As the cabinet member for children’s services oversees another failure in her department, is it time for her to go?
Fiona Baker has been in charge of children's services for more than four years and is now overseeing another failure which has upset a number of SEN families
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By Sarah Ward
At the guildhall in Northampton last week Tiff Cotterill, the mother of a four-year-old autistic child accused West Northants Council of treating special educational needs families as second class citizens.
She said she had been recently contacted by the council to say her son would not be able to start school this September, because the new SEN unit being built by the council at Hunsbury Park Primary School in Northampton will not be ready in time.
She told the councillors:
“So he will have to wait until October and to be honest we have still not been given a date. Is it the beginning of October, the end? Nobody knows. And if it is the end of October he will have missed two months of his education which would have been a national scandal if this was happening to mainstream school children.
“It is clear there are enormous failings at WNC and once again it is our vulnerable, disabled children that are paying the price.The families of the children who you continue to fail and treat as second class citizens will not rest until your secrets and your lies are uncovered.”
24 families are being affected by the issue of the unit not being ready in time.
In July last year the authority’s cabinet had approved a £1.1m extension at Hunsbury Park Primary School which would accommodate an additional 50 children. 20 children took up their places there last September, but the promised unit for another 30 children will not be finished by this coming September and may not even be built at all.
Instead the council is now creating replacement SEN places at another school across town (Chiltern Primary School), but there is much confusion about the situation. The authority started a consultation last month about the new arrangement and will not sign it off until mid September - once the new school year is already underway.
At the council meeting Labour councillor Emma Roberts said she had been contacted by a number of families who said they were all given different reasons for the delay and that despite asking a number of questions herself she has not been given answers. She also said it now appears the £1.1m new build will not go ahead.
“I’ve seen different answers from different cabinet members and councillors on how long we’ve known about this. Some have said two weeks, some have said two months.
“It has been apparent to parents though who have been raising queries since February asking for an update that something was wrong. This council has done nothing to communicate with them. Why when I’ve asked these questions in writing am I still being ignored? And the families still don't know whether their child will have a place in October.
“Some have given notice to their nursery places and now because of such late notice they have lost their child’s place. They have got no education, but they have also got no childcare.
“Because of the way this has been handled parents can’t be sure where their children will be in September. They are not clear if the building will happen at all. We need to accept that this has had an impact on our vulnerable children.”
The cabinet member in charge of children’s services at West Northamptonshire Council is Fiona Baker.
She told the meeting that different council staff members had gone off script and given families different information:
“I think we found out very late in the day that Hunsbury Park was not going to be completed. I will say now contrary to the comments I’ve seen on social media, my first question to my team was what are we going to do about this? We need to find places for those children in September. I am not going to tell them that we haven’t got places for them and this is what the result is for them now.”
She said they had looked around and found empty classrooms at Chiltern and that they will be refurbished and the two SEN units will be linked and managed under the same head teacher.
She said the issue was ‘nothing to do with finance’. Cllr Baker did not apologise to families for the upset caused and the current confusion. Instead she said ‘out of what could have been a disaster, we have a positive result’.
Asked by independent cllr Sue Sharps how she would prevent a situation like this happening again she said as lead member for children’s services she can’t be responsible for what everybody does. She said the council’s chief executive Anna Earshaw had now set up weekly meetings to ensure school builds were on target as they should be.
The new school unit at Hunsbury was to be built by AMEY, as the company built the original school, which is under a private finance initiative.
The problems at Hunsbury Park come after other issues within the West Northants SEN service, including the council having to pay out almost £49,000 in compensation to several families whose children had not been given a school place. One autistic child missed two years of education.
The local government ombudsman was damning in its criticism of the service, saying the council had failed to communicate with parents and drew attention to the fact that it had almost had to order a public interest report. These are only carried out in the most serious of circumstances - the last one in Northants was about Northampton Borough Council’s disastrous loan of millions of pounds to the football club.
Cllr Fiona Baker has been the cabinet member for children’s services in Northamptonshire since early 2019. She was appointed at the former county council, after fellow Conservative Victoria Perry was asked to step down, being told by leader Matt Golby, who had told her ‘she was taking too much on’.
When Baker took over the department was already in a mess and was being overseen by a government appointed children’s commissioner.
A damning report had pointed out just what was going wrong in the department - hundreds of children did not have an allocated social worker as they should have done and the service was said to be in chaos.
Five months after Baker took on the role, in June 2019 two serious case reviews were published about the deaths of toddlers Dylan Tiffin- Brown and Evelyn Rose Muggleton, who were both murdered in their home in separate incidents in 2017 and 2018. (Baker, was not in post at the time of their deaths.)
The following month after the reviews in July 2019 the service was rated by Ofsted as inadequate - and at the time Baker said it was ‘regrettable’ the service was so poor.
When the county council was closed down in 2021 to make way for the two new unitary council’s Baker was again given the cabinet position with responsibility for children.
The day-to-day running of children’s social services had been taken out of the hands of the council in November 2020 on government orders and run by an independent children’s trust, led by chief executive Colin Foster. An Ofsted review in November last year said the service had improved (from inadequate rated to requires improvement) , but since then there has been a damning report into fostering services, which were rated as inadequate.
During Cllr Baker’s time as cabinet member for children’s services there have been a number of issues, including deaths of children, a number of whom had tragically died while co sleeping with parents who were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Baker has said that she has little control over the trust - despite the statutory duty lying with the council, which is the ‘corporate parent’. She also said she had been taking the trust assurances on performance at face value but would be changing that after the fostering agency inspection.
The authority has not had a specialist children’s services director since the interim director Chris Kiernan left last year. Then the council decided to give the responsibility to the director of adult social services Stuart Lackenby, but last week appointed a new director of children’s services, Rebecca Wilshire.
Baker has on a number of occasions said the staff do not need to be continually criticised.
At a meeting in April, as reported by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, she said
“I do feel we need to support our team in this area as much as we possibly can in order for them to come in in the mornings, sit behind their desk and do their work. Because continually saying they are doing a bad job is actually encouraging people to leave our service, which is not helping us improve this situation.
“I try my best to support them as much as I can. I am a critical friend. As any in that team will tell you, I’m often outraged or annoyed about various things but we talk through how we can move them forward.”
She receives a special allowance of £24,000 on top of her basic allowance of just over £14,000 to lead the service.
In April last year, after another serious case review about the serious neglect of a child - which was escalated by a heating engineer who find the child tied up in a cot - NN Journal asked Baker if it was time for her to go and if not then, then would she stand down if the next Ofsted inspection found no improvements.
“That’s not up to me to decide. I think the work that I do within our service is rated good by my colleagues in the council. They see me doing a good job. So I dont know so perhaps I should stand down if that happens (a failure to secure an improved Ofsted inspection). But I’m not an operational person I’m an overview person.”
Calls for resignation
Leader of the labour group on West Northamptonshire Council Wendy Randall, says after this latest failure Baker should now stand aside.
“It’s time for her to go,” she said.
“They [cabinet members] get a good allowance and they should be across their responsibilities and if not they should go.
“They should be held to account when things go wrong. The department has not improved under her leadership.”
She has also lost the respect of a large number of special needs families. After the meeting the West Northants SEND Action Group posted this on facebook:
“Sadly, this debacle with Hunsbury Park is really just a symptom, the SEND crisis in West Northants. The LA [local authority] can condescendingly refer to us as “partners” all they like but the reality is different.
“We are treated as a nuisance. Our children are treated as a drain on resources. Our children are not afforded the same rights as their non-disabled peers.
“And yet those responsible have the audacity to hail their failings as triumphs and refuse to even acknowledge the harm and distress caused. It is nothing short of a disgrace.
“We won’t even put you through listening to the drivel that the cabinet member responded with.”
When we contacted the group yesterday a spokesperson agreed Baker should go.
Leader of the Liberal Democrats on the council Sally Beardsworth said the service ‘needed a pair of fresh eyes’ and that Baker should step aside.
“I think she is tired,” Cllr Beadsworth said. “I think it is too much for her now.”
Through the council’s media office NN Journal asked what the issues were with Hunsbury Park and said leaders of both opposition groups though Cllr Baker should step aside. We received a response to the school issue but the issue of Cllr Baker’s position was ignored.
The council said:
“The ‘construction constraints’ relate to the contractual challenges, including sourcing raw materials and the appropriate labour. This project has also been impacted by global delays in building material orders and consistently rising construction costs. The combination of these factors meant that continuing with the project in its original form would have resulted in significant delays, and an estimated completion date of February 2024 at the earliest.
“To avoid the negative impacts this would have had on children and families, West Northamptonshire Council and Hunsbury Park School took the joint decision to identify an alternative option for running the specialist provision. Chiltern Primary was identified as the best option for this, due to the close location to Hunsbury Park and existing accommodation on site, which can be utilised effectively at an earlier opportunity, while providing the right environment for children with SEND.”