Birmingham's much-criticised social services department has received its best rating from inspectors since being placed under special measures by the Government five years ago.

The Commission for Social Care and Inspection announced yesterday that the city council-run organisation was for the first time "serving some children well".

Capacity for further improvement was promising according to the CSCI, raising hopes it could win a onestar ranking from the Government by the end of the year. It is ungraded at the moment.

The CSCI report was welcomed by Coun Sue Anderson, cabinet member for social care and health, who said the findings would provide a huge boost in morale for the city's 8,000 social services employees.

"They have shown a determination second to none. This will be a tremendous fillip for them," she added.

Inspectors found examples of high quality work and pockets of excellence when they visited Birmingham in July. There were no incidents of serious concern, although the CSCI listed several areas where further improvement was required including better liaison between the social services and housing departments.

The findings represent a dramatic about-turn since 2000, when an inspection found serious weaknesses in social services for children and raised concerns about the safety of youngsters on the at-risk register.

Follow-up inspections in 2001 and 2003 uncovered little progress and judged that the council was still not serving children well and had uncertain prospects for improvement.

The latest CSCI report notes: "There had been a structured response to past inspections with evidence that the action plan for the 2004 inspection was being effectively managed. The inspection confirmed progress against all the recommendations.

"Managers and staff at all levels were confident that changes were taking place and there was a developing confidence about the sustainability of progress."

Phil Green, who led the CSCI inspection team, said: "We were all impressed by the amount of hard work being put in. But we have to say there is still a long journey to get services consistently right."

Coun Anderson (Lib Dem Sheldon) said: "We have moved up the ladder and for the first time ever Birmingham is serving some children well.

"Performance management is now embedded in the organisation. Everyone knows what they should be doing and knows that they will be checked upon.

All children on the at-risk register now have their own named social worker and twothirds of assessments of children thought to be at risk of harm are carried out within a seven-day target set by the Government.

The report praises the council's cross-party commitment to social services and improvement in managerial techniques. Better staff training and development was delivering significant results, the inspectors found.

The positive findings follow a decision by the council a year ago to increase social services spending by £45 million, equivalent to a 15 per cent rise in the budget.

Peter Hay, strategic director of social care and health, said: "Some of what we are doing is excellent, the best that the inspectors have seen anywhere in the country. If we can do that with some aspects of the service we can do it with all aspects.