Birmingham determined to ‘break the cycle’ of failure following latest Ofsted report

Children’s services at one of the country’s biggest councils have been rated inadequate again, extending more than 10 years failure to protect the most vulnerable youngsters from serious risk of harm, a report said today.

Ofsted branded the Birmingham City Council-run department inadequate overall and revealed that as of April more than 400 children in need had still not had their case looked at by a social worker.

The local authority has been criticised, with several other child protection public bodies, over failures to safeguard children in several recent high-profile cases of child deaths in Birmingham, including those of two-year-old Keanu Williams in 2011 and seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq in 2008.

The inspection also revealed that between October 2013 and January 2014 the council chose “based on a lack of social worker capacity” to simply close the cases of 145 children in need files “without them having been risk assessed”.

The council’s bosses, whose children’s services department has been rated inadequate since 2008, also revealed it has no idea of its potential exposure to being sued as a result of consistently failing to carry out its legal duties to children and young people over at least the last five years.

Peter Hay, the director of children’s services brought in last year to help turn around the failing department, said it had not been flagged up before and “is not on the (council’s) formal risk assessment schedule” – adding he would now look at its inclusion.

Sir Albert Bore, council leader, said Birmingham accepted the report’s findings and knew in advance its outcome but said there would be no “knee-jerk” response, and instead was focusing on “breaking the cycle” of failure.

The council’s bosses have admitted it has struggled to retain and recruit social workers, with case work spiralling out of control, leading to falling standards – all added to by what the Ofsted report said was “generally poor” management oversight of case workers.

Mr Hay added despite hiring agency workers, 10% of social worker posts remained unfilled, and when the agency staff numbers were stripped out the proportion increased to 28%.

Birmingham’s record of failing its children stretches to 2002, when the Department of Health listed it among 12 councils nationally with a zero-star rating of the department.

The period covered by Ofsted’s inspection – between March and April this year – coincided with the Department for Education’s (DfE) decision to appoint the first ever children’s commissioner Lord Norman Warner to drive a three-year improvement of the council’s children’s services, with that work now continuing.

At the time of Lord Warner’s appointment, Prime Minister David Cameron warned those councils who failed to “sort out” safeguarding children faced the “ultimate sanction”.

Last year, Doncaster Council became the first local authority to be stripped of control of its children’s services.

Of its three-year improvement plan, which has been endorsed by Lord Warner, Sir Albert added: “We agree with the latest judgment from Ofsted.

But he said it gave “no context” to the improvement plan saying “we are determined not to be distracted from that process.”

He added: “Our job is to deliver on the improvement plan which will soon be with the DfE – in fact they already have a draft copy of it.”

Sir Albert said the city’s children “deserve to see the service improve”.

However, the report found that as recently as January, cases of children in need had been “cleansed” from the council’s case-load.

Mr Hay, explaining that decision, said: “I took a decision about children in need cases, not children at risk, in order to start managing the case load.

“They’re not pretty and (the report determined) not all are found to be sound.

“Somebody has to make a breakthrough – children are being harmed anyway.”

He added there were no guarantees a similar approach to cases would not be taken in future, albeit with competent assessments.

In a letter to the Education Secretary Michael Gove, in light of the Ofsted report, Lord Warner said Birmingham had a children’s service “that has been failing for a decade and has been made worse by a botched re-organisation last year that damaged social work”.

However, there was “a willingness of Birmingham senior management to identify and take responsibility for past failings”, and while it needed “a lot of help to turn things around” he said the local authority had made a good start to that work.

Lord Warner said the council had key issues to rectify including the failure to identify children at risk, and how its “front door” initial access to potential cases works.

He has also been examining Birmingham capacity to out-source some areas of children services provision and said the “sheer size and complexity” of the city “presents particular challenges in the way children’s services are organised”.

“I am convinced Birmingham will continue to have difficulties with its children’s services if they do not commit to a more robust system of devolved area,” he added.

The report highlighted the fact Birmingham has a higher number of children “living in poverty” than the national average, and consequently a greater number of children entitled to free school meals.

There are about 274,000 young people under 18 living in the city.