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  • Sarah Whitebloom

Like schools, 'Ofsted' inspections are failing care residents and families with unreliable ratings

Ofsted inspections are under fire after the head teacher of an Outstanding primary took her own life. It is a very sad story. The dedicated teacher's school faced being downgraded to Inadequate after a snapshot inspection by an Ofsted team. And critics are now arguing the system is unfair and there are calls for inspections to be halted.

What has all this to do with care? Residential homes, care-at-home providers and medical settings (including hospitals and GPs' surgeries) face this same inspection system. It was borrowed lock-stock-and-barrel from Ofsted, including the same single-word rating system.

And just like the Ofsted system, it is flawed and very unreliable. As with schools, reports are based on occasional, brief inspections. And, like schools, care homes regularly go from a rating of 'Outstanding' to 'Inadequate' or from 'Good' to 'Requires Improvement'. When you are trying to find a care home to look after a vulnerable relation, this is hardly reassuring even though their life could, quite literally, depend on it.

But, unlike schools, most care homes are profit-making organisations and devote considerable time and energy to ensure they receive good reports and many are adept at gaming the system - or even reversing the inspectors' findings through legal channels. Some will, of course, insist the snapshot inspection has been unfair and the downgrading is unjust. And that can be the case, since the inspectors spend such a short time in a facility and can only ever get a partial picture.

But beware a big group care home with a bad report!

Critics say these inspections disadvantage small but caring homes, which do not have the resources to attack the inspectors' findings and can be very caring but not as good at paperwork as the large factory homes.

So, can you ever trust the Care Quality Commission's reports? The short answer is no. Too often, they seem to praise a home right up to the point when police are called.

It is very worrying to discover the home where your parent lives is suddenly not 'Good' but is officially bad. All too often, though, your personal experience can tell you the opposite of what the inspectors' brief visit found. Their highly-rated care home can appear anything but, to someone who spends a lot of time there. Nice cushions and completed paperwork do not make up for poor care.

On a more prosaic level, the fees will not change, even if the home receives a very bad report. You will still be asked to pay the same for the care even if it is officially 'Inadequate'.

According to the Competition and Markets Authority, though, care residents are just like any other consumer and can take action to recover fees: I don't think that's ever happened.

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