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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Service was ‘walking towards car crash’

Council bosses kept the fact that Bradford Children’s Services was “walking towards a car crash” a secret, a Councillor has claimed.

And the head of Children’s Services has admitted that they were not surprised when the service was judged inadequate.

A highly critical Ofsted report released earlier this year found Bradford Council’s Children’s Services to be inadequate – and had actually declined since a similar judgement in 2018.

The judgement came just weeks before the service is taken on by an arm’s length Children’s Trust, which will be run independently from the Council.

The Ofsted report was discussed by the Council’s Children’s Services Scrutiny Committee at a meeting on Wednesday. Members claimed previous Children’s Services bosses were rarely open about the problems facing the service.

Mariam Haque, recently appointed head of Children’s Services, said although the Councill would no longer be in full control of Children’s Services after April 1 – when the Children’s Trust takes over, it would be responsible for implementing the improvement plan required by Ofsted.

Chair of the Committee Councillor Geoff Winnard (Cons, Bingley) asked her: “Did the findings of the Ofsted report come as a surprise?”

Ms Haque said the Council had done its own self evaluation of the service before the Ofsted inspection. She added: “This self evaluation was very accurate, very realistic about what the issues were. The Ofsted report reflects what we knew ourselves.”

Cllr Winnard replied: “This report is nothing this committee hasn’t heard before over the last two or three years. I struggle to understand how, baring in mind these are not new issues, we’ve ended up in this position after four years, with the same problems still here.”

Ms Haque said: “When Ofsted came in 2018 they found a service that had been in decline prior to 2018. When they leave, it doesn’t mean that decline stops.

“This decline carried on. What should have happened is the decline should have been arrested and improvement happened. Ofsted didn’t see that on the latest visit. We’ve started to move back to where we were in 2018.”

Cllr Winnard said: “The most striking thing in this report is where it says corporate leaders continue to lack understanding of the scale of the problem.”

Steve Walker, the commissioner who suggested the service be removed from Council control, said the issues had all stemmed from low funding in the past several years. Per capita funding for children in Bradford was much lower than in other authorities, and Mr Walker said: “That led to a decline. Addressing that decline takes time and investment.

“The problem Bradford had was the Council not understanding the level of investment needed to drive improvement.”

He referred to the eye watering overspends in Children’s Services budgets in recent years, saying: “This wasn’t an overspend – it was the amount needed for these services.

“Let’s not forget, the pandemic has also hampered the ability to drive improvement in the way we would have wanted.

“More could have been done by leadership to support the service to improve. There was very much a focus by senior leaders to scrutinise what Children’s Service leaders were doing. They were focused on the detail of what was going on rather than looking at the bigger picture.

“For example, there were clear problems in recruitment, but only in the last 12 months has the authority gone out to look at overseas recruitment and pulled the social work academy together.

“There was no wilful attempt to undermine Children’s Services, or a lack of commitment to improve services, but efforts to get it right haven’t worked.”

Councillor Jeanette Sunderland (Lib Dem, Idle and Thackley) called for more honesty from Council bosses in the future, claiming previous bosses had repeatedly glossed over the scale of the problem in the service.

She said: “We can’t keep letting children down in the District.

“All the revelations were made after the event. We were walking towards a car crash and senior management thought to keep that fact a secret.

“We have to stop that behaviour – it is not helpful.”

Members also raised concerns that Children’s Service staff had raised concerns of bullying in the department.

Niall Devlin, from Children’s Services, said: “We’re aware of some negative remarks from staff, and I’m sure that is a reality.

“We’ve always told staff that if there is bullying in the authority then we want to hear about it. If poor behaviour is happening anywhere we have to tackle it.”

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