I think it’s fair to say Wandsworth’s poor Ofsted report has been a big shock for many, including me. While I might have my differences with the council, it has always been a good, competent, council. Even when I disagreed with what it was doing (and even when I was part of the leadership, I didn’t always think it was right) I couldn’t deny it did it well.

If I am really honest, I would say I expected to see mistakes being made (I remember a few years ago highlighting the risks that were inherent in the massive changes the council were making, politically and administratively) but not in something as important as children’s services. Looking after vulnerable children is about the most important responsibility of the council.

Reading through the Ofsted report, there was one thing that really stuck out to me. In a report that found the council inadequate we discover:

The local authority self-assessment, dated June 2015 and completed in anticipation of this inspection, assessed most services as good. This is inaccurate.

To me, this is the most worrying aspect of the report. At best it indicates a lack of self-awareness. At worst it indicates a cultural problem in which the belief that Wandsworth is a top-performing council overrides evidence to the contrary. So when the evidence was gathered, people were too ready to accept the good and dismiss the bad.

That self-belief has always been incredibly strong at the council. To give an example, Wandsworth never, to my knowledge, took up any opportunities of peer development from the Local Government Association (although it would generously allow other councils to come to SW18 to learn from it). Suggestions from newer, more naïve councillors, that we might want to learn from elsewhere was usually met with scoffing laughter and then a gentle explanation that other councils come to learn from us.

Even coming to write this, I started off by talking about how good the council once was: it’s the easy, default, stance to take.

However, perhaps the Ofsted report will give a kickstart to an improvement process that benefits all of Wandsworth. A sense of crisis often allows previously unseen leadership to flourish; already it seems there’s more willingness to see what it can learn from others. Perhaps this will help arrest that headlong slide into being just another council.

The courtyard entrance to Wandsworth Town Hall

“Won’t somebody think of the children?” sums up a large part of the Conservative side of the debate at last night’s council meeting. The reason we should think of them was hidden away in a report, published late, on restructuring for the merger with Richmond. The relevant section, titled Modifications to senior management arrangements gets off to an anodyne start:

As a consequence of recently identified weaknesses in Wandsworth children’s services, the report also proposes some interim modifications to the provisionally agreed senior management arrangements, to take immediate effect in order to provide a heightened level of managerial oversight.

The cost of these changes comes to over £500,000, adding posts so the existing managers can focus on the areas of weakness.

When discussed at a committee meeting this it was revealed the ‘weaknesses’ were identified by an Ofsted inspection of the council’s children looked after functions and the report, not yet published, is likely to criticise the council. What’s more, time after time tonight we were told no-one has actually read the Ofsted report—which is embargoed—but these changes are based on the verbal feedback from the inspectors.

It might well be that spending £500,000 on senior staff is the best way to address the weaknesses. It might actually be that we should spend £1,000,000. Or that we could address them all spending £200,000 elsewhere. But not having seen the report, nor having had details of the report shared, it’s impossible to know.

The Conservative argument was that while it was far too hasty to suggest any criticism of the leadership, it was not too hasty to suggest spending half a million. Indeed, anything else would be talking down the service and making the problems worse rather than fixing them. We should, instead, trust the recommendations of people who haven’t read the report to fix problems we aren’t told about and vote an extra £500,000.

I’ll confess that even though all my logic was telling me I just couldn’t vote to spend £500,000 without knowing why it was hard. Not only is the emotional call to think of the children is hard to resist, but I also have a huge amount of respect for Kathy Tracey, the children’s lead, who is by far the most able member of the council’s Leader’s group. Going beyond that I might criticise the council’s lack of vision, but I can’t deny historically it has a great track record for strong administrative management and competence on the basics.

But this issue seems to me a symptom of the constant restructuring a process that grinds down staff and performance, and now services are suffering as a result.

Once upon a time I think Wandsworth could be trusted to get on and do the right thing, last night I realised that it doesn’t deserve that level of trust any more. There are valid concerns that the council isn’t managing change well; the council and councillors need to understand why.

I’m a little late in picking up on this, but John Burns School, situated in the north-eastern corner of the ward, has been named as one of the best in the country by Ofsted.

Ofsted included the school in its report ‘Twenty Outstanding Primary Schools’ which “showcases 20 primary schools in very challenging circumstances that have been rated ‘outstanding’ at least twice.”

The report concludes John Burns is a “very successful, heavily oversubscribed and highly regarded school.” I spent four years as a governor at the school shortly after the current headteacher, Maura Keady, started in post and can attest to her drive and determination for the school.

Recognition like this from Ofsted speaks volumes for the work she, and other staff, have done in the school over the years.

Apparently it’s now illegal to leave your child with friends for more than two hours unless they are Ofsted registered.

The BBC reports that two police officers have been investigated by Ofsted had an arrangement whereby they would look after each other’s children when on duty. It seems a sensible way to save on childcare…

But, of course, they weren’t Ofsted registered. Now I hate this sort of story because it provokes a Daily Mail ire in me (that it came from the Mail on Sunday doesn’t help). But the idea that friends can’t reciprocate babysitting arrangements without coming under the auspices of state regulation is – frankly – ridiculous.

The story doesn’t have the full background (I’d love to know why they neighbour reported the officer, since it doesn’t seem very neighbourly to me) so it’s difficult to comment on the specific case, but for Ofsted to blandly state “those who babysat for more than two hours at a time, or for more than 14 days per year, should be registered” is incredible.

It essentially means you can’t have friends look after your child so you can have an evening out or a day to yourselves.

We have somehow managed to evolve and survive as a species for hundreds of thousands of years with childcare being shared amongst family and friends – but now we need Ofsted to regulate?

Ofsted’s deadpan response that reciprocal arrangements can constitute babysitting for ‘reward’ and the minister’s half-hearted assurance that he is speaking to Ofsted “about the interpretation of the word ‘reward’ in this particular case” are depressing.

There’s no shock, no anger, about the case. No condemnation that public money, our money, is being spent employing people to investigate such cases. Instead just a banal offer to look into the case and explain why it was important to investigate police officers who were simply leaving their children in the care of a trusted friend.

Examples like this might be rare, but surely the minister should be stating categorically that he will be reversing the ridiculous interpretation and ensuring it never happens again, there is plenty of law to protect children without stopping parents taking and sharing responsibility. I make no apology for my Daily Mail ire, but this is the nanny state at its worse and exactly the sort of thing I hope the Conservatives will be reversing in office.