Birmingham’s proposed children’s trust should be fully independent of the council’s political leaders since they have proved “incapable” of delivering change, Ofsted’s chief inspector has said.
Sir Michael Wilshaw said Birmingham’s children’s services were continuing to fail despite years of Ofsted monitoring and commissioners overseeing improvement.
“I have previously remarked that this long and shocking track record of inadequate provision represents a failure of corporate governance on a grand scale. I regret to inform you that I have seen nothing in the intervening period to alter this view,” Wilshaw said in a letter to education secretary Nicky Morgan, published today.
Child protection services in Birmingham were at the centre of a controversial undercover documentary in May. Before the Channel 4 documentary was broadcast, the council announced that it would transfer children’s services to a voluntary trust.
Wilshaw urged Morgan to ensure the trust is independent and “not influenced by those in the local authority who have demonstrated such incompetence over many years”.
The troubled services have failed seven Ofsted inspections over the past decade, said Wilshaw, whose criticism follows a recent monitoring inspection by Ofsted which identified failings in services to protect children, unclear intervention thresholds and “inconsistent” social work practice.
“Despite the appointment of a succession of commissioners to the city, there has been little tangible improvement to the overall quality of child protection services,” Wilshaw said.
He added: “Birmingham’s political leaders, in my opinion, have consistently shown themselves to be incapable of delivering the urgent and sustained change required to improve the safety and well-being of the city’s vulnerable children.”
Brigid Jones, Birmingham’s cabinet member for children, families and schools, said the council is in the third year of its improvement journey, and Ofsted’s latest monitoring inspection “broadly reflects where we think we are, and where we expected to be at this stage”.
She added: “Given that no-one from the political leadership has been interviewed in an Ofsted inspection since 2014, and that it has changed quite significantly since then, we found the comments in Sir Michael’s letter to be a surprise. Our doors are always open should Ofsted wish to talk to us about their concerns directly.”
Wilshaw also called on the education secretary to agree to having an Ofsted inspector assigned “to any local authority where the government considers children are at a greater risk of radicalisation or their safety is being put in jeopardy by poor safeguarding practices”. Wilshaw said this would enable Ofsted to monitor a local authority’s effectiveness at safeguarding children of school age.
Safeguarding in schools, and protecting children missing from school, were also areas for concern identified in Wilshaw’s letter, but he said the “serious shortcomings” identified were not just relevant to Birmingham.
“I remain worried about the capacity of a number of councils to address the particular risks that pertain to their local populations and to ensure the safety of all children in their area,” Wilshaw said.
He mentioned Bradford and Luton as other councils not adequately carrying out their duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
Jones added that a report outlining the choices and ways forward for Birmingham is due later this month, where whether to place the services in a voluntary trust will be analysed.
Susan Hinchcliffe, leader of Bradford council, welcomed “external challenge” provided by Ofsted.
“Since the initial meeting with Sir Michael, we have already taken action across the areas identified to tighten our processes and have invited open scrutiny of our practice in this area,” Hinchcliffe said.
Luton council were “disappointed” by the comments, its chief executive Trevor Holden has said. Holden has since contacted Wilshaw to clarify his “inaccurate and ill advised” letter.
“His letter is in direct contradiction to a number of statements made by his inspectors in Ofsted’s most recent inspection of the council in March 2016, and seems to abrogate Ofsted’s own responsibilities as part of the safeguarding agenda,” Holden said.
He added: “During Sir Michael Wilshaw’s visit to Luton earlier this year we raised concerns with him over the poor regulatory provision and offered some simple steps which might help to raise our collective knowledge of both unregistered provisions, and children either not on a register or missing education.”