Operation Bullfinch

The publication earlier this week of of the serious case review (SRC) into the grooming of six girls for sex in Oxfordshire raised serious questions for all professionals working with young people, including those working in schools. As an Oxfordshire county councillor since 2013, I have followed the developments after the outcome of the trial in 2013 with growing concern. The SCR has much to say about all agencies and their responses and makes uncomfortable reading.
One the one hand, schools have clearly responded with the creation of education programmes such as Chelsea’s Choice and through better working with other services. On the other hand, I am not sure that all the weaknesses identified in the SCR have been fully addressed. Are records of students changing schools forwarded promptly and in proper order? Do schools have good policies for the integration of pupils arriving outside of the September start date or can such young people easily become alienated, especially if their transfer is due to a failure to educate by the previous school.
Schools collect masses of data but, on unauthorised absences and truancy, are patterns fully scrutinised and is there a procedure for escalating concerns both upwards within the school and out to multi-agency groups? These may be early warning signs.
I am concerned if creating different administrative system for schools, whether free, academy, UTC, studio, community or voluntary has in any way hindered cooperation on the issue of dealing with troubled young people.
The recent Carter Review of teacher preparation discussed the need for teachers to know about psychology and child development whether during a child’s early years or during adolescence. This is an issue of concern to teachers even when the delivery of their subject is uppermost in their minds. I doubt the present teacher preparation programme is long enough to cover some of these issues we might expect professional to at least be sensitive to and many teachers will need to develop their knowledge during their early years in the profession.
As a county councillor, I also wonder whether the Cabinet system of government places too much authority in the hands of one councillor. Without effective scrutiny or questioning does it make it harder for others to engage with service delivery? Many elected members are tapped into a wide range of intelligence sources and their surgeries allow for ordinary members of the public to short-circuit official channels and cut through red tape. Now, I am not claiming that the families of these girls might have used that route or that officials frustrated by a lack of escalation might have sought to discuss such issues but there seems little discussion of possible whistleblowers in the SCR. However, would more involvement of elected members in effective oversight of services, although expensive compared with cabinet government, help issues to be discussed by bringing together more than one opinion? Every school has a governing body; Oxfordshire education has a single cabinet member and a scrutiny committee that meets about six times a year and hasn’t looked at truancy and exclusion rates in the past two years although it has done good work on investigating attainment levels.
Ineffective Committees in local government had a bad reputation but the risks from an ineffective single member are much greater, especially when oversight is sketchy. Now that the government is consulting on the possibly of elected members being criminally liable where there is neglect, including CSE, the attraction of more rather than less members being involved in oversight might seem persuasive.
Members of the public might also wonder why councillors in Oxfordshire haven’t agreed to meet as a Council to discuss the report on officers they employ and whose services they are ultimately responsible for to central government. A voluntary and rigidly timetabled one hour briefing wasn’t enough in my judgement and leaves at least this councillor frustrated. An agreed look across the Council by elected members to verify the steps taken and lessons learnt ought, in my view, to be the responsibility of all Councillors and not just a scrutiny committee. We all need to ensure that lessons have been learnt and see what else needs to be considered. Such actions should be a prerequisite for showing all elected members care.

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