Revealed: Ofsted asks staff from private care firms to inspect children’s homes

Managers from some of the largest private children’s home chains in the UK have been asked to carry out inspections for Ofsted, despite those groups owning numerous homes that are deemed unsatisfactory.

The Observer has discovered that Ofsted, which oversees standards in children’s social care, has recruited staff from the Outcomes First Group and the Keys Group to inspect homes as part of a pilot. Analysis of inspection data in Ofsted’s latest annual review of social care reveals 20 homes run by both firms have been rated as less than good.

A study by Oxford University found this month that for-profit children’s homes receive worse Ofsted ratings on average than local authority-run provision, with for-profit homes violating more care requirements.

Anne Longfield, former Children’s Commissioner for England, said many would question the wisdom of recruiting private sector managers when there are concerns some companies are putting profits before high-quality child care. “It is vital that Ofsted inspections are independent, and that confidence in their findings is not eroded by using serving managers from big private provider chains as inspectors,” she said.

While Ofsted has in the past used practitioners employed by schools, colleges and early years providers to carry out inspections, this is the first time the inspectorate has drafted in current staff from private social care companies. Serving practitioners are usually expected to work in provision that is rated good or above.

Ofsted states potential conflicts of interest are monitored to ensure the integrity of inspections. However, a former Ofsted inspector, Ian Dickson, who has written to the watchdog to raise concerns about the scheme, said it impugned the integrity of the inspection process.

Dickson said that whistleblowing members of staff could end up being inspected by a former boss, or children could be inspected by someone from a former provider they had complained about. “Inspectors must go in absolutely impartially,” he said. “But these [serving practitioners] are still working for companies while inspecting – it is a clear conflict of interest.”

Anne Longfield, the former Children’s Commissioner for England
Anne Longfield, the former Children’s Commissioner for England, says it is vital that inspections are independent. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Become, a charity representing children in care, said young people should have been consulted on the change as it could impact on their care. “Given that 80% of homes are run by the private sector, it feels like marking your own homework, and calls into question the independence of the regulatory system,” said Clare Bracey, policy director at Become.

The Outcomes First Group, the fourth biggest provider in England, with 60 homes, made a profit of £5.9m in 2021. It is owned by Stirling Square Capital Partners Jersey, a private equity company based in Jersey, where the standard rate of company tax is zero. Seven of 21 (33%) of the group’s homes inspected in 2021-22 required improvement. One of the firm’s homes in Lincolnshire was rated as inadequate after inspectors found unsafe staff caring for children and an epileptic child left unsupervised. Twelve of the group’s homes were rated as good and one was rated as outstanding over the same period.

The Keys Group, the third biggest provider in England, with more than 100 homes, received more than £110m from councils last year. It is owned by G Square Healthcare Private Equity, which made a profit of £3m from its portfolio of investments, including the Keys Group, for its owners in March.

Just over one in 10 of its homes were deemed in need of improvement by Ofsted in 2021-22. Inspectors at a home in Shropshire found inconsistent medication record-keeping was putting children at risk and managers were not ensuring suitable people were employed to care for children. The group’s other homes received higher ratings, with 67 rated good and 13 outstanding over the same period.

The Outcomes First Group declined to comment and Keys Group did not respond to the Observer. An Ofsted spokesperson said it would consider all issues raised by the pilot: “We are always keen to learn from, and draw on, the expertise of those working in the areas we inspect and regulate. We have been using serving practitioners in inspections of schools, further education providers and the early years sector for some time, so this is a logical next step. We have well-established procedures in place from this work, and from consultation with provider groups, to help manage any potential conflicts of interest.”

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