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Social services improvement plans were ‘bonkers’, admits city council chief

Social services improvement plans were ‘bonkers’, admits city council chief

🕔08.May 2014

Plans to transform Birmingham’s children’s social services were “bonkers and not worth the paper they were printed on”, the man with the task of turning around the failing department has admitted.

Peter Hay, the city council’s Strategic Director of People, said he ditched several Improvement Plans when he took over from former children’s director Peter Duxbury last year because they were unworkable.

Mr Hay said what was needed was “a simple plan with simple sentences to regain the trust of staff”.

Speaking at a meeting of the children’s scrutiny committee, Mr Hay said there was little point in spending time putting together a workable improvement plan at the end of last year because there had been every chance that the Government would step in and take responsibility for running children’s social services away from the council.

Instead, Children’s Minister Edward Timpson decided to appoint Lord Norman Warner as a Commissioner to oversee services for vulnerable children after deciding that council efforts to improve weren’t working quickly enough.

Lord Warner is leading a team of experts, including Isabelle Trowler, the Chief Social Worker, with a remit to develop a “single and coherent” improvement plan and strengthen senior management in the department.

Birmingham children’s social services have been designated as failing by the Department for Education for 12 years, and under special measures for five years. The latest inspection by Ofsted will be released at the end of this month, but is thought unlikely to conclude that sufficient improvement has been made.

Mr Hay told the committee: “There are significant challenges facing children’s care. The critical bit is how we work with Lord Warner to get improvement. We are a significantly challenged council that hasn’t improved and the Ofsted process won’t change that.”

Lord Warner’s appointment was confirmed following publication of a fast-track review of Birmingham children’s social services by Professor Julian Le Grand.

One of Le Grand’s key findings was the absence of any easily understood or workable process to turn around the failing department.

The Le Grand report found “fragile” improvement and decided there was a “considerable way” to go before any conclusion of sufficient and sustainable progress could be made.

The report was dismissive of a raft of improvement plans and management restructuring by the council: “Overall, the plans that we have seen are worthy in intent but seem either aspirational in tone and vague in specific content, or immensely detailed but lacking in strategic overview. None seem to lay out in readily accessible form the specific steps that are currently being taken or need to be taken to deliver the required service improvement.

“The panel concluded that this situation needs to be remedied as a matter of urgency. The consequence of Birmingham not having done so yet appears to be that, whilst there is evidence of steps being taken, these seem to be an eclectic series of measures that lack obvious coherence and clarity of purpose.”

The Le Grand report also questioned whether Mr Hay could do any better than his predecessors.

It said: “Given the history of changes in leadership in Birmingham, the panel is somewhat sceptical of the ability of any new Director of Children’s Services, whatever their merits, to overcome the historical legacy of such major problems on their own.

“It also has serious doubts about the longer-term fitness for purpose or sustainability of some of the new managerial arrangements that are currently being put in place.”

Lord Warner has four key priorities:

  • To undertake a proper analysis of hundreds of children believed to be at risk but who remain unknown to social services.
  • Devise a plan to strengthen senior management capacity at the council.
  • Satisfy the Minister by June that a single and coherent improvement plan is in place.
  • Develop a five-year budget for children’s social services in Birmingham.

He is also reporting to Education Secretary Michael Gove on the possibility that councils like Birmingham could move from running social care to commissioning services from other bodies.

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