Children’s services in Birmingham are inadequate and continue to fail the city’s most vulnerable children, Ofsted has concluded.
In a bruising inspection report, the inspectorate found “widespread and serious failures that leave children and young people at risk of harm”.
Inspectors found that more than 400 children in need cases that had been referred more than two months earlier had not been robustly risk assessed and the children not seen.
“Some of these cases, sampled by inspectors, identified children who were at risk of harm, and who had not received an appropriate response or intervention to ensure their safety,” said Ofsted in its report.
Inspectors also found that between October 2013 and January 2014 a “significant” number of children in need cases were closed without being risk assessed due to a lack of social workers.
“The local authority has provided an assurance that these cases will be reviewed,” Ofsted noted.
Other failings included poor governance in Birmingham Safeguarding Children Board, a “widespread lack of understanding about thresholds”, inconsistent management and a “lack of ambition” within the adoption service.
Social worker child protection reports were found to lack chronologies, sufficient analysis and often did not pay enough attention to children’s views.
Ofsted also heaped criticism on the council for its poor planning for care leavers and the growing attainment gap between looked-after children and other children.
The independent reviewing officers were found to not be fulfilling their duty to improve the quality of practice and the council was found to be breaking statutory requirements by placing children with family, friends and other connected persons before doing assessments and checks are completed and before cases are approved by panel.
Ofsted did find some evidence that Birmingham’s latest attempt to fix its problems were making a difference with falling timescales for care proceedings, more children being adopted and social workers reporting higher morale and reduced caseloads.
But, it warned, “the magnitude of the problems that continue to face the local authority can only mean that progress is fragile and that children will continue to remain highly vulnerable until services can be consistently improved to an acceptable standard”.
“Long standing and historical corporate and political failures continue to impact upon the current political and professional leadership of children’s services in Birmingham,” it added.
Ofsted’s report recommends significant improvements in everything from governance and supervision to placement options for looked-after children. It also called for “urgent action” to ensure all unallocated cases are risk assessed.
Councillor Brigid Jones, cabinet member for children and family services at Birmingham, said Ofsted’s damning verdict was expected.
“We have been very open about the state of children’s services in Birmingham,” she said.
“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 (DfE); an approach set out by the DfE during this latest Ofsted inspection.
“Ofsted arrived on site prior to the publication of the Julian 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.”
Peter Hay, director of people at Birmingham City Council, added: “We have said all along that if there was a quick fix we would take it; there isn’t one but we do offer our relentless consistency of focus.
“Those closest to the issues are our staff and Ofsted records that we are starting to see increased confidence and morale in these staff, who have faced real uncertainty but are committed to change with us. Their growing confidence is a base for further and sustained improvement.”