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Respecting Sir Michael Wilshaw – the mammoth in the room

Respecting Sir Michael Wilshaw – the mammoth in the room

🕔13.Jul 2016

There was a very large elephant in the room when Birmingham city councillors debated the condition of children’s social care. Or, to be honest, a huge mammoth sat in the corner.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s shy and retiring, or soon to be retiring anyway, chief inspector loomed large in the minds of everyone, although he was of course not present and was rarely mentioned by name.

The debate had been called following Sir Michael’s latest attack on the standard of the council’s services to protect vulnerable children, which have been in Government special measures for more than seven years.

In a letter to Education secretary Nicky Morgan a week ago, Sir Michael warned there had been little improvement in the quality of social care, said Birmingham’s political leaders were incapable of delivering the changes required, and the culture of fear in the city’s schools identified in the Trojan Horse scandal hadn’t gone away.

Brigid Jones, the cabinet member for schools and children’s services, was icily cool. As a physics graduate, she no doubt wished she could kick Sir Michael into another galaxy, or at least to a black hole where the gravitational force is so strong he would be trapped for eternity.

She was far too polite to attack Sir Michael directly, and kept using the word ‘respectfully’ as in we respectfully told the chief inspector he was talking utter rot, or we respectfully told him he was simply not reflecting the reality of what is actually happening, but he just ignored us.

Barry Bowles, an influential figure on the children’s scrutiny committee, said it was “painfully clear” that the head of Ofsted was “out of kilter with everyone else” as far as the progress by Birmingham’s children’s services was concerned.

“While we are not out of the woods yet, we are moving to a far better place. We need to pull together on this instead of bashing each other in this chamber. We need to pull together in the interests of the young people of Birmingham,” he declared.

He issued a respectful invitation to respectfully invite Sir Michael to talk to the scrutiny committee, where he would be treated with respect, although it was pretty clear Cllr Bowles ‘respectful’ was written in italics and came accompanied by quotation marks and an explanation mark.

Cllr Jones patiently set out the council’s view that Sir Michael, who once called Birmingham the worst place in the developed world to have children and a national disgrace, was embarking on a different journey to all of the other experts and was simply ignoring the improvements that have been made to children’s services in the past two years.

She described it as “two narratives going on here” – Sir Michael’s incendiary take on Birmingham, and the rather more relaxed view taken by the Home Office, the Department for Education and the council’s children’s and social services commissioners that sufficient progress is being made.

Cllr Jones reported that the number of inadequate schools had dropped in the past year and Birmingham’s resilience to extremism is “very highly praised” by head teachers and the Home Office.

Governors’ appointments were now some of the most robust in the city and the council has a positive relationship with Ofsted when it comes to unregistered schools. “Birmingham is a very different place to what it was”, she insisted.

On the subject of Ofsted’s two-day inspection in June, which resulted in Sir Michael’s latest salvo, Cllr Jones said she had always been open to scrutiny, her motto was ‘I can’t fix what I don’t know is broken’ and she thought Ofsted inspections “are a very good thing”. Remarkably, she managed to keep a straight face while saying this.

The Ofsted visit, it should be noted, resulted in Sir Michael telling the Education Secretary that services to protect vulnerable children remain very poor, and there is still too much inconsistent practice by social workers.

Cllr Jones added that the council had “respectfully” challenged Ofsted because “they have reported on things they didn’t actually inspect when they were here including senior leadership”.

Birmingham was where it would have expected to be entering the final year of a three-year improvement plan, she said, underlining the council’s view that the Government should at least sit back and wait another year before reaching final judgments as to the success of the plan.

It turned out that Sir Michael did have one sympathetic ear in the room – Matt Bennett, the Conservative shadow cabinet member for children’s services – who said while the Ofsted chief inspector was guilty of “shooting from the hip” he was merely reporting what his inspectors told him and was “impatient for things to change for vulnerable people in this city”.

Cllr Bennett continued to hammer home the Conservative opposition’s view that Cllr Jones, while perfectly pleasant and well-meaning, isn’t up to the task of transforming children’s social care in Birmingham and should stand aside.

He concentrated on the many thousands of children with special educational needs who he said were being let down by the council and condemned to “chunter along” at school when they should be assessed and given the support they require.

He accused Cllr Jones of ignoring SEN issues and of “continuing to support the people who are causing the problem”. It was shameful it took the head of Ofsted two days to identify a problem that Cllr Jones had been ignoring for three years, he added.

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