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Ofsted’s ‘vicious attack’ misses the point: breaking up Birmingham won’t help social services

Ofsted’s ‘vicious attack’ misses the point: breaking up Birmingham won’t help social services

🕔16.Oct 2013

Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw’s intemperate blast against Birmingham, in which he likened children’s social services to those in the third world, ranks as the most vicious attack against the city from a supposedly neutral public figure that I can recall.

Sir Michael, speaking in the wake of a series of child deaths, most recently two-year-old Keanu Williams, claimed that the failure to address social problems is so bad that Birmingham compares unfavourably with communist Cuba and parts of Eastern Europe.

The city was a “national disgrace” and one of the worst places to grow up in the developed world.

Ofsted’s annual report suggested that Birmingham “encapsulated” the worst failings in child safety seen in the country, with 20 Serious Case Reviews in the past seven years. The city’s social services department had been blighted by poor management and “a culture of low expectations” in the past.

Among the “shocking” statistics trotted out by Ofsted are Birmingham’s infant mortality rates which are twice the national average and on a par with Latvia and Chile. The city also has the highest level of homelessness in the country and double the national unemployment rate, according to Ofsted.

Sir Michael did have something interesting to say about how things might change, even if his proposal was hardly very new. He suggested that Birmingham is simply too large to be administered by a single authority and that the council “may have to be broken up”.

Claiming a failure of corporate governance “on a grand scale”, he posed a question: “Can political leaders in Birmingham deliver the scale of change that is now required?

“If they cannot, should national government act before more children suffer, or indeed before more children die whose deaths could have been prevented?”

Whether Sir Michael has gone beyond his remit, as one senior city council official suggested I do not know. What can be said is that breaking Birmingham up isn’t a new idea.

It’s been long accepted by political leaders of all colours that, with a population of 1.1 million people and a council with 120 councillors, the task of running the city is a bit of a nightmare. Much of the period 2000 to 2012 was spent talking about getting away from the “one size fits all” mentality and devolving power down to the districts.

After the first year of Sir Albert Bore’s second period of leadership, more flesh is being put on the devolution bones. District committees have large budgets and will have to make tough decisions about which services to cut in the wake of the public spending axe.

But no one is seriously suggesting that strategic services such as social care should or could be devolved to 10 district committees. Or, if that were to happen, that the service would improve in any way.

It has also been suggested that Birmingham might be split into separate unitary authorities. Two or three new councils, for example. These bodies would still be pretty large, each administering services for about 300,000 people.

The complexities, not to mention the financial cost, of inventing and equipping three new councils hardly bear thinking about. Which of the new local authorities, for instance, would be lucky enough to find itself blessed with the very wealthy Birmingham city centre? Who gets the poverty-stricken areas of Sparkbrook, Nechells, Aston and Soho? And where does Sutton Coldfield fit into all of this?

As Sir Michael must know if he stops to think about it, we are where we are with Birmingham. Administrative change based on developing smaller councils isn’t going to transform social services across the city.

Ofsted’s rant was no doubt driven by utter frustration at years of children’s social care failure in Britain’s second city and designed to grab the headlines, which it certainly has.

There is no magic solution, although as Birmingham social services director Peter Hay freely admits recruiting and keeping better social workers and managers is key to improvement. Mr Hay, one of the best and most respected care professionals in the country, deserves a chance to turn things around and the very last thing needed is a pointless debate about breaking up Birmingham.

Cover Image: ITV News

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