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‘We’ve still no idea about needs of all children at risk’ admits Birmingham social services chief

‘We’ve still no idea about needs of all children at risk’ admits Birmingham social services chief

🕔26.Jun 2014

Birmingham City Council still has “no idea” what the needs of all children at risk of abuse are even though social services has been operating under improvement plans for more than five years, a senior official has admitted.

Peter Hay, the director of children’s social care, said there had been “a lack of clarity” in the past alongside a corporate failure by the council to identify problems and put in place a workable rescue plan to turn around the department, which is classified as “inadequate” by Ofsted.

His comments to a scrutiny committee came as it emerged that delivery of the latest in a long line of recovery plans for children’s social services is being overseen by four of the city council’s most senior politicians and officers.

Council leader Sir Albert Bore, cabinet member Brigid Jones, chief executive Mark Rogers, and Mr Hay are meeting at least fortnightly to take decisions and monitor progress.

They are working closely with Lord Norman Warner, the Education Commissioner appointed by the Government to oversee the latest improvement plan.

The decision to deploy a ‘quartet’ of leaders reflects a new corporate approach to the social care issue, Mr Hay told the committee.

Critical Ofsted reports have warned of an absence of any workable city-wide strategy to put the troubled directorate back on track and have criticised the council’s senior management for failing to get to grips with the problem.

The latest Ofsted inspection, carried out in March and April this year, found that services in Birmingham for children in need of help and protection remained inadequate even though the council has been operating under Government special measures for more than five years.

Ofsted’s key findings were:

– The most vulnerable children in Birmingham continue to be failed by the local authority. There is an insufficient focus on children who need help and protection and who need to be cared for.
– Too many children are not seen quickly enough or properly assessed when first referred
– At the point of the inspection over 400 children in need cases, some of which were referred more than two months previously, had still not been robustly risk assessed or the children seen.
– Long standing and historical corporate and political failures continue to impact upon the current political and professional leadership of children’s services in Birmingham. In addition, inadequate strategic partnership arrangements have undermined a range of initiatives to improve services.
– The legacy of poor management and practice in Birmingham children’s services remain. These failures have become so entrenched that, despite recent efforts to improve management practice and outcomes, the progress being made to date is too slow and has had little or no impact.

Ofsted added that Birmingham had experienced “too many false dawns” that raised expectations but ultimately failed to deliver adequate care and protection for vulnerable children.

Mr Hay admitted: “We have no idea what the needs of the children are. We have not had the clarity about need. We have a lot of work to do.

He accepted the department “absolutely needs to improve competency” and said he wanted “good and strong” members of staff and social workers to “help those who need improvement”.

The council is engaged upon a “fundamental change programme”, according to the plan.

“It will take time to build a system that knows what good looks like and then delivers the quality of care that our children deserve. We ask for the resolve and support of all our partners and Department for Education to support us through this process.”

However, the document warns against expecting a quick fix.

The Children’s Social Care Improvement Plan 2014-2017 is about to be signed off by the Government. At its core is a pledge to “unashamedly focused on getting the basics right to ensure that the service is safer.

Mr Hay’s appearance before the scrutiny committee drew a frank admission that services for vulnerable children are still failing and are likely to be inadequate for some time. The first year of the latest improvement plan will be dedicated to tackling “critical issues” and establishing the foundations for improvement.

“We will focus on doing a few core things really well and apply relentless determination in completing each of these before we move onto the next task or priority.

“We are confident that delivery of this plan will give us the platform for sustainable improvement in outcomes for children and young people.

“We have started to tackle this on a very different level. There is a very significant shift in how the council is approaching all the issues. It is a coherent response.”

Making children’s social services fit for purpose was a key policy ambition for the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition that ran Birmingham city council from 2004 to 2012. But sweeping changes at management level and a focus on early intervention to identify children potentially at risk failed to deliver any discernible improvement.

The council has set out why it believes previous improvement plans have not worked:

– Fragile interagency and partnership arrangements together with poor partner relationships.
– A tactical focus that delivered superficial improvements rather than sustainable change.
– Failure of the wider council to respond to the crisis in children’s services leading the service into a spiral of further failure and isolation.
– An attempt to solve the crisis through repeated surface changes including structural and leadership changes, leading to further instability and a negative reputation of the service as an employer.
– Poor project and change management.
– Lack of mechanisms for sharing learning and good practice.
– Lack of good, basic management systems and skills, consistently applied across the service.

The latest document to promise improvement states: “Children are at the heart of our plan. Their voice must be, and will be, the driver for the cultural change that is needed to put them at the centre of everything we do and give them the protection and opportunities that they deserve.”

Cllr Anita Ward, chair of the vulnerable children scrutiny committee, told Mr Hay: “We are not improving in a number of areas. This is of grave concern to this committee. If we can’t get the basics right we have to be concerned.”

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