When, in 2017 children’s services in Tower Hamlets received among the poorest Ofsted reports I have ever read it was right that I took responsibility.
It didn’t matter that the new mayor, elected in 2015, and appointment of a chief executive, me, in the same year had begun to pull the Council round. That the Government had decided we had won the right to manage our own affairs and withdrawn the commissioners that had been in place since 2014 was irrelevant.
We were told that we couldn’t be sure vulnerable children were safe and that wasn’t good enough.
In retrospect, I should have known that Children’s Services would not be immune from the wider issues of political turmoil and the tensions that had diverted scarce energy.
Key decisions had been fudged, there were too many vacant posts and interim appointments. Agreeing on a permanent chief executive had proved impossible and the council was increasingly introverted.
Turning this round was a mighty struggle. The first step was recognising what had gone wrong and combatting the denial mentality. Gaining trust – of staff, members, partners and residents took time but as evidence built up of our conviction and initial success, faith began to be restored.
Problematic services, such as the youth service, were redesigned, and a ‘clear up’ team addressed allegations from the past. New appointments brought fresh ideas, a new outward facing perspective and internal promotions ensured corporate memory was retained.
I was visiting Salford with the Mayor when the news that the Ofsted inspection would be poor came through.
Anyone who has lived through this knows the guilt, anger, frustration and, yes, denial, are common. We had key decisions to make and understood if you don’t know what is wrong you can’t fix it.
While some of the elements of the failure of children’s Services were particular, many were not. We had a mistaken belief that somehow Tower Hamlets was different. But insufficiently embedded social work practice, inconsistent thresholds for intervention and compliance issues meant we were not.
Other factors, around management information and IT, weak scrutiny, lack of career paths and effective management of trainees were all part of a wider pattern.
The secret of addressing the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) intervention had been combined, focused and concerted political and managerial leadership.
This model, applied to children’s services, resulted in the Quad – the Mayor and I joined by the Cabinet member and corporate director of children’s services.
To avoid introspection we needed to build in outside challenge, and brought back an ex-commissioner, Sir Alan Wood, who chaired our improvement board and joined us in the ‘Quintet’.
Alan alongside the existing leadership of the directorate helped build our diagnosis. This revolution took the first year, after which new permanent divisional leaders came in. A more evolutionary but still exacting approach saw us move from compliance to genuinely insightful practice, assisted by a partnership with Leeds City Council.
We saw the improvement of children’s services was a corporate endeavor, not a ‘problem’ to which some corporate resources might be applied.
Human resources, legal, finance, communications and IT prioritised children’s social care while the improvement process was run by the centralised but embedded strategy, policy and performance team.
This led to less tension when financial investment in additional staff and a new business system was agreed, and also ensured that there was no reversion to a narrow departmental approach in children’s services. Without this, many other ingredients for success, including our new social work academy, improvements in payments, conversion of interim staff to permanent and manageable caseloads would have been more problematic.
Our recent peer review said that Tower Hamlets had come a long way and now had all the ingredients to be an excellent local authority. Following the ending of intervention from both MHCLG and the Department for Education, I believe we are fast becoming the council our residents deserve.
Will Tuckley is chief executive of Tower Hamlets LBC