“Long ago life was clean.”
It’s been a particularly tough couple of weeks for Birmingham’s children’s services.
Getting out of special measures was never going to be easy and there are no delusions here about the scale of the challenge and the time it will take to improve. These points are crucially important because they are the reason why a three year improvement plan was signed off by our first commissioner Lord Norman Warner, the Department for Education’s Ministers and the City Council’s Cabinet in June 2014.
We have been working ever since to that agreement with three broad phases clearly understood and, crucially, being delivered: year one – stabilise the service; year two – focus relentlessly on practice improvement; year three – build on the improving practice and plan for sustainability. With Ofsted rightly positioned as the ultimate arbiter of our performance, the plan, if executed without interruption and with full diligence, was seen as having the potential to deliver a “requires improvement” outcome no later than this time next year. And we have been making progress broadly in line with the expectations set out two years ago.
With all that’s been going on around us recently it is incumbent on those with a stake in this work not to allow it to be knocked off course. And clichéd as it may seem to state it, but we owe it to the children, young people and families of the city to succeed. Not least, because part of our new narrative as a reforming and progressive city council is to be a starter-finisher organisation; one that sees the job through and gains the confidence of all those who use our services, and the staff that provide them, by actually doing what we say we’re going to do. It is this that underpins the “Warner Plan”. And another peer, this time Lord Kerslake, was clear that one of the critical signs of a successful city council would be that its elected members and senior officers actually stick to their guns and see the really difficult things through.
But 2016 is proving a troubling and troublesome year: the trial and conviction of the murderer of Shi-Anne Downer last month; the publication of the serious case review later this year; and, of course, the screening of the Dispatches programme last week have increased the scrutiny of the city council. These events remind us that child protection is amongst the most difficult of areas within which to work and to be consistently successful. And it is nigh on impossible to say in the full glare of critical publicity that there is an underlying journey of progress. We understand and accept that it’s hard to explain convincingly the co-existence of both positive and negative reports. But that is how it is. We are making progress, but far from everything is resolved and issues, including very serious issues, still arise.
And, it is in this climate that the communication of the intention to work up voluntarily a model for a trust has been made. I think pretty much everyone realises that the timing and specific nature of the announcement were forced by circumstances. What is far less well understood is that the city council, encouraged by Norman Warner, had committed to thinking about alternative delivery vehicles (not just the trust model) as far back as 2014 when it seemed that some of its corporate services might need to be delivered differently if they couldn’t rapidly respond and ensure an effective contribution to the three year safeguarding improvement plan. As it happens, internal effectiveness was secured. But ADV thinking continues because, like most if not all children’s services authorities across England, Birmingham is quite properly looking to understand what platform(s) will provide the very best way to secure the long term continuous improvement and effectiveness of child protection. At the centre of any thinking, however, needs to be what’s best for children and young people and how to ensure a long term commitment to putting their interests first and meeting their needs. Altruism must rule over ideology.
No decisions have been made of course. In fact, we are simply at the stage of asking what the questions need to be that an ADV/trust might provide the answer to. We are, if nothing else, an organisation that has learnt the hard way the value of putting function before form. We are also more than prepared to do this thinking with the Department for Education and our new(ish) commissioner, Andrew Christie, as a sign of maturity and also because we want to help influence and shape a policy direction whilst it’s still in its infancy and, therefore, hopefully malleable.
And so to end, for now, on the two most important points of all.
Firstly, social work is a vocation. No place is this more the case than in Birmingham where brave, talented and passionate people come to work every day knowing that there are easier places to do this job. And social work should be celebrated and cherished because, when done well, it changes lives – which is what we all came into public service to do in the first place. In this city we also believe that the right way to get the best out of people in a difficult role is to provide them consistently with encouragement, support and challenge that is both professionally and personally respectful. In this way we drive up quality and dramatically increase the chances of vulnerable children, young people and their families thriving.
Secondly, when it gets tough you really know who your friends are. And we have been both humbled and energised by so many across the sector who understand that long term improvement isn’t simply to be judged by 60 minutes on a Thursday night at the end of the second year. So say hello to Tom, Jo, Dave, Jonathan, Joanna, Isabelle, Lyn, Moira, Tony and the many, many others who know the value of encouragement and community. And wave a polite but firm goodbye to all those who don’t.
Here’s to year three.