leavers.

Reactions by managers to the prospect of an impending Ofsted inspection are fascinating.  Contrast those who ‘get in a spin’, with those who embrace the opportunity to evidence how well children and young people are supported to learn and to flourish. Youth work has much to offer the latter and, over recent years, its impact has been occasionally reported in Ofsted inspections of children’s services, schools, colleges and, increasingly, in secure settings such as YOIs or secure children’s centres.

There was a period when local-authority-provided youth services were themselves inspected and their outcomes featured in the Chief Inspector’s annual report.  These inspections gave the work prominence, parity of esteem and articulated well how high-quality youth work helped shape young people as autonomous individuals, confident in their own actions. Those days are long gone but, to their credit, many managers and front-line youth workers contribute to local inspection activity and view positively the prospect of doing so. Not unreasonably, many seek a ‘mention’ in the report but, in reality, outcomes are what count and what will largely be reported. That’s lesson number one.

So, what are the distinct and particular elements of youth work which support young people well and which feature in inspection activity? As already mentioned, youth work can play a key role in children’s services. The relationships which workers forge with young people help keep vulnerable young people safe and can support care leavers in finding their voice. Deploying youth workers in ‘early help’ often prevents issues and concerns being escalated to more formal services.  These are not new skills or necessarily new requirements on youth workers but build on the well-established practice of workers knowing young people’s circumstances well, having a good knowledge of the communities in which they live and empowering young people to consider options and consequences. It’s nothing new.

Contrary to the myths which abound, inspectors like nothing more than viewing and reporting on good and outstanding practice. Examples include youth workers and social workers using their combined skills and experiences to identify how, together and individually, they could best support young people looking likely to be referred to social care. The youth workers made initial approaches to young people where they were most comfortable; they arranged a meeting at which they agreed a short plan, including seeking the young person’s consent. The workers had an in-depth knowledge of local resources, and the housing and benefits system. That helped too. One young person reported feeling she could tell a youth worker a problem and ‘leave it there’.

Sadly, too much ‘youth voice’ work is poorly conceived, planned and, frankly, is clumsy. But ‘participation’ is in the blood stream of youth work and Ofsted has reported on effective instances of youth workers enabling care leavers to find their voice and forge their own future. Inspections in the youth justice area illustrate well how the informal but structured methods adopted by workers help young offenders resettle on release.

None of this happened by accident but was led by voluntary sector and local authority managers who were bold and ambitious and where youth-work approaches were endorsed by strategic leaders. There were strong and purposeful cross-sector partnerships in place with partner agencies confident in and articulating what youth work brings. But here’s lesson number two. A faultline running through youth work management has been a tendency to describe what workers do – interesting though that is –  but rather than evidence the quality. Not so in the instances above, where managers had high expectations in terms of outcomes, a rigorous approach to planning and were open to scrutiny.

In the main, inspection enjoys national and local political support and will, in some form or another, be around for some time. It has evolved and is increasingly premised on ‘risk assessment’, whereby inspectors check that standards remain high or intervene where local authorities or institutions may be failing. Ofsted encourages the discipline of sharp self-assessment.

Quality youth work can benefit young people enormously, and inspection can be a means of presenting such evidence to a critical public and to politicians charged with saving not spending. If it comes your way, embrace it.