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Birmingham rejects 'untested' mutual children's trust model

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Birmingham City Council is set retain full ownership of the children’s trust it plans to establish this year in an attempt to reverse decade-long service failings.

The council had been considering the creation of an employee-owned mutual model for the trust, but a cabinet report published today highlighted a number of risks associated with the approach and recommends the establishment of a community interest company (CIC) wholly-owned by the local authority.

Risks identified in the report include concerns that a mutual trust could be “too independent”, making it difficult for the council to step in over poor performance, and the “time, cost and complexity” of implementation.

The report also highlights that the mutual trust model is untested as it would be the first of its kind in the country and could be subject to “open procurement” in the future if it fails market testing that the council is obliged to undertake at the end of the initial three-year contract.

The report recommends that cabinet press ahead instead with a trust that has the same structure as Achieving for Children - a CIC established in Kingston upon Thames RBC and Richmond upon Thames LBC.

The report says the CIC structure would “counter concerns around accountability, control and operational independence” by establishing “a clear intent” about the purpose of the trust and create a “lock” ensuring its assets can only be used to benefit the community.

The trust is set to begin operating in “shadow” form from April this year under chair Andrew Christie, who was appointed in November having previously acted as Birmingham’s children’s commissioner.

The council says this is to test effective ways of working and all staff will remain employed by the council until the trust becomes fully operational in April 2018.

The trust would take on all children social care services under the proposal, with the council retaining delivery of education services.

Brigid Jones (Lab), Birmingham’s cabinet member for children, families and schools, said the mutual option would have been a “stride into the unknown”.

She added: “We do not want to distract from the improvement journey by messing about with structures more than we already are.

“[The mutual] could also mean opening the door to someone else coming in and taking on the service which would be another upheaval that we really don’t want – we want it focused on improvement without having to think of all that on the horizon.”

The last Ofsted inspection of Birmingham’s children services in September resulted in an overall inadequate rating after inspectors found “serious and widespread” failings in some services had not yet been tackled effectively. However, progress was identified in support for looked after children and placements, which were rated as requiring improvement.

Cllr Jones said children’s services were at “rock bottom” when she took on the cabinet post four years ago, but said Ofsted’s recognition of improvements had been a “massive boost to staff”.

Cllr Jones said social workers and managers responded positively to the proposed new approach to service delivery after being “pilloried” by Ofsted and the media over children’s services as well as education due to the “Trojan horse scandal”, which saw concerted efforts by members of the community to impose a “narrow faith-based ideology” in some schools.

She highlighted repeated criticism from former Ofsted chair Michael Wilshaw, who used his final interview before his departure last month to brand Birmingham “the equivalent of a 19th century rotten borough” with failing schools and children’s social care services.

Cllr Jones said she was looking forward to working with new Ofsted chair Amanda Spielman.

She said: “[Mr Wilshaw] has really damaged social work in Birmingham.

“I have spoken to social workers who told me that parents have said, ‘Why should I listen to you? How can you say I’m a bad parent when you are rubbish?’

“It has been really hard keeping staff morale up – it effects everyone when the image of the place is tarnished.”

The trust proposal is due to be considered by cabinet on January 24.

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