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Wilshaw bashes Birmingham to the bitter end…..but is anyone really listening?

Wilshaw bashes Birmingham to the bitter end…..but is anyone really listening?

🕔11.Jul 2016

Sir Michael Wilshaw is an angry man. That much is obvious from the Ofsted chief inspector’s regular and intemperate attacks on Birmingham children’s services.

Two years after Sir Michael stunned the fusty world of school inspectors by declaring Birmingham to be a national disgrace and one of the worst places in the world to bring up children, he’s at it again.

Three months before he is due to retire Sir Michael wrote to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan informing her that Birmingham still represents “a failure of corporate governance on a grand scale” and that the city’s political leaders (Labour) were “incapable of delivering the urgent and sustained change required to improve the safety and well-being of the city’s vulnerable children”.

I sometimes feel that Sir Michael has missed his true calling in life. He most assuredly is a frustrated journalist, and a Daily Star one at that.

How might a hard-hitting Wilshaw column read? Something like this:

Birmingham. What a dump. Ever been there? No neither have I. Tell a lie, I went there a few times to visit their awful schools.

Scandalous. Just the worst place to have children. You’d be better off having kids in Albania, trust me. The city is a laughing stock.

As for the council, just don’t get me started. What a shower of incompetents. Out of their depth and useless, completely useless. I’ve tried to help, but would they listen?

And so it would go on, levelling one incendiary and unproven, or unprovable, allegation and generalisation after another.

One of the odder things about Sir Michael is that his regular attacks on Birmingham are never really challenged nor even commented on by the Government, which is strange given the fact that Sir Michael is a senior civil servant and therefore is supposed to retain at least an air of neutrality, or certainly must balance his assertions with evidence.

Is it not also strange, to say the least, that Sir Michael has never met nor even sought a meeting with the leader of Birmingham city council, John Clancy, or the cabinet member for children’s services, Brigid Jones?

You’d have thought the cabinet member and the council leader would be the first port of call for Ofsted’s chief inspector, who has after all accused Cllr Clancy and his colleagues of being useless.

What none of us know is whether, when Education Secretary Nicky Morgan receives yet another blistering salvo about Birmingham children’s services, she thinks ‘gosh this is really serious, I’d better do something’, or does she simply hit the delete button and sigh ‘oh dear, Michael’s being Michael again but it doesn’t matter because he’s retiring in October’.

The question that Cllr Clancy will be demanding an answer to when he meets Ms Morgan and Communities Secretary Greg Clark this week must be whether they think Sir Michael is right or wrong in his assessment of Birmingham. Because if they believe Sir Michael has a point then the council has to rip up its existing children’s services improvement plan and start again. If they do not accept his assessment then Cllr Clancy can wave goodbye to Sir Michael and wish him a long and happy retirement, although he’d probably be well advised to avoid Birmingham for a few years.

Cllr Clancy’s Ministerial meetings were pre-arranged but could hardly be more appropriate given Sir Michael’s latest salvo last week, which turned out to be a reprise of his first attack in October 2013 in which he branded Birmingham a national disgrace and one of the worst places in the developed world in which to bring up children.

Sir Michael’s attack three years ago came out of the blue. The media gratefully snapped up his offerings and the derogatory comments about Birmingham made headlines in every national newspaper and were broadcast on numerous television and radio news programmes, as Sir Michael must have suspected would be the case.

Even now, two and a half years on, the savagery of Sir Michael’s remarks are remarkable. Can any other city in England have been written off in such a cavalier fashion by the head of Ofsted? Other places were criticised for failings, but Birmingham was singled out as a “national disgrace”.

It has often been said that Sir Michael ‘has a bit of a thing about Birmingham’, and it is true that he went out of his way in his 2013 annual report to tear in to the city council, while offering his view that the local authority was simply too large to function properly and might have to be broken up into smaller bodies – a suggestion that was firmly rejected by the Kerslake Review a year later.

Quite a lot has happened in Birmingham since 2013, not all of it bad by any means. The council is beginning the final year of a three-year children’s services improvement plan, a programme approved by the Education secretary and overseen by Birmingham education commissioner Sir Mike Tomlinson and children’s social care commissioner Andrew Christie.

Neither Sir Mike, a vastly experienced former head teacher, nor Mr Christie accept Sir Michael’s gloomy view of Birmingham’s progress. The commissioners have reported to Ms Morgan that the council is on track, even though progress has not yet been sufficient to remove children’s services from special measures.

The post-Kerslake Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel under the chairmanship of the excellent John Crabtree has decided that the council is heading in the right direction as far as improving children’s services is concerned, albeit not quickly enough. Indeed, the panel felt relaxed enough to take most of the summer off and will meet again in the autumn.

One thing is clear, progress against the three year plan has not been so poor as to convince the commissioners or the improvement panel to recommend that Ms Morgan and Mr Clark pull the plug immediately and take control of children’s social services away from the city council. The Department for Education is content to allow the final year of the improvement plan to pan out and to watch with interest the council’s proposal to place children’s services into the voluntary trust.

This must be the correct course of action. It would be odd indeed if, with the council having done everything asked of it by the commissioners and the Government, including investing an additional £30 million in improved management, were to have children’s services removed before the end of the three-year plan.

As for Sir Michael, he will cease to be Ofsted’s chief inspector in October. Plenty of time, then, for him to respond positively to a request to attend the Birmingham children’s services scrutiny committee where he could be questioned and invited to provide some evidence to back up his many assertions about the city’s failings.

The very least that he could do is to meet those he has castigated and tell them face to face why he thinks they are so useless. However, I, for one, will not be holding my breath.

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