This is what you have been writing to us about this week.

I write with reference to my letter published on March 12 about the lack of meaningful, effective scrutiny of Buckinghamshire Council’s failing Children’s Services.

Since writing my letter, I have been contacted by a number of local people, ranging from school governors to social workers, and including parents who have had involvement with Children’s Services service on behalf of a child.

All those who contacted me had a story to tell about the ongoing failure of the service (still judged as inadequate, the lowest category, since Ofsted’s 2014 inspection), and urged me to continue to “make a fuss” about the situation, especially about the lack of meaningful scrutiny, and the failure of successive council cabinet members with responsibility for the service to “own the failure” and sort the sorry situation out.

Regrettably, accountability, as in ‘the buck stops here’, appears to be an alien concept to council leaders in Buckinghamshire.

In writing my letter I had not expected that Conservative councillors would necessarily agree with my observations, but I did expect that, as representatives entrusted with an important community leadership role, at least one elected councillor would take it upon themselves to respond on behalf of the council’s leadership.

In fact, since my letter was published, the silence from elected Conservative councillors and council leaders has been almost total.

I am forced to conclude that either this silence represents an acceptance that there is no credible “case for the defence”, or simply indifference to public feeling on this vitally important matter.

Neither of these possibilities reflects well on Buckinghamshire Council.

The only evidence I have been able to find of any response from a Conservative councillor to my letter was from Councillor Whyte, formerly one of the cabinet members responsible for Buckinghamshire Children’s Services during its period of prolonged failure.

In an online discussion responding to my letter, Councillor Whyte, without any attempt to engage with the serious issues that I raised, simply observed that “Buckinghamshire Council has increased investment in Children’s Services to record amounts”.

I have no idea if this observation was intended to assuage the very real worries that Buckinghamshire residents have about this dire situation, but it suggested a worrying misunderstanding of the serious failures in the service repeatedly highlighted by Ofsted.

Adequate funding is a necessary part of the solution to the current situation, but in isolation it is far from sufficient.

Any “recipe” for improvement must include how funding is targeted, the impact it has and how this is measured and monitored, the quality of leadership and management in the service, especially at the highest levels, and elected councillors doing what they are supposed to do and meaningfully and persistently holding those who manage the service to account.

The situation is complex and challenging, but certainly not hopeless.

Those responsible for managing the service must be challenged and supported to deliver the necessary improvement - but if they are unable to achieve this they must, in the interests of Buckinghamshire children and their families and carers, be replaced by more capable leaders and managers.

It is to be hoped that, perhaps as the result of an injection of some “fresh blood”, the new council elected on May 6 will finally address this unhappy state of affairs with the urgency, determination and expertise that it deserves.

Mick O’Mahony, Beachampton

Previous letter for context

I write with reference to the recent meeting of Buckinghamshire Council’s Children and Education Select Committee held on Thursday, March 4. 

My background is in education as a former secondary Headteacher and Ofsted Inspector, and the meeting agenda items of most interest to me were the last two that related to Children’s Services.

By way of context, after steady improvement in the 2000’s Buckinghamshire Children’s Services was judged by Ofsted to be excellent in 2010 and 2011. 
In 2014, however, after a period of sustained austerity cuts, the service was judged inadequate (the lowest category) by Ofsted, and since then it has remained in that category.

Buckinghamshire is an affluent county with pockets of deprivation, and it has been truly shocking to witness the demise of what was once an outstanding service, and the failure of successive council administrations, over a period now approaching seven years, to make the improvements necessary for children’s services to be judged, at a minimum, as good.

Given this context, and that this was a meeting of the relevant council scrutiny committee, I fully expected a rigorous interrogation by Councillors of senior council staff, with a particular focus on the latter’s self-assessment of progress and improvement plans for children’s services in the light of Ofsted’s findings.

To my consternation, given the crucial importance of children’s services to the lives and welfare of vulnerable children, with the exception of Councillor Stuchbury such an interrogation was almost entirely lacking. 

Input from Councillors was mostly confined to praise for the efforts being made by the service during what are, without doubt, testing times, and a few far from probing questions that were not followed up when they were answered by council staff with assertions of progress unsupported by evidence.

If a crucial service has been failing vulnerable young people for the best part of seven years, then scrutiny of the council’s response should be anything but a comfortable experience for senior council staff, and they should come to such meetings on top of their brief and armed with hard evidence to support judgements of progress. 

The lack of such evidence was drawn attention to by both Councillor Stuchbury and a guest attendee from a Buckinghamshire school, but this did not produce a response that could in any way be considered satisfactory.

In writing this letter I have no wish to downplay the extraordinarily challenging environment in which children’s services has been operating for the last year, and neither do I wish to suggest that significant progress has not been made. 

In the absence of evidence, however, I simply cannot tell.

My central point, therefore, is this. That without meaningful scrutiny, which can and indeed should at times be challenging and even uncomfortable for senior council staff, any improvements that occur and progress that is made is likely to take longer and be more fragile than in an environment where appropriate, well-constructed improvement plans and rigorous self-assessment are put under the spotlight and effectively interrogated by elected Councillors.

Based on the meeting I viewed, and the supporting documents provided by senior Council staff that I read, I would question whether all Buckinghamshire Councillors on scrutiny committees have been offered and received appropriate training to enable them to properly and effectively discharge their responsibilities. 

It is to the great shame of successive Buckinghamshire councils that this unhappy failure of children’s services has endured for so long, and it is to be hoped that, going forwards, the new council will appropriately address the issues that I have raised with urgency and determination.

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