Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Coming of Age of Ofspare

Ricky Mauve took up the reins as SoS for Parenting with great enthusiasm.  He’d arrived in power on the back of his promises to increase freedom in parenting and to properly reform Ofspare.  A recent journalist with the Jeremy Mogul empire, his close friendship with Mr Mogul himself ensured he had all the freedom he needed to describe how wonderful his ideas were in all the major papers.  The uninitiated were enthusiastic (or at least they were according to the papers – and enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm in these situations).  Those who had children reserved their judgement.  Some had heard Mr Mauve speak and were concerned that his slick rhetoric served to effectively conceal deeply ignorant views.  Others had read all his articles and had noticed that in one of them he had declared that he was going to run a cultural revolution like the one in China.  Because, unlike Mr Mauve, they were aware of that particular era of Chinese history they and were also concerned.  

What happened next took those who watched it by surprise. Of course most people didn’t see what happened because they were reading the newspapers which reported only Mr Mauve’s brilliance.  During his fist few weeks in power Mr Mauve forced through legislation to create freedom in parenting.  However the unexpected twist was that this freedom in parenting was offered only to children, who were invited to select their own parents.  Birth parents were stripped of all their rights, as were all other bodies who had traditionally overseen parenting.  All other bodies, that is, apart from Ofspare.  Mauve effectively created a free market in parenting so that professional parents who made a profit from what they did could thrive.

The media gushed in admiration (usually in Mr Mauve’s own words) at these tough policies designed to strip the incompetent, amateur parents out of parenting.  The papers paraded the triumphs of the children who had moved from low scoring parents to high scoring ones in the past.   They waxed lyrical about how Mr Mauve’s increased emphasis on parenting ability would drive up the standards of the behaviour of children in society. Mr Mauve’s brilliance in shutting down all the government’s advisory bodies on parenting was also lauded (as these bodies were clearly responsible for the slow rate of progress in the past) and the press enthused about the discipline he showed in systematically clearing out the enemies of the state who worked in the department for parenting and didn’t entirely share his views, replacing them all with young people who knew nothing about parenting.

There were riots, which of course confirmed timeliness of and the need for the inspiration leadership skills of Ricky Mauve and the public were extensively reminded.  Mr Mauve cranked up the energy of his reforms, establishing plans to shut down all university departments in parenting and instead to ensure that parents received their training directly from parents who were highly rated by Ofspare.  Mauve’s deputy, Nichola Glibb, proclaimed that she would rather her children were raised by young parents of many children than by older parents who were raising only his child, no matter how good they were.  The fact that, of course, she’d never been a mother went without saying as no self respecting person over 30 who had not completed the NPQOP (the National Professional Qualification in passing Ofspare tests in Parenting) would dream of attempting to inflict their deeply flawed parenting skills on a child.  

Mr Mauve was found guilty in court of not consulting on his policies, so he set up sham consultations with remits which prevented relevant discussion.  Freedom of information requests were a source of embarrassment but his decision to replace all those around him at the Department for Children proved wise as the replacements were so passionate about his policy that they had no qualms about deleting the evidence of his illegal behaviour wherever necessary.  

Mr Mauve persuaded his idol Sir Jack Monterey to deliver his dream of driving up standards with the help of Ofspare. A grade 3 rating by Ofspare which meant that there was no cause for concern about the progress of the children was reclassified as being an unsatisfactory rating requiring intervention. All parenting which responded to the needs of children rather than proactively parenting them in all the Ofspare approved ways which was now being classified as grade 3 was therefore eliminated in a stroke aside, of course, from the fact that it had only existed with the support of the university departments in parenting which were now being shut down anyway.  Many parents operating in very difficult circumstances, such as them having children with special needs or little money slipped from achieving satisfactory rating to being failing parents.  On of Sir Jack’s key initiatives was to ensure contextual circumstances were not examined as part of the test.  There were to be no ‘excuses’ for poor parenting.  

The image of the wise HMI inspector was much publicised but in reality hardly any existed now as the original inspectors were gone and the new ones had been trained in an era where they’d have few or no failing families to inspect so had learned only to tick appropriate grading boxes.  Blessed with the image of credibility their predecessors had created for them most had little awareness of their own limitations or of the stark contrast between their own methods of operation and those of other regulators. 

Some HMIs who were still far more capable than the system which had produced them, and occasionally one such individual would be tasked with coming up with proposals to reform Ofspare in order to appease the voices of complaint.  But while changes were rapidly and frequently made, they did not address the issue associated with finding the increased numbers of parents to be designated as being failing parents which Gove and Monterey demanded. In practice these changes served to ensure that all complainants were deflected with the response that the system had changed since the issues they had observed had taken place (or was about to change) so their concerns had already been addressed.  The chaos of the constant changes created a fog in which parents could be labelled as being failing parents for not having adjusted sufficiently rapidly to the new standards and this helped towards achieving the target number for failing parents.  The shutting down of Parents TV which had previously informed parents about changes in standards and best practice thickened this fog, as did the sudden change in the behaviour of the state parent discussion forums (the non-state forums had withered as they had been the poor relation to the well funded and run state forums under the previous government).

Ofspare were arriving at inspections with the results of those inspections having been pre-determined based on the outcomes of the tests the children had sat which were designed to test how well they knew the skills their parents should have taught them.  Their job was simply to adjust words in a pre-written text to make it sound like it related to the particular situation.  Other inspectorate bodies looked on in horror.  Ofspare inspectors didn't notice.

Mr Mauve then took personal responsibility for appointing those deemed fit to be parents.  It was suggested that he was using his position to allow his personal friends to be parents.  Given the pattern of inspections it was clear that he was telling Sir Jack which parents to inspect and fail directly to create a supply of children to give to his professional parent friends.  In response to these accusations the Mogul press turned up the volume of its proactive denunciation of all those who raised any objections to Mauve’s improvements in parenting who found not only that they had no voice and no rights, but that if they raised objections they know that not only would they be punished but all their friends and family would be too.

In a committee room in parliament one night the head of parenting in Neighbourland came to speak to anyone who would listen.  Given that Neighbourland was topping all the international comparison tables in parenting he spoke to a packed room.  He spoke about how he'd been inspired by the parents he'd met here 25 years earlier when he'd done his PhD in parenting.  He explained how the principles of developing parents and children together had been applied in his country as it was considered important that children had excellent role models.  He emphasised the importance of tailoring parenting to the needs of the particular child and of parents (rather than politicians) determining policy in parenting.  He was asked about Neighbourland's inspectorate body in parenting and he explained that he had been appointed into the role of Chief inspector and that his only action in that role had been to shut down that central inspectorate body - replacing it with a system where parents could select from accredited inspectors.  At this point Sir Jack Monterey walked out.  But everyone else stayed and when the two hours was up the applause went on and on.  Nobody wanted this brief moment of sanity to end.  Nobody wanted to return to a world they couldn't control and to madness they couldn't stop.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Ofspare – The Decades of Attrition.

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.

Thursday, 9 August 2012


In response to last summer’s riots, the government has decided to create Ofspare (the Office for Standards in Parenting).

Parents will be regularly inspected with their standard of parenting being graded on a 7 point scale. Any parent who scores 1 will have their children immediately removed from them.  A score of 2 will result in them being placed on ‘notice to improve’ with their parenting being inspected every four weeks and their children being taken away from them if they do not rapidly improve their scores.

The strongest and most convincing complaints have come from those parents who allow their children a lot of freedom.  They are worried that while the skills of strict parents are obvious, their skills are more subtle and less easy to identify and correctly grade.  They say that they like to watch their children and allow them to make mistakes and explore the world as much as possible, intervening only when necessary and usually through subtle methods of encouraging their children to reflect on the consequences of their behaviour which a stranger would be unlikely to spot and may confuse with poor parenting.  They are arguing that the purpose of inspection should be to eliminate unacceptable behaviour and some of them think that this is best done through support rather than the immediate punishment of the confiscation of children.  They think that acceptable parenting should not be graded as the grade definitions proposed will reduce diversity of practice, freedom and innovation and enhance the likelihood of parents moving towards stricter, more overt and excessively interventionist styles of parenting which are easier to accredit.  They are also concerned that parents who do not understand the challenges associated with raising children with specific needs or raising children in difficult economic and social circumstances will negatively judge good parents who are coping with very challenging circumstances.

Parents have also complained that the schedule of high stakes inspections will force them to focus on passing those inspections rather than on their other activities which contribute to society which they feel that ultimately their children will benefit from seeing them participate in.

In response to their criticisms two concessions were made.  The first was that the definition of the highest rating has been loosened to allow it to encompass excellent parenting which allows significant freedom.  The protestors say this is not good enough as parents who allow more freedom need to progress as well (they don’t suddenly emerge as being outstanding parents) and the issue whereby not all inspectors may have they experience to assess this type of parenting has not been properly addressed. They are, however, more positive about the provision that parents should be allowed to select from accredited inspection bodies – allowing them to reject those which do not have the relevant expertise to assess their practice.

However in a last minute unexpected twist the second decision to allow parents to select their own inspection body has been reversed.  A couple of proponents of strict parenting who had been defeated during the consultation processes quietly submitted an amendment to force all parents to be assessed by one regulator.  They managed to get that amendment scheduled for debate at midnight on the night before Ascot so that it went through without anyone noticing soon enough to object.

So now Ofspare exists.  What do you think will happen next?