Birmingham City Council could be stripped of its troubled children's services

Department of Education could take over the running if the department does not shown an improvement in their next Ofsted inspection

Children’s services at Birmingham City Council could be taken over by the Government by the end of the year, amid heightened pressure from inspectors.

Experts say the beleaguered department, which has been ranked “inadequate” by Ofsted for four successive years, is not being given a chance to improve. The watchdog will be returning to inspect it later this month and the department’s head is expecting the worst.

The department has continued to be pilloried, even after admitting it was failing and now trying to turn itself around. Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw singled it out again last month in a speech, saying that the city’s failure to protect vulnerable children was a “national disgrace”.

High-profile child deaths in recent years, such as those of Khyra Ishaq in 2008 and Keanu Williams in 2011, have added to pressure for urgent reform. 

However, Sue White, professor of social work at the University of Birmingham, told The Independent: “Birmingham City Council is in a dreadful state but the medicine is killing the patient. If Ofsted keeps running around saying it’s inadequate and then aren’t offering anything to help, that won’t solve the problem.”

She added: “Ofsted discourages honesty. The whole regime is wrong and it’s not just Birmingham that’s affected. There should be some remedial support. People can’t change services staring down the barrel of a gun.”

The department’s head also said the constant bad publicity and criticism from Ofsted is making it harder than ever to make the necessary improvements. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, its latest head of Children’s Services, Peter Hay, said his department was struggling to get “enough social workers to do great social work” with vacancy rates for qualified staff of more than a quarter.

In an illustration of the recruitment crisis, he said: “I’ve heard people thinking about jobs say that they’ve been told not to come to Birmingham because it’s a blot on their CV. That’s unacceptable.”

The Education Secretary Michael Gove indicated this week that he would be intervening more when departments were seen to be failing. In a speech on Tuesday, Mr Gove said that social services could now be dealt with in the same way as schools, with the opportunity to privatise those which are not working.

Doncaster was the first to test this model after Mr Gove said in July that its “legacy of failure” meant the council would lose control of children’s care. The running of its children’s services has been taken on by a private firm as a temporary measure.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: “We have warned Birmingham that unless Ofsted identify signs of improvement in their next inspection, we will take further action.”

A spokeswoman said: “Ofsted’s first priority is the protection and care of vulnerable children and young people and ensuring our inspection helps deliver this. Our Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has publicly recognised that children’s social care professionals work under intense pressure and that our inspections present a very real challenge to local authorities.”

Birmingham City Council is responsible for more children than any other single council in Britain. Some experts in social work believe this sheer size is part of its record of failure. In the last seven years it has had 23 serious case reviews and several high profile child deaths.

The constant criticism has taken its toll on staff, with 431 children’s services staff signed off as long-term sick last year.

A serious case review last month into the death of two-year-old Keanu Williams found significant missed opportunities to save the toddler, who was beaten to death by his mother, Rebecca Shuttleworth, in 2011. The boy was found with 37 injuries, including a fractured skull and torn abdomen. Ms Shuttleworth, who is now serving a life sentence for his murder, said she was “surprised” that social services had not taken her son away. The council had received several tip-offs from those worried about his safety.

His case came just three years after the death in 2008 of 7-year-old Khyra Ishaq, who died after months of abuse at the hands of her mother and her mother’s ex-partner. A High Court Judge ruled in 2010 that she “might still be alive” if she had not been failed by social services and in January this year her siblings launched a legal claim against the council for failing to protect them and her.

A city’s fatal failings: Seven years, 23 serious case reviews

Birmingham City Council is responsible for more children than any other council in Britain. Some social work experts believe its sheer size is part of its record of failure. In seven years it has had 23 serious case reviews and several high-profile child deaths.

The constant criticism has taken its toll on staff, with 431 children’s services staff signed off as long-term sick last year. A serious case review last month into the death of two-year-old Keanu Williams found significant missed opportunities to save the toddler, who was beaten to death by his mother, Rebecca Shuttleworth, in 2011.

The boy had 37 injuries, including a fractured skull and torn abdomen. Ms Shuttleworth, who is now serving a life sentence, was “surprised” that social services had not taken her son away. The council had received several tip-offs.

His case came just three years after the death in 2008 of seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq, who died after abuse at the hands of her mother and her mother’s ex-partner. A High Court judge ruled in 2010 that she “might still be alive” had she not been failed by social services.

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