Saturday, 24 May 2014

Birmingham Blues

Birmingham’s latest Ofsted report certainly makes for unhappy reading. 

I also found the quality of the Ofsted report itself very disappointing. 

Like many other Ofsted reports this one puts the boot in, but offers hardly any analysis or insight. It simply does not provide an adequate explanation of what is going wrong in Birmingham.

The inspector says:

“Long standing and historical corporate and political failures continue to impact upon the current political and professional leadership of children’s services in Birmingham. In addition, inadequate strategic partnership arrangements have underminded (sic) a range of initiatives to improve services."(Paragraph 3, page 3)

That doesn’t tell us a lot – in fact it tells us nothing that wasn’t already very obvious. And the rest of the report continues in a we-are-here-because-we-are-here-because-we-are-here-because … vein simply deploring the woes of Birmingham without any real intellectual effort to understand why they have come about or how they can be put right.

The report’s formulaic recommendations I find utterly unhelpful. I won’t bore you with the long list but the first two (both requiring ‘priority and immediate action’!) should be enough to convey the flavour of it all:

“Strengthen operational and senior management arrangements so that there is sufficient capacity and experience to tackle the deficiencies in the service.”(Paragraph 24, page 7)

“Ensure that strategic and operational management oversight is effective, including supervision and that case file audit arrangements are robust so that workers have a full understanding of their roles and responsibilities and deliver work of a consistently high standard.” (Paragraph 24, page 7)

The inspector might just have well said, “Put it all right and be quick about it.”

We will never begin to tackle the issue of under-performing children’s services authorities if all we (do I mean ‘Ofsted?) do is point the finger of blame and to call for robust action, effective and coherent strategy and use other sorts of buzz words and vague concepts to make it sound like we know what we are talking about. And to blithely continue to do so when nobody seems to have any explanation of why things are different in Birmingham is not just unhelpful, it is wrong. Management messes do not just happen. They can be explained. And usually they have to be explained to be put right.

Meanwhile, the other consequence of wagging the finger of blame so robustly (I just love that Ofstedism) is that public stigma is robustly attached to the authority. Struggling to recruit staff, it is now lumbered with persuading people to risk their careers by joining an ‘inadequate’ employer.

The pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-boot-straps approach will not work. And there is no evidence that by turning the whole operation over to a third party organisation any improvement can be achieved.

The only obvious solution I can see is to inject resources and expertise from outside at the operational level. Perhaps a mobile force of experienced practitioners and front line managers could be deployed to reduce backlogs and improve morale?

The analogy of fighting a forest fire comes to mind. A team of fire fighters have been battling against a blaze that has got out of control. They are tired, dispirited and they risk being overwhelmed. Do we start wagging fingers and calling for more robust management or a more strategic approach? Of course we don’t. We bring in fresh reinforcements, transport in more water and more appliances, perhaps deploy fire-fighting aircraft and try to stop the blaze before it reaches the village.