The chief executive of Doncaster MBC has attacked the “professional narcissism” of children’s service directors and called for greater private sector involvement and competition in the provision of children’s social care.
In a strongly-worded speech, Jo Miller also said council chief executives who didn’t know about children’s services should not be in the job.
“Chief executives who just think their job is about regeneration and growth and don’t know about children’s services until there’s a rubbish Ofsted [report], they shouldn’t be chief executives,” she said.
In the speech, at the Solace summit in Liverpool, Ms Miller said the idea of a statutory director of children’s services was a “dead construct” and added that children’s services were “the service with the most professional elitism”.
She described the Association of Directors of Children’s Service’s response to government plans to let councils outsource children’s services as “a load of tosh”.
She said: “This is what was said [in the ADCS response]: ‘Decisions taken about a child’s life should only ever be based on what is in the best interests of the child as assessed by skilled and qualified social workers and the court system. These decisions cannot and must not be subordinate to the pursuit of a financial profit’. What a load of tosh. That professional narcissism just needs to go.”
She added: “Are you really telling me that an agency social worker is a better person to make a decision on a child’s life than the headteacher who’s known that family for 10 years?”
During the speech Ms Miller called for the introduction of “competition, innovation and incentives” into children’s social care.
“For too long children’s social care has been run by a municipal monopoly and the private sector has only reluctantly been embraced as a provider of last resort,” she said.
“Why so? This is the only local authority service where we haven’t thought about more sophisticated commissioning and markets being developed.”
Ms Miller accused the watchdog Ofsted of using “dubious terminology” such as “inadequate” and “requires improvement” to describe councils’ children’s services and said such terms were used “as if by embarrassing people they will try harder”.
After an Ofsted inspection, she said, “the rubbish councils, and my council was a rubbish one, are subject to that double calamity: resignations or sackings of senior managers and officers, general vilification in the media [and] demoralisation [that] makes it hard to recruit social workers, so how on earth does this drive improvement?”
Ms Miller described Ofsted’s inspection regime as “onerous” and “a bit of a distraction for managers”, adding that “a constant state of readiness [for inspection] sometimes overtakes the real stuff.”
She said that, after years of government intervention, it was sector-led improvement that helped to turn around Doncaster’s services.
Also speaking at the event, ADCS president Alan Wood said Ofsted should no longer inspect children’s social care.
“We need a situation where Ofsted focuses on early years through to university education and we need a new regulator pick up social care, welfare [and] child protection issues. Ofsted is trying to ride two horses at once,” he said.
In response to the comments, Debbie Jones, director for social care at Ofsted, said the watchdog had been “found by Jo to be inadequate and by Alan to require improvement at best.”
She said: “I came to Ofsted because…I firmly believe inspection can drive improvement.”
She said the inspectorate did “take account of context” and “understand the financial burdens”.
However, she added, “you guys in this room have control with politicians about where you invest. We see some of the best practice in some of the lowest funded authorities.”
She said that, in Ofsted’s latest round of inspections, “the bar has been raised”, adding: “There’s no question about that, and we’ve made no apology for that.”
Ms Jones admitted that Ofsted “didn’t get it right” when it attempted to launch a multi-agency inspection framework last year. LGC reported at the time that the plans were scrapped at the last minute when the watchdog revealed pilots had raised problems it was “unable to ignore”.
She also said that of 34 inspection reports published under Ofsted’s new inspection framework, none found a council “outstanding”. Twenty-seven per cent were “good” with the rest either “inadequate” or “requires improvement”.
Mark Rogers, chief executive of Birmingham City Council and president of Solace, said he agreed with Ms Miller that “chief executives need to step up to the plate and be interested in the entirety of the business they are asked to run on behalf of their politicians.”