Birmingham children’s services – a victim of cuts

Clive Walder, Birmingham Socialist Party

Birmingham city council’s Children’s Services Department faces the real threat of being taken over and possibly privatised by the hated government education minister Michel Gove if the upcoming Ofsted inspection fails to find significant improvements.

Earlier this year a similar partial outsourcing of Doncaster council’s children’s services was made by Gove involving private companies Impower and Penna.

The department has been judged to be failing for the last four years and has been branded a ‘national disgrace’ by chief Ofsted inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw in the light of high profile tragedies such as Khyra Ishaq in 2008 and Keanu Williams in 2011, as well as 23 serious case reviews.

The major problem has not been ‘incompetent and uncaring’ social workers but relentless cuts leading to staff shortages.

Currently there are 108 child protection social work vacancies of which 42 aren’t being covered by agency staff, and a third of social work supervisor posts are vacant.

Last month alone 21 experienced social workers left to be replaced by 14 inexperienced ones.

The average caseload is 29 per social worker and the city has 1,000 active child protection cases. Attacks such as those from Ofsted and the public demonising of the department makes recruiting staff to fill existing vacancies more difficult, working in Birmingham is now seen as a black mark on a social worker’s CV.

The department has had a succession of three restructures and four directors in the last five years. Frequent changes of senior management and the loss of staff in the last re-structuring have led to a failure to prioritise recruiting and retaining staff.

Leaked emails describe a dysfunctional department in meltdown and a breakdown of trust between senior managers and frontline social workers.

This year a quarter of all of Birmingham’s enormous spending cuts affected children’s services, including the closure of five children’s homes.

But that didn’t stop the council spending £109,625 on Impower consultants to improve children’s social services in one week in August (equivalent to about three social workers for a year).


As poverty increases so will the pressure on social services which makes the council’s commitment to only ring-fencing the children’s services budget for 2014-15 woefully inadequate. Ring-fencing a budget in future years without allowing for inflation is still a cut.

Gove has shown that his ignorance of social services matches his ignorance of education. Privatisation clearly is no alternative as any private provider would look to make a profit first and care for children second.

It’s hard to see how profit can be made from intensive long-term and costly interventions in any case. Moreover, if the service is underfunded, future disasters are inevitable.

Birmingham’s children’s services have failed under both Tory and Con-Dem administrations.

Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, Khalid Mahmood, rightly described the privatisation threat as politically motivated but then went on to say: “If they are going to do it (privatise) they should just do it instead of making leaks and threats”.

The current state of affairs is directly linked to Con-Dem cuts and Labour’s refusal to prioritise local services over bankers’ bailouts.

A new workers’ party prepared to draw up a needs budget to protect vital services can’t come too soon for Birmingham’s vulnerable children. It could literally be a matter of life and death.