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Sandwell becomes latest met to lose control of children’s services

Children’s services in Sandwell are to be transferred from the council to a newly formed trust as part of a government intervention to address concerns about the services.

Justine Greening, the education secretary, has issued a directive instructing the council to develop plans to transfer children’s services to the trust by 1 December.

Ofsted rated Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council children’s services as ‘inadequate’ last year.

In a letter to the council, Edward Timpson, the minister for vulnerable children, said: “This decision has not been taken lightly. Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council has failed its most vulnerable children and young people for approaching seven years. This is unacceptable and I am determined to reverse this record of failure.”

He said he appreciated there would be “anxiety” about the decision, but that children’s services should demonstrate to social workers that it would provide an opportunity for “a fresh start”.

Timpson acknowledged the direction would create anxiety among social workers in Sandwell, but said there had been “encouraging signs of improvement” following the establishment of trusts by Doncaster, Slough and Kingston upon Thames.

The news comes after the announcement earlier this year that children’s services in Birmingham, which, like Sandwell, is a partner in the newly formed West Midlands Combined Authority, will be taken over by a voluntary trust.

Eleanor Brazil, the council’s then children’s services commissioner, published a report in July saying that services were not improving and should be removed from the council’s control.

The findings of the latest Ofsted inspection, published last week, stressed that services are now making “positive changes”. It said that the multi-agency safeguarding hub (MASH) had improved its information gathering and intervention where it was concerned about children.

However, it found “inconsistent” decision-making and oversight, with poor management leading to issues such as alleged victims of physical abuse not seeing a paediatrician.

It noted that the quality of social work assessment and plans was “poor” and an area for concern.

Regarding the issue of child sexual exploitation, Ofsted said that partner agencies were engaging positively, new senior managers had been appointed and children’s services were taking decisive action in most cases.

However, key agencies did not always attend meetings and information was not always properly recorded.

A recent report from Ofsted said that frontline services in four key areas still need to improve in tackling child sexual exploitation.

Ofsted warned recently that 24% of local authority children’s services are rated ‘inadequate’, and complaints about children’s services to the Local Government Ombudsman have increased by 13% in the past year.

Tony Barnsley, joint secretary of the Sandwell branch of Unison, told BBC News that if members did not receive a guarantee over pay and pensions following changes to children’s services, they would “have little choice” but to issue a ballot.

Cllr Simon Hackett, council member for children’s services, said: “We acknowledge intervention can help us reach the high standards we are determined to achieve.”

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