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Children’s Social Services: Time for Wragg MkII

Children’s Social Services: Time for Wragg MkII

🕔14.Jan 2014

A former deputy Birmingham council leader, Andy Howell, is calling for an independent commission to investigate the city’s inadequate children’s social services and draw up a blueprint for improvement.

Mr Howell, who remains an influential figure in the Birmingham Labour Party, argues in this exclusive post that only a ‘laser-sharp’ inquiry will provide answers to the serious failings of the past 14 years.


It is no secret that Birmingham’s Children’s Services are in a mess, rated as inadequate across the board.

Birmingham’s problems in this area are nothing new. The city has struggled with them for many years.  What is puzzling — given the extent of the difficulties — is why no progress has been made?

While we can see how services fall short it is almost impossible to understand why this continues to be the case. Just what is it that needs to be done to effect deep and sustainable change in children’s services?

The current crisis escalated in September 2012 when six inspectors from Ofsted arrived in Birmingham to conduct an unannounced inspection. The inspection followed a number of critical Serious Case Reviews into child deaths and, according to some, whistle-blower interventions from social workers.

The inspectors found Birmingham’s services to be inadequate across all key standards. Since the inspection little progress seems to have been made despite the government’s introduction of consultants and intervention teams designed to help raise standards.

Now central government is weighing up the pros and cons of taking child protection services away from the council, and last week a trio of ‘experts’ appointed by Education Secretary Michael Gove arrived in Birmingham to conduct a rapid assessment of children’s services.

Published inspection reports show how the department is failing. Vulnerable children are often left too long without proper assessments being made of the risks they are facing.

Too many children do not receive statutory visits from social workers.

Far too many are subject to repeat protection plans showing that risks have not been dealt with effectively and, as a result, far too many children are subject to re-referral.

Too often decisions have been made to remove children from their protection plans far too quickly for the safety of the child.

It’s not just the Ofsted inspectors who have highlighted problems. Voluntary organisations have told the council they do not feel accepted as proper partners in supporting children at risk and that their concerns and observations are not being properly dealt with.

The city’s failure to protect vulnerable children has become a major public concern across much of the inner city and the inability to support those children in greatest need is affecting public confidence in many other city council services.

At the turn of the millennium I was deputy leader of the council and I worked to support the then cabinet member in trying to work with some of these problems.

But I was asking the same questions then that I am now.

To be clear, social workers in Birmingham face some of the most challenging problems anywhere. Deep-rooted deprivation in much of our city is arguably of a scale simply not found elsewhere and when I looked at these issues I was cautious in making judgments about the service.

During this period a team from the Social Services Inspectorate was visiting. I asked them to point me in the direction of a complicated urban authority that was getting things right. Where could I go to see good practice? I was somewhat floored by their response.

The inspectors told me that I had no need to travel anywhere to see really good practice. Birmingham had some of the best practice in the country sitting side-by-side with some of the worst. The task was simply to ensure all of Birmingham’s social work teams worked to the standards of the best.

All these years later internal voices and close observers suggest that these problems remain. Critics of the city argue that the real problems of the council are to do with inconsistent and ineffective management combined with an internal culture of complacency and denial.

However, there is very little detail or analysis of these problems in the public domain from either Birmingham City Council or Ofsted.

Birmingham’s problems were compounded last year when the strategic director, Peter Duxbury, left his job after only 13 months, scarcely time to make any real impact on the service. A stream of leaks from his department supported him and claimed that councillors were not willing to back him to make the difficult changes needed to effect lasting change.

Others claim that Mr Duxbury was simply not up to the job and had lost the confidence of politicians. However, the public is unable to make a judgment of its own as Mr Duxbury left Birmingham after signing a non-disclosure agreement, or gagging clause.

So, was Duxbury a disaster or was he a man trying to make a difference who was not backed by politicians? We’ll never know because of these gagging clauses.

Mr Duxbury, though, is still around and working with the CLN consultancy. According to their website Mr Duxbury: “… led significant improvements in an authority that had been performing poorly for 10 years and on a Government Improvement Notice for four years … his improvement work was credited by Ofsted as creating a Step Change in momentum”. He clearly feels that he has nothing to apologise for.

Mr Duxbury has been replaced by Peter Hay, who has moved from strategic director of adults and communities to become director of a new People Directorate, taking in children’s services. Mr Hay, it should be noted, was in charge of Birmingham children’s social care in the mid-2000s, the last time that the department was judged to be adequate.

Some argue that the handling of Peter Duxbury is symptomatic of a culture of secrecy that has developed in the city, one which makes it almost impossible to gain a proper public understanding of where problems lie. Consider an important question of funding: Is children’s services critically under-funded?

Over the past few years many assurances have been made that Birmingham’s problems are not financial, that the service had the funds it needed. Yet, now even this assertion is being challenged.

In November last year Birmingham’s auditors, Grant Thornton, stated: “We note that the council’s planned spend per head on children’s social care for 2012-13 was considerably below the comparator group average. Given the issues highlighted with regard to the protection of vulnerable children the council should consider whether its inadequate arrangements are the result of insufficient resources or are the result of other management, staffing or governance failures”.

Were these problems widely appreciated within the council’s leadership? Again it is difficult to know.

However, since the audit letter, Birmingham’s leadership has accepted the funding challenge and has pledged to put an extra £10 million into the child protection work, though a fair amount of this will come at the expense of preventative work across the city. Voluntary agencies argue that the cutting of preventative work will simply lead to more pressure being placed on crisis intervention services.

It all looks increasingly messy.

In order to restore public confidence it is time for both the city and Ofsted to be clearer about why it is so difficult to improve services.

Birmingham faced similar problems during the 1990’s when its Education Service was described as being the worst in the country. Birmingham’s political leadership realised that it had to respond decisively not least because the lack of public confidence in the service obscured genuine complaints about the impact of central government funding cuts.

Birmingham’s leadership responded by appointing Tim Brighouse as Director of Education who, over a relatively short period of time, worked with colleagues to improve the service and turn it into a national model of success.

But while Brighouse made a big difference to Birmingham one of the most critical interventions was the establishment of a commission, led by the late educational academic Ted Wragg, to look at every aspect of Birmingham’s school sector.

Wragg left no stone unturned in his quest to understand why Birmingham had failed. He was fiercely independent, not interested in excuses for the failures of the past and was honest and open about where he felt things had gone wrong.

For us politicians Wragg’s message was an uncomfortable one. But Wragg cleared the decks, helped jettison the negativity of the past and focused everyone on building a better future. Wragg made his biggest impression on those outside of the Council House, his report proved critical in building back public confidence and in convincing teachers and parents that the council was genuine in its intentions and ambitions.

Wragg did not see himself working for the council, for the government or for Ofsted, but for the wider community of the city. He challenged each of these organisations intelligently and thoroughly. As a then young politician he made me feel that the work myself and my colleagues were doing was very important, but he always left me feeling I hadn’t quite done enough. There was no room for complacency when Wragg was around.

Today, the government-appointed triumvirate will cast valuable insight into what is going wrong in Birmingham. But an in-depth analysis is required. Surely we could now benefit from such an independent yet authoritative voice in order to restore confidence in children’s services? We need an initiative that is not about apportioning blame but which has a laser sharp focus on the future.

Such a review would undoubtedly be uncomfortable for Birmingham but it would place a spotlight on the real-work effects of the millions of pounds of cuts that central government, year on year, applies to Birmingham’s budgets.

Birmingham’s current leader Sir Albert Bore was part of the leadership that bought Tim Brighouse to Birmingham and commissioned the Wragg Review. He has used similar reviews successfully since then on a number of occasions.

Birmingham’s ongoing problems with children’s services represent the city’s greatest failure since the Wragg review.  It is time to seek an independent view and come clean about the reasons why we are unable to secure improvement, to allow concerns and issues to be raised in public and to place improvement action plans clearly in the public domain.

There is one big difference between children’s’ services now and Birmingham’s education service back then. In the 1990’s the Birmingham’s education service was a massive concern of the articulate middle class and the pressure that they put on the council simply could not be ignored. As I mentioned earlier, public concern today is most focused in those disadvantaged communities that are too easily marginalised and who are often simply not able to shout loud enough. Their concerns should not be under-estimated.

While we all know what failure looks like we all need to be clearer about what blocks improvement. Is it the council’s failure to grasp internal management problems, the failure of central government to properly appreciate the complexity of problems in the city, or a combination of the two?

It seems we need help in resorting confidence and we need to be clear that the improvement of these services is not just important for children at risk. A city that fails to deliver its statutory responsibilities so dramatically risks losing credibility across the board, not only with public service stakeholders and partners, but also with those in the private sector looking to build on both a successful community and a strong local economy.

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