Birmingham’s troubled child protection services escaped direct Government intervention because of sweeping changes at the top of the city council, it has been claimed.

The chairman of the authority’s education watchdog committee, Coun Anita Ward, said the department had “pulled a rabbit from a hat” through a change of senior personnel earlier this year.

Her admission came as councillors questioned Labour cabinet member for children’s services Coun Brigid Jones – appointed after May’s local elections – and children, young people and families strategic director, Peter Duxbury, whose arrival was announced in January.

The meeting came two weeks after Ofsted rated the children’s services department “inadequate” for the fourth successive year.

The council was placed under notice to improve after a string of children known to city social services died, including seven-year-old Khrya Ishaq, who was starved to death by her mother and stepfather.

Coun Ward (Lab, Hodge Hill) admitted: “We got away with it.

“We have a new director, a new cabinet member and a new political administration. This has allowed us to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

“We won’t be allowed to do that in 12 months time, so how do we plan to turn this around?”

Addressing the council’s education and vulnerable children scrutiny committee, Coun Ward said the previous director of children’s services, Eleanor Brazil, was a two-year interim appointment and asked: “Did we get value for money for the taxpayer?”

Tory children’s services spokesman Coun James Bird (Sutton New Hall) said the department had taken a backward step in several respects since a 2011 inspection. Moves to cut the use of expensive agency staff had faltered, he said, while there had been a step back in the co-operation of partner agencies such as the police and NHS.

He said: “It’s a pretty damning report again. Quite disappointing. Even when reporting progress the language is pretty weak.”

The committee was told that of 613 social workers, 75 were agency staff and 19 of those were team managers.

Coun Jones said staff had met with Department for Education officials this week to go over the council’s improvement plan.

She said: “We have agreed the actions going forward. The view was taken to consolidate a number of improvement plans into one document.”

And attempting to justify a lack of progress in some areas, Coun Jones said Ofsted had “raised the bar” in the last year.

Mr Duxbury said Ofsted had reviewed 175 cases, showing a greater detail of scrutiny than in previous years.

He said the inspectors had recognised significant progress in recent months but he needed to increase the pace of that progress.

“There was a degree of satisfaction with the progress, we know where we are and know what we have to do,” he said.

He said partnership working was improving, as was the consistency of reporting and he was working with agencies to link payments to quality of work.

Mr Duxbury also defended his front line staff.

“They are as good as front line staff anywhere in the country,” he said. “But we need to offer them the management support to have the confidence to do their work.”

But the meeting heard a key setback had seen the newly-established Schools Forum, representing head teachers, withdraw £3 million of funding towards Integrated Family Support Teams, the social work groups set up to work with struggling families and head off the need for the intervention of child protection services.