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Talks sought after Shoesmith court verdict

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Children’s services leaders demanded urgent talks over the government’s powers to sack them for departmental failings after Sharon Shoesmith’s bid for a judicial review ended in failure.

High Court judge Mr Justice Foskett turned down Ms Shoesmith’s request for a review of her treatment by Ofsted, children’s secretary Ed Balls and Haringey LBC following her 2008 dismissal in the wake of the Baby P tragedy.

But he said the case raised fundamental questions about how far a director of children’s services (DCS) could reasonably be held accountable for a collective failure in children’s services and removed from their post by the secretary of state.

“It would be a very significant step to say that ‘accountability’ means liability for summary dismissal without compensation,” he said.

“The prospect … is hardly likely to be an inducement for someone thinking of taking the job or, perhaps, in some circumstances, continuing in it.”

One director of children’s services, speaking to LGC on condition of anonymity, said that while opinion on Ms Shoesmith’s treatment varied, there was a need for clarity over how the government could use its powers - especially when the turnover of directors was approaching one in three each year.

“It’s the only job in local government where you are employed by the local authority but a secretary of state can remove your power to do your job,” he said.

“There needs to be some reasoning for it, so that we can have a greater understanding of what will trigger the use of that power.”

The DCS said directors wanted to see joint talks between sectoral bodies and the Department for Children, Schools and Families soon after the general election.

Although Mr Justice Foskett turned down Ms Shoesmith’s High Court application, he described Haringey’s approach to sacking her as “flawed and liable to be described as unfair”, suggesting it be heard at an employment tribunal.

He also raised concerns about aspects of both Ofsted and Mr Balls’ role in the case, admitting to a “lurking sense of unease” in dismissing Ms Shoesmith’s request.

Among the more dramatic details in the judgment was the suggestion that Haringey’s then-chief executive Ita O’Donovan and other members of the council had sought to amend the final draft of the Ofsted report “in a way that shifted the responsibility for this alleged failure from a combined failure on the part of members of the council and officers to an entirely managerial failure”.

Mark Greenburgh, local government partner at law firm Wragge & Co, said there had to be a clear balance of accountability between politicians and officers implementing measures and keeping members informed.

“Organisations do not learn from mistakes if the reaction to a failing is to sack everyone involved,” he said.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Frankly, whether Ms Shoesmith was or was not incompetent and deserved to be sacked appears to have been almost an insignificant element of all the processes in this case. what appears to be clear is that she was astonishingly well-regarded in education circles and is presumably a great loss to that service at a time when it needs all the real professionals it can get, while it's being constantly faffed about with by amateurs and politicians.
    Also that an awful lot of people have come to strong opinions without having anything like sufficient knowledge of the detail. Indeed, much detailed knowledge is a hindrance to the emotive judgements so prevalent.
    Finally - no-one should draw any conclusions at all about the effect and meaning of the recent high court judgement without first understanding that Mr. Justice Foskett was reviewing ONLY the process adopted by Ed Balls - not the decision or whether it had any basis on a balanced assessment of the available evidence; and secondly, as the judge himself says
    (indeed he goes to a great deal of trouble to encourage people to avoid ill-informed conclusions) without reading the whole of the 200+ pages of his judgement, which is extremely revealing. It leads to me to have considerable doubt as to whether the Ofted report, Balls' actions and those of the local authority would have been any different whatever Mes Shoesmith's culpability.

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  • Judge Foskett’s comments in the Sharon Shoesmith case need close attention.

    The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers recognises that serious thinking needs to be done on the accountability of directors of children’s services (DCSs).

    What is it reasonable to be held directly responsible for and who determines the consequences of ineffectiveness – that is, who takes action and how severe should that action be?

    It is Solace’s view that the chief executive and council leader should be fully empowered regarding these matters.

    To this end we are engaging with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the Local Government Association to examine this issue with a view to establishing a common understanding and set of expectations that can be explored with government.

    We must do all we can to ensure the job of the DCS is portrayed positively in the media so that the vital leadership role played by these children’s champions is not inadvertently – let alone deliberately – diminished or undermined by exceptional events.

    Mark Rogers, Solace and chief executive, Solihull MBC

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