Commissioners at the double
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.