When it was created Ofspare’s clear key strength was its HMIs. These had come from the old service which used to assess only children who were clearly in very vulnerable situations. They were determined that parents from disadvantaged backgrounds should be sensitively and properly assessed and that the full variety of parenting should be valued. They had a substantial input into the assessment framework and they were confident and independent minded. Some of them had been critics of the concept of Ofspare and now they were in place they were determined to ensure that Ofspare operated to a high professional standard which raised it above the flawed foundations on which it was built. They took tremendous care to ensure that the government delivered on its promise to ensure that children who were removed from their parents received substantial funding and high quality love and care. The government was able to use this reality to convince the public that the criticisms of Ofspare had been unjustified and it used its links with the media to ram home this message. But of course the HMIs who has worked only in the cases of clear need could not possibly cover the job of inspecting all parents as was no required so many new ‘additional’ inspectors were brought in.
The data collected from all these inspections generated some interesting insights. Parents with several young children generally scored more highly. Younger parents scored well, as did wealthy parents. Older parents of one only one child generally did not to score well. It was suggested that this indicated that younger parents with more children tended to use more explicit parenting strategies with plenty of rules and boundaries which were more easy for Ofspare to accredit highly than less dictatorial methods of parenting but such insights were too complex to make good headlines in the mass media where ‘Over 40, Over the Hill for Parenting’ and ‘Only Children Suffer’ generated more sales.
The number of children being taken away from their parents went up. Where people saw friends, family and neighbours who they trusted and respected losing their children they assumed that they were witnessing a rare mistake and they bought into the media message that it was worth it for the bigger picture. The parents affected saw their children being taken in by exceptionally able parents and given the very best of everything. This and the very narrow window of time they had to object (which seemed to hit them at a particular point when their confidence and spirits were broken and had not yet had a chance to recover) and the fact that Ofspare was its own judge and jury of its decisions not only meant that there were very few complaints, it meant that assumptions of guilt and poor conduct on the part of the parents who had lost their children were endorsed because they did not win their children back. Parents who had lost their children often suffered breakdowns and descended into substance abuse, further confirming their guilt in the eyes of society.
Aware of the electoral popularity of Ofspare and with an election looming, some members of the government created development plans for Ofspare which were entirely to do with electoral popularity rather than to do with the quality of the service Ofspare provided. Horrified by this some of the original HMIs resigned. Others found themselves sidelined as it was perceived that they were blocking the government’s will. At best those who were promoted instead did not have the wealth and depth of experience of dealing with children in serious need that the original HMIs had had. At worst they were people who sought their positions so that they could remove children from particular parents or categories of parents they disliked.
Aware of the issues arising with Ofspare and securely in power following its re-election, the government did three things. Firstly it invested heavily in intervention strategies designed to ensure that children were not removed from their parents. Secondly it set up online networks so that parents could support each other in developing and defending the full variety of styles of parenting and thirdly it set up a nationwide review to analyse best practice and the law in inspection and regulation.
But the variety of parenting styles had gone, with the exceptions which proved the rule surviving only where they had close contact with and the support of university departments in parenting. The fact that only the outstanding rating recognised the styles of parenting which responded to the needs of the individual child (rather than proactively parenting using all the strategies a child might need) meant that it was only parents who could explicitly define what they were doing and why it was justified who were now parenting in this way. However even they found that Ofspare often did not credit their skills. In fact Ofspare had taken to testing children on what they had been taught by their parents and what they knew about life and society. Children parented in this way tended to score highly on the second test about life and society and this prevented their low scores on the first test putting them into the lowest category where intervention was not required. So when the definition of outstanding practice was rewritten to make it as prescriptive as all the other gradings no-one bothered to object. Few could remember why it had ever been otherwise. Ofspare’s inspectors set up personal businesses in advising parents on how to tutor their children so that they would pass Ofspare’s tests and it became standard practice for all parents who could afford such support to get it and to use it as their guide for how to parent. Hence the divide in the results achieved by rich and poor parents widened.
The general review of inspection and regulation generated some important insights. Firstly it was clearly expressed that regulator must behave in ways which were transparent and consistent and it was concluded those inspected must have the legal right to hold their regulator accountable if this was not the case. Secondly it was found that regulators had a duty to clearly define unacceptable practice and to intervene only in cases where such unacceptable practice was identified and then only with measures which were targeted at those issues and which were proportional to those issues. Thirdy, the practice of rating the quality of services in cases where there was no cause for concern was roundly condemned both because it had been shown to prevent healthy variety and innovation and also because it had been proved that inspectors who were rating services in this way consistently failed in their duty to report to government regarding what was actually going on in the areas of society they regulated (as they were too busy assessing them according to predefined categories so were not forensically investigating what those organisation were actually doing). Laws were defined which gave organisations the power to hold inspectors accountable for adhering to these standards. Modes of best practice for effectively driving improvement were defined so that regulators could defend high quality practice. Most regulators requested some time to work on redefining their cultures and modifying their practice so that they were properly complying with the law before it was introduced and the government accepted their point.
However wider events determined that the government would fall and be replaced. Aware of its impending end it scrabbled to pass an order to the law on inspection and regulation which would obligate all inspectors to it. Five of the seven national inspectorate bodies welcomed it with no reservations, understanding that it would give them the freedom they wanted to reject inappropriate government intervention in their business of improving practice in the organisations they regulated for the benefit of society. Ofspare raised objections and was clearly not ready to conform to it. Worried about the chaos which would be created by forcing a regulator to be obliged to laws it was clearly violating the government obligated Ofspare to the law only with regard to its inspection of parents with high incomes and clearly directed it to conform to it, accepting its assertion that it could only run one system of inspection for all. But this left Ofspare subject to it’s original legal framework for most of its activities and meant that poorer parents were now alone in being inspected and regulated by an authority which was accountable only to itself and to the secretary of state who had oversight of it.