Monthly Archives: April 2014
Soapbox article first published in the Municipal Journal (25 April 2014)
Government mandated commissioners, it seems, share at least one characteristic with London buses. Namely, they appear to come along in pairs.
Here in Birmingham, at the end of March, we recently welcomed the Labour Peer Lord Norman Warner and his advisory group as our post-Le Grand ‘challenge team’, mandated by DfE, and intended to add capacity, expertise and encouragement to our own efforts to turn around children’s safeguarding.
The city council is reassured that it now has the necessary mature agreement with Government about what we need to do and how we are to be supported in doing it. Of course, we still await the findings from a recent Ofsted inspection – but in the certain knowledge that we already have a course upon which to set sail and a noble compass that will keep us firmly pointing to true North.
We are sanguine about this required partnership, principally because we positively agree that the city’s children can only benefit from it. There are many committed and capable people in the council – elected members and officers – and we are pleased to be overlaying them with some of the best national brains in the business.
It may not be sector-led improvement as such, my default preference as you will know, but we are bringing together the best from central and local government to ensure that we have the greatest chance of succeeding for the children of the city. This must be right.
Now, you may not have expected me to write in this approbational tone, but I am positive because, given we were acutely aware that other potentially Draconian strategies were under consideration, the nature of the arrangement that ultimately prevailed – even with the underpinning direction associated with it – is benign and based on an adult-to-adult relationship.
In other words, we have the opportunity to be part of the solution – which is exactly how it should be.
More recently, we learnt that we are to have a second Commissioner, this time to investigate the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ controversy. This matter has been challenging for a number of our schools, the communities they serve and, of course, the city council itself.
The DfE has also been put centre-stage because a good proportion of the institutions under the spotlight are Academies.
Throughout, our concern has been to assemble, calmly and rationally, an evidence base that would allow an informed and persuasive understanding of what is actually happening (and not happening) in these schools to emerge.
Paramount has been to conduct these enquiries in a fashion that reduces anxiety, avoids pre-determination and reassures communities – especially faith communities – that robust common sense and fairness will prevail.
However, when it comes to tackling these education-related matters it has been much harder to work in the same strong and sensitively conducted partnership fashion that characterised our engagement with the Le Grand review and its outcomes.
We, of course, accept the decision to appoint Peter Clarke, a former Metropolitan Police Officer with a counter-terrorism background, to investigate on behalf of the Secretary of State. More than that, we are committed to bringing this second commissioner alongside our own established review arrangements to get added value from joint working.
But we also remain firmly of the belief that – to use the words that our communities always use with us – ‘doing with us’ is so much more effective than ‘doing to us’.
The imperative to act that arises from the speculation about “extremism” creeping into our schools should be no greater than that associated with restoring the child protection system to full functioning. So, in the future it is to be hoped that, if a commissioner is needed again – in Birmingham or anywhere else – that it is the Warner model of deployment that becomes the default.
An update on two of the big issues of the moment.
You will know that one of the outcomes of the review by Professor Julian Le Grand was the appointment of a Commissioner, Lord Norman Warner, who – in his own words – is to be “the facilitator of a Birmingham-led renaissance in children’s services”. Whilst Lord Warner clearly has a direct line of accountability to the Secretary of State, we are reassured that he is also committed to working hand-in-hand with us in Birmingham to make a difference.
Initial discussions have now taken place and in my discussion with Lord Warner he focused on how to make rapid progress in the four priority areas identified in Le Grand’s report.
The priorities are:
- To complete the formulation of an ambitious and credible single improvement plan that will guide all our efforts – not just for the next 12 months of Lord Warner’s Commissioner-ship, but for a three-year period. In this way, we will ensure that we are planning the short term in the context of a longer term strategy, thereby future-proofing our improvement and transformation journey.
- To review leadership capacity and capabilities and ensure that we have both leadership and managerial strength in sufficient depth to deliver our three year plan with confidence.
- To bottom out the important concern that we have unmet need and, therefore, unmet demand and ensure that our plan sets out clearly what actions will be needed to ensure that all children are properly identified, assessed and, as necessary, safeguarded.
- To underpin all the above with a medium term financial strategy that acts as a guarantor of future ability to deliver for children and young people.
To ensure that there is the necessary, long term commitment to improvement, a quartet consisting of the Leader of the Council, the Lead Member for Children and Family Services, the Director for People and the Chief Executive will own, oversee and drive this agenda. Together we will be the core group that is accountable – and hold others to account. This is a very powerful and important alliance and is a clear and unequivocal statement of commitment and intent from the very top of the City Council.
There will be further, regular updates about the delivery of our single plan. For now, be assured that we are resolved to make the distinctive difference that our children and young people deserve – and Lord Warner is likewise determined to make that happen in partnership with us.
I would be surprised if you were unaware that a number of schools in the City have been inspected by Ofsted in the last couple of weeks, and we are expecting that there may be further inspections after the Easter school break. The school improvement service and school and governor support have provided – and will continue to provide – practical support and advice to schools.
Over and above this, on Monday 14th April Cllr Sir Albert Bore, Mark Rogers, Cllr Brigid Jones, Cllr John Cotton and Sally Taylor held a media briefing at which they outlined the further steps that Birmingham City Council will take to understand the issues that are being brought to our attention.
There will be 5 strands to this work:
- The appointment of a Chief Advisor on Trojan Horse for a 6 month period. This role will be carried out by Ian Kershaw who is Chief Executive for Northern Education Associates. Ian has a long association with the West Midlands as the Headteacher of Sidney Stringer School in Coventry. Ian will work closely with the existing Operational Group whose role will continue to be the co-ordination and oversight of the process of investigation and intelligence sharing. He will also work alongside a new Review Group.
- A Review Group, with a broad membership across the education, police, politics and faith sectors, will be set up this month to oversee the work of the Chief Advisor, Ian Kershaw, and the Operational Group. The Review Group will be chaired by Home Office Director General (currently on secondment to the West Midlands and based at the City Council), Stephen Rimmer, and will include MPs; representatives from the national bodies for school governors and heads; and Cabinet Members Cllrs Brigid Jones and John Cotton and the Chairs of Hall Green and Hodge Hill Districts, Councillors Habib Rehman and Ansar Ali Khan.
- The Chief Advisor, Operational and Review Groups will report back to the City Council’s own jointly convened Social Cohesion and Education Scrutiny Committees in May.
- We have also been in discussion with the Young People’s Parliament and it is to be commissioned to carry out a piece of work during the summer term to address the following questions:
- What does a good, inclusive education in Birmingham look like?
- What does a safe and resilient citizen of the future look like?
By the middle of July the City Council will publish a report setting out its findings and publishing any recommendations that may need to be implemented locally and/or for action nationally by the DfE and others.
All Headteachers who have had OFSTED inspections in the last 2 weeks have been invited to meet with Sally Taylor and Mark Rogers on Wednesday May 7th at 5.00pm in the John Peek room at Birmingham Midland institute.
If you wish to raise anything in connection with Trojan Horse, please continue to contact me and I will forward to Ian Kershaw.
In addition to the above arrangements, the DfE has announced the appointment of Peter Clarke as Education Commissioner to look into “Trojan Horse” for the Secretary of State.
In response, the following statement was issued by Sir Albert Bore;
“I have announced a comprehensive package of measures to strengthen the continuing commitment of this council to get to the bottom of the Trojan Horse allegations. Since the letter first came to light we have been working closely with the Department for Education in order to understand what might be going on in Birmingham schools – including academies accountable to the DfE – and to reassure parents, staff and governors who are understandably anxious about the impact of the claims being made.
Therefore, at first sight, today’s announcement of an Independent Commissioner is a missed opportunity to strengthen our co-ordinated approach to addressing these very serious matters. Peter Clarke will need to give careful consideration to building a strong relationship with us and, given his recent counter-terrorism responsibilities in London, ensure that his investigation does not undermine the confidence of our communities.
However, in the interests of the children and young people of the city, I will ensure that Peter Clarke and his team have every opportunity to add value to the work of our Chief Advisor, Ian Kershaw and the Review Group chaired by Stephen Rimmer”.
It is something of an understatement to say that his is a challenging time for the whole school community, but what is happening provides us all with the opportunity to reflect on our values and practice, share what works really well in Birmingham, and improve those areas where there is need to so that all our children and young people will benefit and fulfil their potential.
I hope that you all have a good Easter break and I look forward to meeting many of you sooner rather than later.
With best wishes
Week five completed and, with much anticipation, I received my first official briefing on this great campaign. Great? Why? Because, at its heart “Standing Up For Birmingham” is about the people of the city being encouraged, aided and abetted to collaborate and come up with innovative new ways of working together to the advantage of their neighbourhoods. #SU4BRUM also recognises and celebrates the great work that communities have already done, using these successes to motivate more individuals and groups to come forward and make a distinctive difference by designing and implementing their own initiatives. In all this, the council is learning how best to perform an enabling role that helps to grow and value this active citizenship.
So, quite understandably, I want to lend my backing to this really important programme (about which you can find out more by visiting www.standingupforbirmingham.wordpress.com) because it will contribute significantly to shaping a future council that is fit-for-purpose. #SU4BRUM plays directly to the Leader’s localisation and devolution agenda that is driven by our Democracy priority. By empowering our citizens we continue on the critical path of supporting this council’s commitment to nurturing networks of people who can decide and do things for themselves, rather than relying on, and being subservient to, an outdated model of centralised wisdom, hierarchical authority and monopolistic delivery. #SU4BRUM is a practical application of the neighbourhoods level of the Leader’s model of “Triple Devolution” that Birmingham is pioneering (http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/lps – pages 6-7). We all need to get behind this, especially as it is all about “we” – i.e. what citizens and the council of the future can achieve by coming together in genuine, respectful and trusting partnership.
But, for me, the phrase “Standing Up For Birmingham” has wider resonance and importance beyond the parameters of the campaign itself. Ours is an organisation with a noble history, but there are aspects of past and present performance and reputation, focused primarily (albeit not exclusively) on children’s services, that need to improve dramatically in order for us to be able to stand up proud and shout from the rooftops about being great. Of course, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know – and I’m certainly not going to downplay the challenges which have grown up over a decade or more. But, whilst we undoubtedly have some very serious issues to tackle – which we must tackle with focus, determination and alacrity – I believe that to succeed we must also move forward with a positive mindset and be convinced of, and convincing about our own capabilities, willingness and readiness to recognise and deal with those things that have to be fixed sooner rather than later.
We have fully accepted that we can benefit from external help in addressing our shortcomings. Indeed, an openness to looking outwards is a sign of our growing maturity. But, whilst welcoming the potent, thoughtful and well-intentioned assistance that has flowed from JulianLe Grand’s report, we need to guard against becoming too psychologically dependent on it as, if we are to have control of our future, we also have to have a mindset that says “we can do this for ourselves – and we will”. I truly welcome and value the advice, guidance and challenge that Lord Warner and the other experts will bring; but to be an organisation in which improvement and effectiveness are truly sustainable we must have a confidence and capability in our own efforts. (And, by the way, that effort needs to be across the whole of the council.)
In the pursuit of self-sustaining excellence I will not be a soft taskmaster; but I do promise to be fair – and my starting point is to assume that we are all up for, and capable of rising to the occasion. There will be some out there who think we can’t do it; there will be others who might hope that we can’t. There will be those who think they are helping when they aren’t (no names, no pack drill); whist a number who should help us, can’t or won’t. All I ask is that you stand up for Birmingham City Council – and our city – and be counted. Do this and the Leader and I will reciprocate by doing everything we can to ensure that you can deliver on behalf of our communities and the most vulnerable within them – for making a positive difference to people’s lives is, of course, our shared purpose and ultimate ambition.
In addition to #SU4BRUM, the commitment above should also serve as a further declaration of standing up for Birmingham.