It is desperately important to get the Ofsted report into Birmingham City Council’s children’s services into some perspective.
While the inspectors’ conclusion that the local authority’s efforts to protect young people at risk of abuse are inadequate is a matter of the deepest concern, there is much else Ofsted have to say that is praiseworthy but will end up masked by the bad publicity that is bound to be generated by child protection issues.
But this was always likely to happen following the Government’s insistence that councils scrap social services units and have instead two separate departments – one dealing with children and schools and the other with adults and communities.
So Ofsted’s children’s services report actually deals with a vast range of issues covering every aspect of life for young people up to the age of 19. There are 260,000 such people in Birmingham and roughly half of one per cent are on the child protection register, which means they are being monitored by social workers for signs of possible abuse. A little over 2,000, about one per cent of the total, are in the care of the local authority, which is of course 2,000 too many but it is not dramatically out of line with similar large cities.
Nevertheless, as the council has frankly admitted, it is disappointing that children’s services have been marked down by Ofsted following the rapid improvement since 2004 when what was then Birmingham’s social services department teetered on the edge of being taken over by the Government so huge were its incompetencies.
The council’s leadership knows that efforts to get back on track must be re-doubled, particularly in the light of the forthcoming Khyra Ishaq court case and Government concerns about the performance of social workers in three separate incidents.
It is to the complex world of social work that the council has wisely turned its attentions. In demanding a national debate about what we expects from people charged with the most difficult of tasks the council has touched on a paradox at the heart of social policy; namely, that the Government wants councils to reduce the number of children on protection registers – except for when disaster strikes, a baby is killed in dreadful circumstances, and questions are immediately raised as to why social workers had not intervened earlier and placed the child on the at-risk register.
Nobody ever said that being a social worker was an easy career option. In Birmingham, the job is in danger of being overwhelmed by an avalanche of child abuse complaints currently running at 800 a month, all of which have to be investigated within deadlines set by the Government.
There are no excuses for failing to protect children in need, but there are reasons that help explain why social workers sometimes fall short of what is expected.