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Birmingham children’s services boss Peter Duxbury quits hot seat after 15 months

🕔18.Jul 2013

Peter Duxbury, strategic director for children’s services at Birmingham City Council, has left his high-profile job after  just over 15 months in the hot seat.

The city council said Mr Duxbury’s departure as the official responsible for running schools and children’s social services was by mutual agreement and he will leave immediately.

A statement confirming the strategic director’s departure was finally issued after lengthy negotiations about the wording between lawyers for the council and Mr Duxbury, who has been off work on “urgent and unplanned leave” for three weeks.

The statement said: “Birmingham City Council has reached an agreement with Peter Duxbury, Strategic Director for Children, Young People and Families, that will see his immediate departure from the local authority “Peter Duxbury has left the employment of Birmingham City Council by mutual agreement the terms of which are confidential but are in line with those offered to other staff leaving the council.

“The council is continuing with the improvement strategy for its services for Children, Young People and Families and has asked Peter Hay CBE, Strategic Director for Adults and Communities, to take over responsibilities in the interim.”

The end of his short tenure raises an obvious question: is there anyone capable of turning around Birmingham’s failing children’s social services, even for £145,000 a year?

Or to put it another way, if there is someone out there with the required skills and stamina to do the job, would they be remotely interested in taking a position where survival rates are shockingly low.

The timing of Mr Duxbury’s departure could hardly be more significant, coming shortly after the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, announced that Doncaster Council is to be relieved of responsibility for running children’s services following a “legacy of failure”.

Doncaster children’s social services have been declared inadequate and under government special measures since 2009. Birmingham’s children’s social services have also been under special measures and an improvement board since 2009. A new trust will take control of Doncaster children’s services from the local council. Birmingham, it must be supposed, is now firmly in Mr Gove’s sights and may go the same way.

In a little under four years Birmingham City Council has got through four senior directors. All claimed to have the magic formula to free children’s social care from its inadequate and failing rating. None of them succeeded.

Tony Howell, Strategic Director of Children, Young People and Families, took early retirement in 2009, bruised and battered by fallout from the death by starvation of seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq and a subsequent inquiry which found that social workers could have saved her life but did not do so because they were unaware of the powers they possessed to intervene.

The council hired Colin Tucker from Sandwell Council and appointed him director of children’s social services, a new post with a hefty salary of about £120,000. Mr Tucker, a former social worker, enjoyed a high media profile but left the council after just 18 months. Council sources said at the time that Mr Tucker failed to deliver improvements quickly enough.

Shortly after Colin Tucker was appointed, the council hired a transitional strategic director for children, young people and families, Eleanor Brazil, a consultant reputed to be paid £1,000 a day. Her role was to act as Mr Tucker’s boss and oversee radical changes to children’s social services and steady the ship before a full time replacement could be found.

Ms Brazil left in April 2012, her work having been completed, and was replaced by Peter Duxbury who came from Lincolnshire County Council. The challenges involved in moving from a shire country to a culturally diverse city of a million people raised eyebrows at the time, but a councillor on the panel that appointed Mr Duxbury said afterwards that he was by far the most impressive candidate interviewed.

Ms Brazil’s parting shot, ominously, was to predict that it might take a decade to secure an excellence rating for Birmingham children’s services. Mr Tucker, Ms Brazil and Mr Duxbury shared a common agenda. Each promised more support for front line social workers, better co-operation between social services, health professionals and the police, and a commitment to early intervention by identifying and helping at-risk children and families at an early age.

The aim was to get in quickly to prevent children from ‘sliding down the slippery slope’ into delinquency and crime, thereby saving millions of pounds in the long-term by avoiding expensive court appearances and care proceedings.

The stark truth, as monthly progress reports show, is that co-operation between the public agencies is little better and there are particular concerns about the failure of police to attend case conferences. Crucially, social workers still cannot access IT systems of GPs, hospitals and the police, making it impossible for professionals to communicate in ‘real time’, which leads to delays in assessing child protection cases.

A government improvement notice was issued to Birmingham in 2009 and is still in place today, having been renewed along the way following further Ofsted inspections. Children’s social services remain inadequate and failing and there is little likelihood of special measure being lifted this side of 2015.

The period since Mr Howell’s departure has seen substantial shake up of managerial positions in social services, a non-stop merry-go-round of people in and out of the door with yet another turnover since Mr Duxbury arrived. Assistant directors and deputy directors have been hired and disappeared almost as quickly, but the department is still failing to meet many of the improvement targets laid down by ministers.

It should be noted, also, that the four years since the improvement notice was first issued have coincided with unparalleled cuts in council funding with more than £70 million disappearing from the children’s services budget. The challenge, therefore, is to oversee a change agenda and improve performance with far less money and fewer staff.

Underlying all of this has been the failure of politicians to get to grips with the shortcomings of children’s social services. Les Lawrence, Tory cabinet member for CYPF 2004-2012, was highly regarded as a schools expert, but often seemed at sea when it came to getting to grips with social workers and managers.

The final years of Birmingham council’s Tory-Lib Dem coalition were remarkable for the appointment of veteran Tory councillor Len Clark as executive member for children’s services. Clark had published a highly acclaimed scrutiny report lambasting the department for “years of under-performance and systemic failure”.

Clark lost his council seat in 2011 to be replaced as executive children’s services member by fellow Tory councillor Matt Bennett, who had little time to make an impact before losing his seat in 2012 in the Labour landslide that saw the end of the coalition. Bennett gave evidence at a recent scrutiny committee, laying into a department that appeared out of control and incapable of being reformed.

He said an attempt by himself and the then cabinet member Les Lawrence to have under-performing officers removed was simply ignored, while education officials pressed ahead with plans to have all special needs children educated in mainstream schools against the wishes of the ruling coalition.

Mr Bennett told the committee: “The children’s services department is a shambles and has always been a shambles. You can’t polish a turd.”

The latest cabinet member to hold the poisoned chalice is Brigid Jones, a young Selly Oak Labour councillor and physics graduate who was given the post in May 2012 after just a year on the council. Her appointment prompted general gasps of astonishment given such inexperience and there were many willing to bet that she wouldn’t keep the job for very long.

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