Nine Authorities Judged ‘Inadequate’ At Keeping Children Safe

Social workers in nine town halls were today judged to be incapable of safely looking after the children in their charge safe.

The devastating verdict by the children’s services watchdog OFSTED meant that the number of authorities marked down as inadequate has doubled in a year.

But the inspectors’ finding provoked a furious row as local politicians and social work chiefs accused the regulator of bending its rules because of the scandals over the killing of Baby P and the kidnap of Shannon Matthews.

One senior children’s services director said OFSTED’s handling of inspections amounted to ‘a breakdown of professional trust’ and ‘an insult to my council.’

The annual inspections of the performance of local authority children’s services departments said that four were inadequate overall – last year the same round of inspections said none were in the bottom level of failure.

Eight more, including three of the first group, were said to be inadequate at keeping children safe, the area that includes supervising children whose families are suspected of abusing them.

Last year only four were found to be failures over children’s safety.

OFSTED has been under fire for giving flattering grade three inspection ratings last year to both Haringey and Kirklees, the councils whose social workers failed to prevent the death of Baby P or to maintain a watch on Shannon Matthews and her family.

Since the conviction of three people last month for allowing the death of Baby P, Haringey official Sharon Shoesmith has been sacked for incompetence.

An inquiry is under way into whether Kirklees wrongly removed Shannon Matthews’ name from its child protection register.

The quality of its inspections has been questioned by MPs – particularly after its chief Christine Gilbert said last week that records of earlier reporting on Haringey have been shredded.

The report, drawn from annual performance assessments of 147 councils, reduced the number of councils said to be outstanding or good – the grade given to Haringey and Kirklees.

The top rankings went to 73 per cent of authorities, against 78 per cent last year.

It said there was ’cause for concern’ over those that were handed ‘inadequate’ ratings.

Miss Gilbert said: ‘I am concerned that some services provided for the most vulnerable children and young people remain inadequate.

‘We would expect those working in children’s services to address these issues as an urgent priority.’

Children’s Secretary Ed Balls said central government experts were being sent in to help the failing councils.

His junior minister Beverly Hughes said she was ‘disappointed’ with the results.

The four councils ranked as inadequate for all children’s services were Haringey – which was rapidly re-examined by OFSTED last month – Doncaster, Milton Keynes, and Surrey.

All except Milton Keynes were also named as failing to keep children safe. The other inadequate authorities in this category were Birmingham, Essex, Reading, West Sussex and Wokingham.

But OFSTED’s ratings and inspection methods brought angry accusations that the results were fixed to give a good impression of the watchdog rather than to reflect the performance of the councils.

Dr Paul Gray, children’s services director for Doncaster, said: ‘There were problems in Doncaster in the past. I was brought in to try to put them right. When we were inspected we said we were inadequate at safeguarding children – we put our hands up.

‘The response from OFSTED has shaken me and shaken my colleagues in the whole profession.’

Dr Gray added: ‘There is a sense not just from me but almost from everybody of a breakdown in professional trust.

‘I am not painting the lily, but we gave OFSTED a 28-page document with evidence of improvement, and that they have disregarded it is an insult to the council.

‘There is no doubt that Haringey provoked a change in the rules of engagement. All bets are off.

‘We have our highest ever level of attainment in schools and the lowest ever level of exclusions, yet we are deemed inadequate. Explain that away.’

Peter Martin, councillor in charge of schools and children in Surrey, said: ‘I am very very disappointed. I do not think this rating reflects the true picture.’

He said that despite past problems in safeguarding children the county was improving and had the best-performing schools in the country.

Mr Martin said the inadequate grading was ‘tough’ and added: ‘I wonder, if it were not for Baby P and Haringey, whether that would have been the case.’

OFSTED has been criticised since it took over inspections of social work operations in April last year for bringing in deep understanding of schools but little knowledge of social work.

Barry Sheerman, the Labour MP who is chairman of the Commons Children, Schools and Families Select Committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘I think very often they are taking the kind of inspection system that is probably all right, but not wonderful, for schools across to children’s services and it doesn’t work.’

Children’s services departments were created in a merger of the old education and social services organisations after 2003 in an attempt to prevent any repetition of the murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie in Haringey in 2000.