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Government steps up intervention in Sandwell children's services

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The Department for Education is preparing to step up its scrutiny of the private sector partnership model adopted by Sandwell MBC to improve its children’s services, LGC has learned.

Children’s minister Ed Timpson has told the authority he intends to impose a “statutory direction” on the authority – a higher level of intervention than an ‘improvement notice’ which is usually issued to councils rated ‘inadequate’ by the watchdog.  

Such a direction would require the council to keep close tabs on the performance of Impower, the consultancy firm contracted to be its “improvement partner”. The extra scrutiny could allow the government to intervene more directly if there was evidence that the partnership could fail to lift the services out of Ofsted’s ‘inadequate’ category in the long term.

The statutory intervention strategy will be a crucial test to the public-private partnership approach to children’s services.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said Mr Timpson had written to Sandwell leader Darren Cooper (Lab) to say he was “minded to issue a statutory direction.”

She said: “Any failure in children’s services is very serious. We are working with Sandwell to make sure their plans for improvement are robust and undertaken as a priority, and expect to see rapid improvement.”

It comes just weeks after the government prepared to implement its own improvement model in Doncaster MBC.  

Under this model, Doncaster will cede its legal responsibility for children’s services to an independent trust. As LGC reported last month, the approach could also be applied Birmingham City Council. However, there is no suggestion at this stage that the department would impose this model on Sandwell.

Details of the DfE’s strategy for Sandwell emerged after an Ofsted report published last week rated its services for looked-after children as inadequate. The council has made a formal complaint to the watchdog, claiming the judgement “misrepresents” its situation.  

The inadequate rating followed the publication of a similarly critical report in April, which found Sandwell was inadequate at child protection. This finding led the council’s then service director for children and families, Helen Smith, to resign.

LGC understands that the latest Ofsted ruling came as a surprise to officials and councillors in Sandwell because inspectors had told the authority at the time of their visit that they were planning to rate its services as ‘adequate’.

The judgement appears to have been later downgraded as part of a moderation process by the watchdog.

This month’s report said “too many children and young people” were not receiving adequate services, blaming this on “a combination of some critical service failures and poor practice.” 

However, it also said there were signs of improvement. “The council is in the early stages of implementing a revised and reinvigorated improvement plan which is beginning to show some evidence of improved practice,” it added.

One senior observer, who asked not to be named, told LGC: “With what’s going on in Doncaster, it seems that there is an atmosphere in which sterner measures are seen as necessary.

“I think the Department for Education is sending a signal to councils that have been bumping along the bottom and have had improvement notices for years that this is no longer acceptable. It wants to see the services being improved by such a huge margin that it becomes clear that Sandwell has put the past behind it.”

Sandwell MBC has faced difficulties with its children’s services since 2010 when it was issued with an improvement notice after Ofsted found its safeguarding and looked-after children’s services were inadequate.

Sandwell’s chief executive Jan Britton said in a statement: “The council’s improvement partnership with Impower is making good progress. This was always going to be a long turn-around. That’s why the partnership contract is two-and-a-half years long - we are eight months into our joint programme”.

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