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‘Vitriolic, hurtful to Birmingham, appalling’: Brigid Jones on Ofsted chief Wilshaw

‘Vitriolic, hurtful to Birmingham, appalling’: Brigid Jones on Ofsted chief Wilshaw

🕔21.Apr 2016

Brigid Jones, Birmingham cabinet member for children’s services, doesn’t mince her words when it comes to describing Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools Sir Michael Wilshaw.

He has, she suggests, an unhealthy obsession with the city and has behaved “appallingly” with unwarranted and “vitriolic” attacks on children’s social care that are unjustified and damaging to the reputation of Birmingham.

And that’s just for starters, as Jones moves up a gear or two and warms to her theme.

Sir Michael’s behaviour during the Trojan Horse affair, the alleged takeover of some Birmingham schools by hardline Islamists, was not what might be expected from a senior national education official, she claims.

He would turn up and gatecrash meetings and interrogate our officers. Just walk in without asking anyone. It was extraordinary behaviour. And he would do it quite regularly.

Cllr Jones is referring to Sir Michael’s infamous intervention in October 2013 when he used his annual report to condemn Birmingham, describing it as one of the worst places in the developed world for children to live.

His language stunned the city council, with Sir Michael branding Birmingham a “national disgrace”. He declared that social problems here were so bad that it compared unfavourably with communist Cuba, and parts of Eastern Europe.

He stated that Birmingham had declined dramatically from being the “powerhouse of the nation” to the “fourth division” in the wake of a string of child scandals and he suggested that the city council might have to be broken up to tackle the effects of a “failure of corporate governance on a grand scale” dating back decades.

The timing of Sir Michael’s attack, with the Trojan Horse affair raging in the background, appeared to many to be an ill-disguised invitation to the Government to intervene directly in the running of Birmingham city council.

Within a fairly short space of time the Le Grand review into Birmingham children’s social services had taken place, an education commissioner was imposed, the highly critical Kerslake Review was published, and an improvement panel appointed which has still not been disbanded.

Cllr Jones said:

Wilshaw’s comments were appalling. Birmingham is not a national disgrace. Yes, safeguarding was failing for various reasons but does that mean we were one of the worst places in the world to grow up? Of course not.

We have a higher number of deprived kids than anywhere else but if you look at the exam results these kids are doing far better than any other authorities.

The impact of Wilshaw’s comments on staff morale should not be under-estimated, according to Jones.

One social worker rang me and said I don’t see why I should bother to come into work tomorrow. The teachers were reeling from it. It was an incredibly insensitive and unfair attack.

Choosing her words carefully, Jones says she “doesn’t know his politics”, but insists she cannot think why Wilshaw “wanted to make an example of us”. She adds:

I think Wilshaw has an obsession with Birmingham. If you look at the number of times he mentions us and the vitriol he uses in his speeches compared to any other places it is completely out of kilter to what we are achieving.

She recalls:

I met him two years after he made his comments. I introduced myself and he said ‘I know who you are’ and walked away. He cut me off and turned away.

Cllr Jones clearly wants to prove Sir Michael wrong before he retires from Ofsted at the end of the year, and she believes the perfect opportunity to do so is around the corner. After countless Government improvement boards and programmes, Birmingham children’s social services is, she thinks, on the brink of escaping from special measures where it has been for eight years.

An Ofsted inspection team is due before September and if the council hasn’t done quite enough to secure a vote of confidence, then next year is a definite odds-on bet to lose the shackles of special measures. Cllr Jones said:

When I came in as cabinet member morale was at rock bottom. We couldn’t get any social workers. They were out of the door every five minutes. Partners didn’t trust us.

Now we have got stable senior management and people want to work here. We put in £30 million of investment to pay social workers properly and social work caseloads are lower than they have ever been, down to 16 on average.

I’m not saying we will get out of special measures this time but I know we are very close. We always said it would take three years to get out of special measures and we are coming into the third year now so it’s touch and go as to when we are going to do it.

You have to remember the bar for Birmingham is higher than other cities because we have been in special measures for so long. Ofsted will want to be absolutely certain.

Cllr Jones says she found Sir Michael Wilshaw’s explosive remarks all the more surprising because a year before he made them the then improvement board told the council it was doing exactly the right things to move out of special measures.

When I arrived we had an old style improvement board consisting of all the great and good and they all sat around the table once a month and looked at all the statistics. The last time the board met I said to the chair from everything you are telling me it sounds like we are doing the right thing and she said yes you are doing everything you need to make decent progress.

Then Ofsted turned up in September 2012 and said the complete opposite.

She insists the turn-around in Birmingham social services fortunes is remarkable:

I came in in 2012 and we had been inadequate for four or five years. So I had this inadequate children’s services department and the Government breathing down our neck, rightly so.

It was mainly firefighting for the first two years. There was barely anyone in senior management and we had staff queuing up to leave. The Government didn’t know what to do with us. We were just being prodded and pushed around by everyone. They were trying to work out what to do with Birmingham.

She thinks the sheer size of Birmingham saved the city from more direct Government intervention.

No company wanted to take us on. Why would they? It’s a huge reputational risk. No charity would have been prepared to take us on. No other local authority would have been in a position to take us on.

Other social services authorities are beginning to sit up and take notice of what is happening in Birmingham, in particular the success of joint-working partnership between social workers, schools, police and GPs to spot families at risk and intervene at an early stage.

There have of course been many false dawns in the Birmingham social care saga, but Cllr Jones is the first cabinet member to state confidently that the city will very soon escape from Government supervision. And if that happy day coincides with the retirement of Sir Michael Wilshaw from Ofsted, then you suspect Cllr Jones may have a double reason to celebrate.

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