The chances of Birmingham’s much-criticised children’s social services department moving out of Government special measures appear remote after Ofsted experts found “too much inconsistent practice” during a snap inspection of the troubled unit.
During a visit last week, inspectors from the watchdog body highlighted several areas of under-performance, including poor quality assessments of vulnerable children and case files closed prematurely without proper analysis.
Council officials were still awaiting the full report but accepted from initial feedback that services for children at risk of serious abuse were certain to remain subject to a Whitehall improvement order that has already been in place for almost three years.
In a memo to staff, Transitional Strategic Director for Children, Young People and Families, Eleanor Brazil, said Ofsted found a number of “positive areas” including improved morale and good management. However, she admitted that the inspectors also found areas of concern.
Mrs Brazil, who was appointed a year ago to shake up the troubled department, listed the concerns: “Too much inconsistent practice, difficult electronic systems, too many repeat referrals, concern about the quality of some of the assessments they saw, not completed in a timely fashion and too adult focused in content.”
On the plus side, Ofsted acknowledged and supported the new management structure put into place by the council in an attempt to turn around social care.
Mrs Brazil said she was not surprised by the findings and pointed out that major changes, including a new structure with assistant directors and area managers, had only recently been put into place.
Integrated Family Support teams – where social workers, teachers, doctors and the police combine to intervene with children potentially at risk before they have to be taken into care – were formed last month and were expected to make a big difference, according to Mrs Brazil.
Ofsted first ordered the council to make “robust and sustained” improvement to children’s social care at the beginning of 2009.
The then Children’s Minister, Beverley Hughes, called for swift improvement “so that children receive the service they deserve”.
A year later, services for vulnerable children were declared inadequate, while the authority’s own scrutiny inquiry uncovered “systemic failure” in a department that was unfit to cope with the pressure of caring for thousands of at-risk young people.
The report was published shortly before a Serious Case Review into the death of Khyra Ishaq severely criticised social workers and education officials for failing to intervene, leaving the seven-year-old Handsworth girl to die of starvation at the hands of her mother and stepfather.
Council officers were expecting an Ofsted inspection this month or next, but were only informed of the visit shortly before the inspectors arrived. During their two days in Birmingham, the team looked at 105 cases of children at risk and talked to 67 members of staff.
Mrs Brazil added: “They acknowledged the difficulty and complexity of the improvement journey we were making and were of the view it was the right one.”
The preliminary findings were in line with a mock inspection by a consultant during the summer, organised by Mrs Brazil to test the department’s progress.
That experiment found several problems, including a high number of referrals of children suspected of being at risk closed without any assessment, as well as poor analysis of children with disabilities.
Matt Bennett, the council’s executive member for children’s social care, said he was not surprised by Ofsted’s latest findings but he feared the criticisms might damage staff morale.
Coun Bennett (Con, Stockland Green) added: “It is pretty much as we were expecting. We have always been open about the fact that, although there has been some improvement, we are not there yet.
“We have only just put the new structure in place and the full impact of the changes is yet to be felt.
“Certainly we would not expect the improvement notice to be lifted at this point.”