Until last week the troubles at Birmingham children’s social services were largely a local issue. While the city’s struggles were unarguably a concern, the implications of its difficulties largely stopped at its borders.
Last week that all changed when the government-ordered independent review into how to fix Birmingham made a recommendation that will have implications for children’s social services throughout England.
That recommendation – accepted immediately by children’s minister Edward Timpson – was to launch another review to devise a suite of options for improving children’s social work that the Department for Education could turn to when a council ends up on Ofsted’s inadequate list.
For Julian Le Grand, the London School of Economics professor who headed the independent review into Birmingham, the city council was proof that the current choice of interventions was not enough.
“We were struck by the fact that the options for trying to improve things at Birmingham are very limited,” he says.
“As the report says, we did consider the option of asking another local authority to take it over or working with a social enterprise or setting up an independent organisation as we did in Doncaster, but, frankly, it was not feasible.
Lack of options for intervention
“None of those options were available. The capacity really isn’t there in either local authorities or in social enterprises or independent trusts to take over something on the scale of Birmingham.
“That really did severely limit our options to what we could recommend so, in the end, we decided to supplement the management capacity of Birmingham, which we already had some confidence in, by appointing a commissioner with an expert panel.”
But the lack of options prompted the suggestion of a further review to arm the Department for Education with new ways to address the problem of failing children’s social services.
“We just think that in the longer term the secretary of state needs to have more options open to him or her when there’s a failing children’s service as to what can be done,” says Le Grand.
It did not take children’s minister Edward Timpson long to agree. On the day the Birmingham review was published, he accepted the recommendation and asked Le Grand to lead the work on the new improvement capacity review.
“It is vital that we are able to act swiftly,” Timpson wrote in the letter informing Le Grand that he had accepted the proposal.
It’s early days for the review. The terms of reference that will spell out its exact remit has yet to be drawn up. But two things are known.
The first is that the review is to be ready by the end of September. The second is that Le Grand will be working on it with the same key people who carried out the review of Birmingham’s situation: chief social worker for children Isabelle Trowler and Hackney’s director of children’s services Alan Wood, who has just become president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).
Review ‘not about outsourcing all children’s services’
Le Grand says the review is very much about how deal with the worst-performing services. “This isn’t some sort of massive revolution to outsource all children’s services,” he says. “It’s more to increase the options available to the secretary of state when they are confronted with failing local authorities.”
Some, however, worry about the context that gave rise to the review.
“We haven’t seen the terms of reference yet, but the review needs to guard against coming in as a reaction to a poor inspection,” says Stockport’s director of children’s services, Andrew Webb, who ended his stint as ADCS president this week.
“The government has engaged the wider sector in this, so we are going into it in the spirit of doing what we can to ensure that children’s services improve in those areas where they need to improve, but we do have some concerns that it is a reactive, not a preventative, approach that is being taken.”
Webb says the review needs to avoid ending up too focused on changing systems as the real answers may lie elsewhere.
“In some places it is quite clear that various parts of the much wider safeguarding system are not working together,” he says. “So, if you take the notion that safeguarding is everybody’s business, we need to look at that variable picture and say what kind of interventions do we need when the system has broken down and there isn’t good communication between the parties or a shared sense of responsibility.”
Shortage of experienced social workers
And one problem that no amount of shuffling of chairs can fix is the shortage of experienced social workers.
“One of the key components of a safeguarding system is the capacity of the social work system and one of the things that causes the most variability is the local ability to recruit and retain good quality social workers and have them targeted effectively,” adds Webb.
“So if you look at that, you might find there is a better way of doing it, but by the same token, there isn’t a glut of under-employed or unemployed social workers with a lot of experience who are able to move into areas that are struggling. A structural solution is not necessarily going to address that problem.”
The launch of the improvement review also comes just under a year after the government withdrew its support for the Children’s Improvement Board, an initiative that Webb says was making good progress towards helping stop councils from ending up in the kind of situation Birmingham is today.
“Early identification of authorities with problems was something that the Children’s Improvement Board was starting to develop,” says Webb. “Having the capacity to support an authority or system early, rather than let it collapse, as it were, has got to be in everybody’s interest.”
Whether the review will end up solely about emergency action for failing services remains to be seen, but Le Grand feels that it is vital for the government to have options at the ready should it end up facing another Birmingham or Doncaster.
“There are a number of local authorities in difficulty with their children’s services and in Birmingham itself the improvements are modest and very fragile,” he says. “So we wanted to make sure that if, and it is an if, there is additional capacity out there or capacity that could be generated that it is available before the next emergency.”