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Birmingham’s children’s services are inadequate, finds Ofsted

Local authority committed to improvement plan under Lord Warner’s supervision

Ofsted has published its inspection of Birmingham City Council's children services and review of the effectiveness of the local safeguarding children board. The overall judgement is inadequate. It finds that there are widespread and serious failures that leave children and young people at risk of harm.

The report follows the appointment of Lord Warner as a special commissioner working with the local authority to improve children's services, while reporting to the Department for Education. However, the inspection itself began before Lord Warner commenced his role.

The report says that the local authority has serious weaknesses and that 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.

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 underminded a range of initiatives to improve services.

Structures, systems and processes for supporting social workers are inadequate. The corporate parenting board is weak and, until very recently, there has been no corporate parenting strategy.

There is a widespread lack of understanding about thresholds in and between children's social care services and their partners. This, combined with a lack of confidence in decision making, undermines any attempt to improve the quality of services.

There is a lack of strategic planning and coordination for children and young people who go missing from education, home and care or who are at risk of sexual exploitation. A significant number of children (144) are currently missing from education and are believed by the local authority to have moved abroad. As a consequence, there can be no assurances about their safety and wellbeing.

Independent reviewing officers (IROs) and child protection chairs do not fulfil their statutory duties adequately in improving the quality of planning and practice.

Children are often placed with 'connected persons carers' before assessments and relevant checks are completed and before cases are presented for approval at panel. This means that statutory requirements are not met, risks are not fully assessed and this can lead to children experiencing unplanned placement moves.

Pathway planning for care leavers is poor: it does not start early enough and too many young people leave care without a plan in place.

However, some children and young people who receive help and support from the family support teams build effective relationships with workers and in many cases this is helping them to improve their lives.

The number of children who are adopted is increasing. The Birmingham Improvement Team is having a positive impact on improving practice. For example, the average timescale for court proceedings has reduced from 79 weeks to 41 weeks and, since October 2013, the average has been 21 weeks.

There is evidence that there has been considerable effort to respond to a ministerial letter which advised the local authority to stabilise the workforce and reduce caseloads. Some notable progress has been seen in the appointment of newly qualified social workers and experienced team managers.

Overall, inspectors found evidence that social workers are now committed to the children of Birmingham and they report that they enjoy working for the authority. Staff report increased morale, reduced caseloads and smaller teams.

Brigid Jones, the cabinet member for children and family services at Birmingham City Council, said:

"We have been very open about the state of children's services in Birmingham and this inadequate rating is what we expected.

"The report's details build on the issues we had recognised ourselves as inadequate practice and which we shared with Ofsted on their arrival. This is welcome but we will not let the focus on current performance distract us from the tailor-made approach to improvement put in place by the Department for Education; an approach set out by the DfE during this latest Ofsted inspection.

"Ofsted arrived on site prior to the publication of the Le Grand report which addressed how to improve this city's services to children. The council gave an all-party commitment to implement the findings of the Le Grand review and to fully support the improvement process set out by the DfE, overseen by Lord Norman Warner.

"In fact, Lord Warner's initial letter to the secretary of state says quite clearly that a good start has been made and that there is a workable approach to improvement, though it is at an early stage and therefore fragile. He is very clear that he wants the council to hold a consistent focus on improvement, sustained over a long period of time.

"He also says that 'inspection has an important part to play but its overuse can distract managers from implementing the robust change management programme'. I would echo this view. In fact, when we responded to Lord Warner's appointment in March I was absolutely clear that we must not be dragged back into short-term thinking as a knee-jerk response to a poor Ofsted report, and I stand by those comments. Such a response would destroy the hard work put in by so many to stabilise the service over the last few months, and set us back very significantly in getting our service to the standard our children deserve.

"I am pleased to see that Ofsted has acknowledged that social workers now have a higher morale and that they are committed to change. This is something I have seen in my many meetings with staff and I believe is a result of the greater certainty they have about the council's position. I sincerely hope this latest report will not affect that confidence and morale and that they stay with us on our improvement journey."