Politicians and officials at Birmingham City Council are struggling to contain their disappointment at a government report condemning child protection services as inadequate.
While publicly accepting the findings of the critical study by Ofsted, which questions social services’ ability to remove young people from the danger of physical and sexual abuse, the frustration at the Council House over what is felt to be an unhelpful and unfair rap over the knuckles is clear.
There are positive findings in Ofsted’s annual performance assessment of children’s services.
School standards are rising and work to combat bullying is described as good, as is the standard of care for fostered children and those in council homes.
Inspectors praised efforts to narrow the attainment gap at school between white and ethnic minority children, while drawing attention to a “dramatic rise” in the number of 16 to 18-year-olds in education, employment or training.
Services to promote the health of children in care were described as good.
But, inevitably, the Staying Safe category, where Birmingham was downgraded from good to inadequate, grabbed headlines.
Ofsted’s decision came as a disappointment to the council but perhaps not a surprise after a difficult year which culminated in education secretary Ed Balls ordering fresh reviews into whether social workers in Birmingham let down three children seriously hurt or killed.
Meanwhile, court proceedings are pending in the case of seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq from Handsworth who allegedly starved to death after being removed from school by her mother and kept at home. Perry Barr MP Khalid Mahmood wants an inquiry into why social workers failed to intervene.
The next few months are likely to bring more bad news and pile pressure on social services as the results of Mr Balls’ intervention becomes clear and the Khyra Ishaq court case unravels.
Les Lawrence, the cabinet member for children, young people and families, accepts as far as the fate of children at risk is concerned the council will always be on a hiding to nothing. However many times it gets it right – and mostly it does – there is always the danger of a bad mistake allowing a child at risk to slip through the safety net.
Ofsted wants councils to reduce the number of children in care and subject to protection plans through social workers intervening earlier with families when signs of stress and possible violence first appear – something Birmingham is doing and has been praised for.
But Coun Lawrence knows he will be first in the firing line if a child is not taken into care and is badly abused.
He added: “We are moving from high intervention to reactive work and earlier intervention with some success. But these are very hard decisions to make, very difficult to call.”
Tony Howell, strategic director for children, young people and families, believes bad publicity from the report will make it more difficult to recruit social workers. The council already has a 16 per cent vacancy rate, forcing it to fill gaps with expensive agency staff.
He and council leader Mike Whitby want Birmingham to lead a national debate on the profession, concentrating on “what the nation really expects social workers to achieve”.
The plea is against a background which suggests caring services in Britain’s largest cities are approaching breaking point.
Social workers in Birmingham are being asked by police to investigate 800 suspected cases of abuse each month.
There are 1,100 children on the protection register, indicating they may be at risk, and 2,142 in care.
While the council employs 500 social workers, only those with three years’ experience are permitted to work on the most difficult cases of suspected physical or sexual abuse. The workload makes it all but impossible to meet government targets for completion of case reviews.
As Amy Weir, director of specialist children’s services, put it recently: “There are very evil people in our midst whose actions against young people are deplorable. Unfortunately, it is unlikely we will ever prevent all of that.
“What we endeavour to do, wherever possible, is to protect children and act on the information we have.”