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‘Our children are safer, but not safe enough’, Birmingham council bosses warn

‘Our children are safer, but not safe enough’, Birmingham council bosses warn

🕔04.Jun 2015

Vulnerable children in Birmingham are not as safe as they should be, but they are safer than they were a year ago, the city council has insisted.

Brigid Jones, cabinet member for children’s services, said the authority had set in train everything it said it would do in the first year of a three-year improvement programme.

The council is spending an additional £21.5 million in 2015-16, is trying to recruit more social workers, forming a stronger partnership with other public agencies and strengthening management in an attempt to lift the service out of special measures for the first time in more than six years.

Cllr Jones said:

We must however acknowledge areas of risk that will be harder to change than others. Recruitment and retention of social workers is something for which the council has had a poor track record over a number of years and administrations and we need to get it right.

Cllr Jones made her remarks in a scrutiny committee report ahead of a planned visit to Birmingham by Ofsted. The watchdog will consider whether the pace of improvement in children’s social services is sufficient.

Peter Hay, strategic director for people at the council, said:

We are clear there remain areas of risk such as the recruitment and retention of social workers.  This is something for which the council has had a poor track record over a number of years and administrations and we need to get it right.

We now have a workforce strategy in place to ensure we stabilise staffing and give social workers the skills, confidence and the right tools to deliver great social work that will make a real difference to children’s lives.  Turnover and vacancy levels are down; recruitment of newly qualified social workers, social workers and team managers has improved.

Chamberlain Files understands that Ofsted will arrive next month, although the council was unable to confirm this.

The visit, although expected, will set alarm bells ringing at the Council House.

It will be the first full-scale inspection since a damning Ofsted report a year ago found that services for vulnerable children remained inadequate and that failure was “entrenched” with little sign of improvement.

Last year’s visit followed a surprising intervention by Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw in October 2013 in which he claimed Birmingham was a “national disgrace” and one of the worst places in the developed world in which to bring up children.

In March this year Sir Michael published a report revealing that Birmingham is one of just seven local authorities across the country where children’s care is still judged inadequate.

The Ofsted inspectors will be able to take a view on the performance of Lord Norman Warner, who was appointed Birmingham children’s commissioner in March 2014 with a government remit to oversee rapid improvement.

He was handed the job following a fast-track review of Birmingham children’s services by Professor Julian Le Grand, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics.

Le Grand found there were “green shoots of progress” but concluded there was “insufficient evidence of sustained and embedded change”.

Shortly after starting his job Lord Warner said in a progress report to ministers that “if things start to go awry there will be no uncertainty about who is responsible for putting things right – and quickly”.

He also estimated the cost of moving social services out of special measures, where it has been for six years, at £120 million and warned that money set aside by Labour council leaders to boost spending on social care was likely to prove inadequate.

The council has not been successful in persuading the Government to fund a rescue package.

Since Lord Warner’s appointment the council’s strategic director for people, Peter Hay, who has overall responsibility for social services, has overseen a rapid management shake-up.

Efforts to recruit and retain social workers have been ramped up.

Ofsted will be keen to discover whether specific criticisms detailed in last year’s report have been addressed. These include the discovery that the council failed to “robustly risk assess” more than 400 children in need cases more than two months after being reported.

In a stark assessment of failure, Ofsted said:

Long standing and historical corporate and political failures continue to impact upon the current political and professional leadership of children’s services in Birmingham. In addition, inadequate strategic partnership arrangements have undermined a range of initiatives to improve services.

Systems and processes are neither child-centred nor fit for purpose and do not support social workers in keeping a clear focus on children in most parts of the service. Significant deficits, including poor management oversight, poor assessment of risk and lack of understanding and implementation of thresholds, lead to some children being left at continuing risk of significant harm.

The legacy of poor management and practice in Birmingham children’s services remain. These failures have become so entrenched that, despite recent efforts to improve management practice and outcomes, the progress being made to date is too slow and has had little or no impact.

The watchdog hit out at “too many false dawns” that have raised expectations but have ultimately failed to deliver adequate care and protection for vulnerable children in Birmingham.

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