DfE intervenes in council after finding lack of improvement to children’s services

Sir Alan Wood appointed commissioner for Solihull's children's services in wake of criticisms from inspectors and in relation to Arthur Labinjo-Hughes case

Image of Sir Alan Wood, chair of the children's social care What Works Centre
Sir Alan Wood

Story updated 8 November 2022

The Department for Education (DfE) has intervened in a council after a review found it had failed to improve its children’s services enough in the wake of criticisms from inspectors and in relation to the Arthur Labinjo-Hughes case.

It has appointed Sir Alan Wood as commissioner for Solihull council with a remit to both support its improvement and report to the DfE by January 2023 on its capacity to improve.

The DfE issued Solihull with a non-statutory improvement notice in February 2022 after a joint targeted area inspection (JTAI) found a “significant number” of children were left in situations of “unassessed and unknown risk” because of assessment delays at the front door.

This had been ordered by government following court case into the killing of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes in December 2021, at which the six-year-old’s father, Thomas Hughes, was convicted of his manslaughter, and his stepmother Emma Tustin, his murder.

Inspectors found the issues faced by the authority were the result, in part, of there being insufficient social workers, including because of the negative impact on recruitment of the publicity surrounding Arthur’s case.

Arthur Labinjo-Hughes case

Four months later, in its review of Arthur’s case, the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel found that “systemically flawed” joint working had undermined Solihull agencies’ ability to uncover the abuse he faced in the months leading up to his death.

The DfE improvement notice had urged Solihull to improve against the weaknesses identified by the JTAI, supported by adviser Gladys Rhodes White. The DfE provided the authority with £532,000 in January 2022 to boost social work capacity and £642,000 this financial year to address improvement priorities.

However, a review by the department last month found that the authority had not made sufficient progress, triggering Wood’s appointment as commissioner. On 3 November, the DfE issued a statutory direction, which said its review had found:

  • serious practice concerns with evidence of unknown and unassessed risk leaving some children at risk of harm;
  • no clear plan to reduce unallocated cases, which peaked at over 400 cases in August 2022, with DfE funding provided to address this having limited impact;
  • a fragile workforce and insufficient social workers to deal with need;
  • unreliable recording systems and poor oversight of risk;
  • capacity concerns across the service and within the local safeguarding children’s partnership’s business unit;
  • actions still to be addressed, embedded and sustained from the JTAI;
  • Rhodes White struggling to get engagement from the authority.

Need to resolve problem of unallocated cases

The direction also sets out Wood’s remit, which makes clear that Solihull at risk of having its services removed. The commissioner is expected to instruct Solihull to secure immediate improvements, ensure it resolves its issue with unallocated cases, improve senior management and social work capacity and capability and recording systems.

He is expected to report to the DfE by the end of January 2023.

In response to the decision, Solihull council leader Ian Courts said: “I understand the DfE’s reasons behind this decision and I can assure the secretary of state that everyone in Solihull will give the commissioner their full support.”

New director of children’s services

This month, Pete Campbell started as director of children’s services, following a 15-month spell as interim director by Tim Browne, whose substantive post is as assistant director for education at the authority.

Courts added: “We now have a new senior management team in children’s services, and I know they will welcome any extra support or advice to make the necessary transformation within the council and across our partner organisations.

“All those involved in safeguarding in the borough have accepted the national panel findings and are committed to improving the safeguarding of children, young people and families within Solihull.”

Wood, a former director of children’s services and president of the Association of Director of Children’s Services, is a longstanding DfE safeguarding and improvement adviser. He previously acted as commissioner in Doncaster (2013), Birmingham (2014) and Tower Hamlets (2015), and subsequently carried out a review for the department of local safeguarding children’s boards, which led to their replacement, in 2019, by local safeguarding partnerships led by local authorities, NHS leaders and police chiefs.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We have appointed Sir Alan Wood as commissioner in Solihull because of his significant and demonstrable experience bringing about improvements in children’s social care. He is expected to report on his findings by the end of January 2023.”

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