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Summer Report: Mark Rogers

Summer Report: Mark Rogers

🕔20.Aug 2014

Our end of term report reaches the person charged with running the Council and turning politician’s words into actions. Some of his own words have drawn national attention just weeks into the top job, as our top blogger Paul Dale reflects. 

Mark Rogers is just over five months into his stint as Birmingham city council’s chief executive.

Part of his job description also involves overseeing regeneration as Director of Economy.

But by Mr Rogers’ own admission, he’s had precious little time for that so far.

Much of his attention since joining Birmingham from Solihull Council has been focused on fallout from the Trojan Horse affair (or matters of an “equine nature” as the crisis is sometimes euphuistically described internally)  – an attempt by some school governors to impose an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on children at non-faith city schools.

Media attention aimed relentlessly at Birmingham, coupled with a caustic Ofsted report that exposed a “culture of fear and intimidation” at several of the 21 Trojan Horse schools inspected, left Mr Rogers to face a problem that all of his predecessors were familiar with – how best to promote the positive side of Birmingham against a hostile media.

There have been signs of exasperation.

Mr Rogers, who has made a virtue of being Birmingham’s first social media-savvy chief executive, used Twitter to take a sideswipe at Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw. Rogers’ brief message said that “good manners and diplomacy” prevented him from expressing his true feelings about Sir Michael’s appearance before the Commons Education Committee.

Mr Rogers was no doubt annoyed at Sir Michael’s sweeping statements about Birmingham city council – too large, needs to be broken up – and his assertion that head teachers found the council “pretty useless” when complaining about militant governors attempting to take over schools.

Probably the chief executive has a point. Sir Michael famously described Birmingham last year as one of the worst places in the developed world to bring up children, based on the council’s permanently failing social services, and branded the council a national disgrace. It is debatable whether someone with such trenchant views ought to have been charged with leading an investigation into the Trojan Horse schools.

With the benefit of hindsight, Mr Rogers may feel he was unwise to speak so candidly about Trojan Horse in an interview with Chamberlain Files a month after taking up his new post.

His remarks about “new communities” in Birmingham simply looking for the same educational environment for their children that they would get in the country they came from, and that there were certain “customs and practices” these communities wanted to see that did not always fit in with the national curriculum that exists in Britain, and there were “legitimate questions” being asked about the type of schooling they wanted for their children and how that could fit in with the “liberal education system” we have in this country, made national news headlines.

A month after his Chamberlain Files interview, Mr Rogers met head teachers for a ‘private meeting’ where he expressed trenchant views about Trojan Horse, Michael Gove and Ofsted. As might have been anticipated by a more astute media operator, the meeting was secretly recorded by one attendee and leaked to newspapers and television.

Mr Rogers could be heard stating that he expected publication of Ofsted’s reports into the 21 schools to inflict massive damage on the council. There would be a “firestorm” and a “knockout blow”. He added that the possibility of Birmingham City Council losing direct control of schools should not be discounted, and there will be “significant structural” changes.

Perhaps unwisely, Mr Rogers made his remarks to Chamberlain Files and the head teachers before the Ofsted report on the 21 schools was published. The document made it clear that the issues Ofsted had uncovered were far more serious than the simple misunderstandings of new communities. Ofsted found that a “narrow faith-based ideology” by governors exerting inappropriate influence on policy lay at the heart of infiltration allegations.

It is clear to see how the sheer scale of Trojan Horse has dominated, and probably will continue to dominate for some time, Mr Rogers’ working day. Behind the scenes, though, he is demonstrating an open and inclusive approach to the chief executive job, not least through his regular blogs and willingness to engage via Twitter.

The blogs have included a reminder that not everything is bad in Birmingham, and that the city economy is undergoing something of a welcome revival, as well as a piece reflecting on a Government trend to impose Whitehall commissioners on Birmingham.

He’s also been leading a spirited fight back in association with Birmingham Chamber of Commerce in an attempt to play down Trojan Horse and promote the idea of a ‘Birmingham fightback’. The fightback, however, is based on Mr Rogers’ assertion that the city’s entire Muslim community has been labelled “terrorists in the making” through media coverage of Trojan Horse, and the Chamber’s claim that a generation of Muslim children has been “tarred with the brush of extremism”.

Meanwhile, if proof were needed that there is no such thing as an easy day for the chief executive of Birmingham city council, the local authority managed to miss 67 per cent of its key performance indicators.  Only 20 out of the 60 improvement targets are being met, according to the latest cabinet reports.

Mr Rogers’ response to this will have been familiar to all of his predecessors. The targets focus on the “most challenging areas” urgently needing improvement, so given the scale of the challenge it’s no great surprise we didn’t do better.

In the months ahead, Mr Rogers will be seeking to answer the great local government conundrum: how to do more with less. The council budget is expected to be cut by about £300 million over the next two years, while demand for social services from a rapidly ageing population shows no sign of slowing.

When he was appointed, Mr Rogers said one of his priorities would be to change the council culture away from silo-based departments and obsessive secrecy to a leaner, more open organisation where employees instinctively work together rather than against each other.

One small example from the Trojan Horse fallout shows the mountain Mr Rogers has to climb. The council’s information governance officer took it upon himself to write to schools with advice about dealing with Freedom of Information Act requests. The gist of the advice was a list of ways in which the schools could avoid answering difficult questions.

So much for openness.

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