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‘We can’t delude ourselves’ over failing children’s social services, Sir Albert Bore warns

‘We can’t delude ourselves’ over failing children’s social services, Sir Albert Bore warns

🕔19.Mar 2014

The leader of Birmingham Council has warned that he and his colleagues “must not delude ourselves” about the scale of the challenge they are facing to transform the city’s failing children’s social services.

Sir Albert Bore added that while limited progress had been made, much more needed to be done to improve the lives of young people at risk of violent and sexual abuse.

He said: “The political leadership must not delude itself about the scale of the task that lies ahead and focus on delivery. We have seen green shoots before, but the green shoots haven’t delivered sustainable improvement.”

He was speaking hours after Ofsted descended on the Council House for a crucial inspection.

Ofsted’s intervention again raises the possibility that Education Secretary Michael Gove may consider stripping the council of responsibility for children’s social services.

The local authority was given 24 hours’ notice of an ‘unannounced inspection’ of services for young people at risk and looked after children.

Ofsted postponed a planned inspection at the end of last year, acting on the advice of Children’s Minister Ed Timpson who set up his own inquiry into Birmingham children’s social services, which have been under Government improvement orders and special measures for more than four years.

Mr Timpson asked three experts led by Professor Julian Le Grand to investigate whether improvement plans to turn around services for vulnerable children were working. Prof Le Grand led a similar investigation in Doncaster, which concluded that responsibility for children’s social services should be passed from the local council to an independent trust – a recommendation accepted by Mr Gove.

It was assumed that Ofsted would delay an inspection until after the conclusion of Prof Le Grand’s inquiry. While a draft version of his findings is with Birmingham Strategic Director for People, Peter Hay, the Le Grand report is yet to be made public.

Sir Albert said he had seen a draft and had “managed to get some inaccuracies changed”. But there was nothing in the draft recommendations that he would be contesting.

He expects to be called in by Mr Gove to discuss the Le Grand report.

Sir Albert added that “the jury is out” on whether the council is making fast enough progress.

It seems unlikely that the latest Ofsted inspection will provide much in the way of better news for the council than a visit last year, which identified some improvement but concluded that standards still remained inadequate overall.

Since taking over, Mr Hay has candidly admitted that services for children at risk are still not good enough, although he is confident that performance can be improved if the council works more closely with the police, health professionals and schools to identify young people in danger at an earlier stage.

Mr Hay told the education scrutiny committee that integrated hubs across the city where professionals work together to help children at risk were producing results. “We are seeing a growing story about confidence and competence. We have clearly got a long way to go, but it’s a promising start,” he added.

It was important to “stay true to the course we have set and not panic”, he added.

Sir Albert played down Ofsted’s visit, stating that it was simply part of a national programme of inspections. But he accepted the inspectors would “find a few things wrong” and might “roll over a stone and find things we didn’t know about and are much more serious than we expected”.

He told the committee: “I can’t sit here and claim great progress in our children’s safeguarding services. Indeed, the whole basis of the Le Grand review was the prolonged history of this council’s failure to address the improvement in safeguarding children’s services.

“We know where the problems are and we are trying to address them in a structured way.”

Sir Albert described Ofsted’s visit as “a very intensive extended review” that would last for two and a half weeks.

Some city councilors fear that a constant feed of bad news about children’s services in Birmingham may force Mr Gove into action. Last year Ofsted’s chief inspector described Birmingham as one of the worst places in the developed world for children to grow up in. Since then the city has become embroiled in ‘Operation Trojan Horse’, an alleged plot by Muslim extremists to take over Birmingham schools.

Sir Albert remains confident that the council has done enough to convince Prof Le Grand that improvements are under way. But he is aware of a political agenda at play, with the possibility of a Conservative Education Secretary removing children’s social services from a Labour-run authority in the run-up to the May council elections. And not just any authority, but the largest council in the country. The reverberations would be felt not just in Birmingham but in the wider local government world.

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