Last month, Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of OFSTED had this to say about Children’s Services in Birmingham:
“…These characteristics of failure have been encapsulated in one area in particular, England’s second city: Birmingham. What is shocking is that this is the city with responsibility for more children than any other…how has it come to this?”
He is, almost certainly, correct in his opinions. But what might the explanation for this be? Why is the Birmingham Authority apparently completely unable to get its act together regarding the safety and welfare of its young people; despite numerous interventions, visits, warnings and threats?
I have spent the past thirteen years working in Birmingham schools. For a large proportion of that time I have taught English in one of the city’s Pupil Referral Units. A number of the pupils I have worked with have been in local authority care, or ‘well-known to the authorities’ and many of those on a Child Protection order. I have, therefore, had occasion to witness first-hand how some of these systems work, in practice.
Birmingham is the largest authority in the country – in fact, it is the largest of its kind in the whole of Europe. Huge and unwieldy, its Social Services department often struggles to cope. Indeed, it has been found wanting on several particularly high profile occasions. It also had – and still has – a huge population of children in care. More often than not, these are a desperate, disparate, displaced population of sad and damaged children. For some, teachers and other education staff are the only constant figures in their lives
This situation is only exacerbated by the constantly shifting plates of the Social Services Department. Birmingham has had no less than four Directors of Children’s Services in just three years. It is not unusual for children to have a change of social worker every few weeks. They often have no relationship at all with this person who should be the kingpin, the unifier, the very glue of their broken lives. After all, there’s no point in getting close to a figure, who may move (or be moved on) at any time. Indeed, the children will often complain that they “hate Social Workers” who they often consider uniquely responsible for their terribly fractured family circumstances, especially if they’ve been removed from the family home.
Indeed, so bad has it become that the fear of change has overtaken the fear of the original fear itself. In an extraordinary blog , the disturbing dissonance that is the constant inconstancy of how social services operate – especially in child care management – is described:
‘Whoever said a change is as good as a holiday is a prat. Well maybe not a prat, but someone who lives a totally different life than me. Maybe if your life is steady, your routines are predictable, and the unexpected is completely unexpected, then change is good. But change is all too familiar to me. It’s the bully that lurks in the bushes and jumps me, any time, anywhere.
And so I constantly live in fear. In fear of a new foster carer, a new group home, a new school or being banged up. In fear of a change of circumstance or mood that ends in black eyes and broken hearts. In fear of a new power structure on the estate where I don’t know where I fit and getting it wrong could end up with me paying the ultimate price. If I have learned one thing it is this- change hurts. It unsettles me to my core and it can be dangerous.’
Even the current Director of Children’s Services in the city, Peter Hay, speaking just last month acknowledged the bald truth: “…we do not have enough great Social Workers doing enough great social work consistently..”
Memorable for me was a ‘Child Protection’ review meeting I sat in on, where the harried social worker didn’t even know the child’s name. The child hadn’t been attending school and knew I would have to report on this. She almost got me excluded from the meeting on the grounds of her ‘human rights’. An irate phone-call from my manager ensured my presence at the meeting. But I sensed that nobody really cared. I honestly felt I was the only one at that meeting who really knew that girl: a poor report on her educational progress really was the very least of her issues.
There are numerous situations, most far too sensitive to mention here, that I have been aware of in my time in this role. Situations where we have known that the children were in real danger, often at the hands of their own family, or sometimes at the hands of external ‘groups’ or individuals, who routinely target vulnerable youngsters. Often, the feeling has been, the Social Services department simply isn’t effectual enough in dealing with such matters.
When Michael Gove said the following in a speech he made in September, it was a relief to many that such poor practice may finally be dealt with appropriately:
“Those rescued from neglectful homes, and who have not found stable, loving families to care for them, should find security and support in children’s homes where they can enjoy a fresh start. But not all do. As we have been learning, through a series of horrific court cases, there are young people who were promised security in care who have been terribly exploited…
We shielded the children from the authorities who needed to be looking out for them. An ‘out of sight, out of mind’ culture developed…
When children are suffering, we need to act..there is a direct responsibility to protect vulnerable children…”
On Thursday night (14th November) Radio 4 broadcast its ‘The Report’ show the subject of which was Birmingham Children’s Services. I would strongly urge all readers to listen to that programme . It was both illuminating and distressing in equal measure, covering the dreadfully harrowing stories of the death of Keanu Williams – two years old and beaten to death by his own mother – and the starvation of Khyra Ishaq, among others. Both of these children were ‘known’ to the authorities; the families of these children were clearly under nowhere near enough scrutiny.
Also discussed: the authority’s complete inability to either recruit or retain the stellar, top-notch Social Workers it so desperately requires. This is something I have been consistently aware of throughout the time I have worked in Birmingham. It has been clear that newly qualified, inexperienced Social Workers are the ‘norm’, and there are also a lot of temporary agency staff in position. I had always assumed that this was simply because of the huge workload, stress and case-load issues associated with Birmingham. It would seem that there is another factor to be considered. As Professor Sue White, Professor of Social Work, University of Birmingham, so succinctly and emphatically explained on Radio 4’s Report:
“In my view (the OFSTED) process has made the patient sicker. The level of scrutiny and the blaming and shaming culture… associated with the inspection regime in England…has the capacity to make services perform less well. It is very distracting for managers and the categorisation ‘inadequate’ causes problems with recruitment and retention of staff. It makes senior managers very precarious and forces them to concentrate on performance criteria which are set centrally and aren’t necessarily sensitive to the real work.”
She went on to say: “…Birmingham will not get better by being shamed by OFSTED inspections.”
These claims are endorsed and echoed by Eleanor Brazil who is considered to have been the most effective of the four recent Directors, now in the same role in Doncaster:
“… OFSTED will say they’re not interested in the journey, but actually the journey of improvement is critically important. It takes time to turn services round. It’s devastating (for staff)…they’ve worked hard and think things are beginning to improve.”
It seems utterly extraordinary that the very people given responsibility for uncovering, exposing and improving the issues affecting the life-chances of children; the guards at the gate of all matters concerning the welfare and education of children – OFSTED- are being charged with creating more problems than they clear up. Could OFSTED actually be responsible for Birmingham’s complete inability to pick itself up off the floor and take steps to sort itself out?
There is an uncanny parallel with what so many teachers in schools up and down the country are saying: through their scrutinising, damning reports and bureaucratic measures, it seems that OFSTED are proving to be an unpleasant distraction, if not an unmitigated disaster. They are a preoccupation for both ground staff and managers, alike, and are indeed proving to be the very “medicine that is killing the patient”.
It is looking likely that the old dog that is Birmingham Children’s Services has been kicked just once too often: it simply can’t drag itself onto its feet any more. One possible solution may be to stop kicking it and consider alternative means of control, mediation and support. A sentiment that is echoed by many teachers and educationalists, up and down the country. So, OFSTED: stop looking at us, burdening us further and adding to the stress and pressure of our already complex and sensitive jobs.
Then come and look at the results.
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