17 Oct 2016

My response to OFSTED's report on childrens' services in Wirral

OFSTED recently published this highly critical report on children's services in Wirral. This is being debated at a special council meeting this afternoon.

Essentially the report catalogues huge cultural failings within the council. My response, which is copied below, addresses this along with my lack of confidence that the response to date will address those failings.

Alternatively you can watch my contribution to the debate (or at least until the Mayor cut me off!) courtesy of John Brace. I'm 13:10 minutes in.

Response to OFSTED report on children's services in Wirral

National reports on the issue of child protection provide some valuable context to assess this OFSTED report.

We know that referrals to children's social care are rising – up 15% over the past decade. This is hardly surprising given the increasing strain on low-income families.

We know all about the withdrawal of government support and the pressure on local authority finances.

And just last week, the National Audit Office told us that the quality of help for children in need provided by councils has been “unsatisfactory and inconsistent, suggesting systemic rather than local failure”.

In other words, government meddling has made matters worse for vulnerable children.

Ruth Allen, chief executive of the Association of Social Workers said: “More early intervention to robustly address concerns rather than waiting for Ofsted failure is a clear message. There is a pressing need for a strategy that enables improvement across all authorities.”

So government must take its share of the blame for failing to support local authorities.

But that does not change or excuse the fact that service provision in Wirral is inadequate.

This OFSTED report reveals a systemic top to bottom failure. There is inadequate case recording on the front line, a failure of middle management to oversee and implement best practice, a failure of senior management to deal with these systemic failures and a clear lack of oversight at the executive and political level.

In short there is a massive cultural failure in how this council operates in terms of one of its basic responsibilities.

And we know from recent history that those cultural failings extend beyond child protection.

Massive culture shift required

What we need is an open, transparent culture where its ok to say “we have a problem”

Its clear from this report that this is not something people within Wirral Council feel able to do. That, to me, represents a huge cultural failing.

And these failings start from the top. The political approach sets the tone for the whole council. That approach is to act generally like everything is fine or as OFSTED puts it there is “a culture of over optimism”.

I had a look back over the cabinet member reports from recent council meetings and what they had to say in respect of our service provision for vulnerable children. In March we were told about an awards ceremony for children in care. In July, there was a paragraph about a play to warn people about the dangers of Extremism. In the light of what we now know, these reports are a clear manifestation of “a culture of over optimism.”

I repeat, it must be ok for people working in this authority to say “we have a problem”.

We all know there are grave problems in our society. We know there are huge and growing demands on council services and less funds to deliver them. People will understand if the council reaches out. We all want to do our best for at risk children.

On page 6 of the report we are told that that there have been six serious incident notifications and two serious case reviews. Why have none of these cases, with appropriate confidentiality, not found their way into the public realm? Why does our first response to a crisis always seem to be reputation management? Surely one of the most important ways of informing the public that help is available is to highlight serious cases when they do occur and project positively how we are responding.

Response must address cultural failings

The response to this report must address the obvious and deep seated cultural failings within Wirral Council.

I wish I had confidence that they will but we have been here before and scathing public reports have changed very little it seems. I don't see any attempt in what has been proposed to seriously addresses our cultural failings.

A glaring example is the unwillingness to change scrutiny arrangements . Our scrutiny arrangements are feeble.

A confident, outward looking council embraces scrutiny. It ensures that opposition councillors chair committees and that every member has the space to properly question officers. It encourages councillors to challenge officers and not simply assume that they are doing a great job. . It should not be the position of any councillor to instinctively defend officers.

Furthermore, and in the light of the obvious failure of the last Improvement Board to address cultural issues, what guarantees can be offered that this new Improvement Board will do any better? Will it again just focus on processes and procedures.

And what measures are being put in place to guarantee that new external scrutiny arrangements will be truly independent? Some might want an uncritical friend as Chair of the local safeguarding board. But that is not what vulnerable children need. They need someone who will speak truth to power even if what they have to say is unpalatable.

Nobody want more reports like this one from OFSTED. But if we don't address our cultural failings we will simply rerun these issues further down the line.

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