The Department for Education (DfE) has said it is looking “as a matter of urgency” into the appointment of the chair of the new children’s trust in Northamptonshire, after the county council raised serious concerns over his past record just weeks before the target date for launch.
Ian Curryer was appointed to chair the new trust by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, in February, with responsibility for overseeing the trust’s establishment, agreeing a contract with the council and appointing the chief executive, a process which is currently underway.
The trust and council – which was ordered by the government to surrender its children’s services to an independent organisation last May on the back of significant failings – are targeting a go-live day of 1 November, to allow the trust to bed in before the creation of two new unitary authorities to replace the county next April.
However, at a county council cabinet meeting this week, its lead member for highways, environment and place, Jason Smithers, raised serious concerns about Curryer’s suitability, leading council leader Matt Goldby to pledge to write to Andrew Christie, the commissioner appointed by Williamson to oversee children’s services in the county, to question the appointment.
‘Matter of urgency’
Now, the DfE has said it is aware a letter has been sent by county council chief executive, Theresa Grant, in relation to the trust, and it was looking into it “as a matter of urgency”.
Smithers’ concerns centred on Curryer’s track record at Nottingham City Council, where he was director of children’s services from 2008-2013 and chief executive from then until April 2020.
Smithers referenced the July 2019 report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse into children in the care of Nottinghamshire councils, including the city authority, which, though it focused on abuse carried out from the 1960s to the 1990s found the city had failed to learn lessons or evaluate past practice effectively.
He also cited a public interest report by auditors last month into the city council’s oversight of a wholly-owned energy company it established in 2015, Robin Hood Energy. This identified significant failings in risk management, in not paying due regard to advice from officers and in obtaining accurate and timely advice with which to make decisions on financial support for the company. Nottingham council accepted the findings in full.
‘Placed at risk’
Smithers said: “Northamptonshire County Council has turned itself around in the past two years and is recovering from the mistakes of the past and embedding lessons learned. However, we are now placed at risk through the appointment of a chair by the Department for Education for our most troubled service, who has a track record of failing to effectively manage in an arms-length company to the cost of over £30m to the taxpayers and failing to ensure his organisation learned lessons from historic child sexual exploitation cases…This is the same person who we are asking to chair an arms-length company managing services for the most vulnerable children in Northamptonshire. Our children deserve much better than this.”
He urged Goldby to ask the DfE to reconsider Curryer’s appointment, to which the leader replied: “I think it’s right that as a cabinet to offer some challenge around this situation…I will write to Andrew Christie, the children’s commissioner, to ask what he is doing about this situation. I have already had a conversation with him and councillor [Fiona Baker, the lead member for children’s services] has raised her concerns about this issue. I did explain to Andrew Christie that it’s right that this is challenged.”
In response, a DfE spokesperson said: “Our focus continues to be ensuring rapid improvement for the children and families of Northamptonshire by establishing a children’s trust to deliver improved services on behalf of the council. We are aware of the letter from the chief executive of Northamptonshire County Council regarding Northamptonshire Children’s Trust and are looking into this as a matter of urgency.”
The two unitaries will jointly own the trust, but the children’s services provider will be operationally independent. While 1 November is the target date for launch, this may be delayed until early next year.
Northamptonshire County Council has been approached for comment, both on its behalf and that of the trust.