A “deep-set culture of political adversarialism” is hampering improvements in SEND services in Birmingham, the first government-imposed commissioner has warned.
John Coughlan also flagged “unhelpful and even illegal practices around exclusions and part-time provision” in the city.
In the first intervention of its kind, ministers sent Coughlan to take over SEND services in 2021. The council had failed to remedy “significant weaknesses”.
In his second report, published on Thursday, Coughlan found there had been “measurable progress” in some areas. But Birmingham is still missing its legal deadlines for a third of education, health and care plans and almost half of annual reviews.
The fixer praised the appointment of chief executive Deborah Cadman. However, the council has been “significantly affected by fundamental problems in its implementation of an essential upgrade to its financial management and monitoring systems”.
This caused “significant disruption” to effective service management, including for SEND and schools.
Sue Harrison, the city’s director of children’s services, has now been in place for over a year. Coughlan described her as the “first ‘fully-fledged’ DCS in Birmingham for several years”.
Fixer feared children’s services chief would resign
But the commissioner’s report is scathing about “adversarial politics” in the city. It comes amid reports that council leader Ian Ward will be replaced by the Labour Party nationally amid criticism of the wider culture at the council.
Coughlan said he had “genuinely been concerned” that Harrison “might resign because of some of the political challenges”.
The report warned that the “context for school involvement in the SEND system remains subject to the challenges and pressures” outlined in the previous report.
“These include varying degrees of fragmentation in the way schools work with each other and the local authority, and at best inconsistencies in the levels of trust between parties.”
The report also warned there was “substantial work to be done for schools to address their own performance, notwithstanding the strains of their own environment”.
“At worst there are issues to do with unhelpful and even illegal practices around exclusions and part-time provision which probably also reflect a historical failure of leadership between the local authority and schools as poor practices have been allowed to develop and sustain.”
The report is deeply critical of the city’s SEND information, advice and support service (SENDIASS), previously run by the partner of Ward.
Coughlan said there “has never been a direct question of impropriety in this relationship”. But it is “reasonable to assume that at best there will have been complicated management implications, related to this connection and in the context of a wider failing service”.
Reform of advice service ‘thwarted’
Several “legitimate” attempts to formally review the service “had failed (or been thwarted) for various reasons”.
He has also ordered independent audits of the service’s finances and of “related political activities and potential conflicts of interest with the service”.
Coughlan said he shared concerns that the service had worked “unilaterally, beyond its brief and in a manner which has probably, at least indirectly, contributed to wider SEND failings”.
The commissioner said his “genuine concern for the long term is that what I perceive to be a deep-set culture of political adversarialism in Birmingham”.
He decried a “culture in which the members appear to feel more comfortable in their role of challenging officers and services rather than their critical roles of also supporting and enabling them”.
This will “remain a structural impediment to long-term improvement in SEND”.
Services won’t be carved off into trust
He said political behaviours in Birmingham were “some of the poorest I have encountered across several failing authorities”. However, Coughlan said he stood by his decision not to carve off the council’s SEND services into a trust.
The possibility of such a move “cannot yet be finally rejected, though it should still not be required”.
But he said there had been “various informal voices in some political conversations suggesting that the local authority might actually prefer for SEND to move to a trust”.
“Certainly, this is my first experience of a local authority in intervention expressing such apparent ambivalence about its own service being removed.”
However, “aside from those noises” and “notwithstanding the slow progress of some aspects of the improvement programme, this report does outline significant progress overall especially corporately and in the leadership of children services themselves”.
Councillor Karen McCarthy, Birmingham’s lead member for children’s services, was “really pleased” with the progress made, but said they “know there is much more progress to be made and we are not complacent; we have said all along that we are on an improvement journey that will take a number of years”.