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Vacancies at Bradford impacted on improvement at local authority where Star Hobson died

Social work vacancies at Bradford Council hindered the workforce’s abilities to adequately care for children and young people, a report commissioned shortly after the death of Star Hobson has found.

Star was just 16 months old when she was taken to hospital on 22 September 2020 after suffering a cardiac arrest and sadly died the same day. Her mother Frankie Smith has been found guilty for causing or allowing the death of a child while Frankie’s partner Savannah Brockhill has been found guilty of murdering Star following a trial at Bradford Crown Court.

In September 2021, the Secretary of State for Education appointed Steve Walker as Children’s Services Commissioner, following serious concerns highlighted by Ofsted in relation to residential care and care planning in the Council, as well as a series of Ofsted monitoring visits all reporting on the slow pace of change in improving the quality of core social work practice. Publishing his report, Steve Walker said there are two key factors that have impacted on improvement: workforce stability and relationships between children’s services and the corporate centre.

“In common with many authorities that are judged inadequate, Bradford has experienced difficulties in recruiting permanent social workers. Whilst the local authority has, with the support of an external consultant, undertaken considerable work to strengthen its recruitment and retention strategy this has taken too long to put in place. At the time that my review was conducted Bradford had 124 social work vacancies. These were being covered by 173 agency social workers,” said the report.

Mr Walker outlined that the relationship between children’s services and the corporate centre is more complex. While the Leader and Chief Executive took prompt action to secure the resources required by children’s services to support improvement after inspection and have continued to provide additional investment where needed, the corporate centre did not fully understand the pressures on managers in children’s services and had insufficient knowledge of the detail of practice and processes to know how best to provide the support required.

Attempts including embedding IT and HR staff within children’s services were made to address this, but it was not as effective as it could have been as these staff were following the same corporate processes but simply from within children’s services.

The Strategic Director for Corporate Resources began attending Children’s Services Leadership meetings which improved relationships at a strategic level. However, Mr Walker’s report said senior leaders should have addressed this sooner and involved front line managers in identifying solutions.

Following the 2018 Ofsted inspection where local authority services for children in Bradford were found to be inadequate, a new leadership team was recruited for children’s services. The new Director took up his post in July 2019 and the Assistant Director in November of that year. They commenced a major re-organisation of children’s services into a locality structure to improve relationships with partners, children and families. The new leadership structure in children’s services was not filled until March 2020.

While the 2020 senior leadership team in children’s services were all experienced and committed, for most, it was their first time in a substantive role at a higher level of seniority and they had come into a more senior role under very challenging circumstances. As a result, the approach to improvement in children’s services was not underpinned by a significant depth of experience, and at times this resulted in a focus on excellence which got in the way of achieving ‘good enough’.

“There was a lack of pragmatic decision making that was focused on getting the basics right as a foundation for further improvement,” said the report.

In October 2021, Ofsted reported that the closure of two of Bradford Council-run residential homes, which were failing to provide effective safeguarding and care. As a result, children experienced temporary moves due to inadequate assessment of their needs, inappropriate matching and insufficient suitable placement options.

Furthermore, there was an example of an unregistered provider being used, which exposed a child to serious risk of harm.

Mr Walker’s report highlighted that the Leader, Lead Member for Children and Families and the Chief Executive reported that the issues raised by Ofsted in relation to children’s homes and the placement of the young person in July 2021 came as a shock to them. They were aware that there had been a challenging inspection in one of the authority’s children’s homes as a result of the mix of children in the home, which highlighted the issue of sufficiency.

However, all report that they were unaware of the scale of the recent issues and were not briefed about the placement of the young person in unsuitable unregulated accommodation until after Ofsted had written to the Director with their concerns and this undermined the confidence of the council leadership in the Director of Children’s Services.

The Director of Children’s Services resigned in October 2021 and the Deputy Director for Children’s Social Care left in November 2021. The Deputy Director for Education is acting up into the role of Director of Children’s Services and two experienced interim senior leaders have been appointed to the posts of Deputy Director for Children’s Social Care and Assistant Director, Safeguarding, Commissioning and Provider Services.

Mr Walker reports that the leadership team have come together quickly and appear to be working well together and have taken action to simplify the improvement plan and review structures and processes.

“However, this means that three years after the inspection Bradford Children’s Services does not have a permanent senior leadership team in place. Whilst some of these changes have not been in the control of the local authority it is unsettling for staff and impacts on the ability of children’s services to build effective working relationships with partners. Further change is likely as a new permanent leadership team will have to be recruited,” said the report.

It highlights that progress has been too slow and children’s services continue to face significant challenges in relation to securing a permanent leadership team, stabilising the workforce, improving practice and strengthening partnership working.

“It is my assessment that it will take a period of eighteen months to two years to bring about the level of changes necessary. At this time, I do not think that the Council will be able to achieve this alone,” said Mr Walker. “For this reason, I am suggesting that control of children’s services be removed from the Council for a period and an alternative delivery model developed.”

“Whilst I have made clear my preferred recommendation for an alternative delivery model of an Executive Commissioner, I understand the legal and technical issues which constrain the use of this particular model at the current time. Due to these constraints the local authority has indicated to the Department for Education that they are willing to create a trust to run children’s services on their behalf.”

We revealed last month that children’s social care services in Bradford are to be placed in a Trust in a bid to drive rapid improvements.

Furthermore, the death of Star Hobson has been included in the national review of the death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes by The Child Safeguarding Review Practice Panel.

Report on the options for Children’s Services in the city of Bradford Metropolitan District Council

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