The appointment of a young novice councillor to run Birmingham City Council’s challenged education and children’s social services departments at a time of great change has been labelled a “high risk strategy”.
Labour leader Sir Albert Bore stunned colleagues this week when he announced that Brigid Jones, who has been Selly Oak councillor for just one year, was handed the Cabinet brief.
Her background, a physics graduate and research scientist at the University of Birmingham, means it is quite a step-change to take political charge of the largest Local Education Authority in the country and one of the most troubled children’s social care department.
It is a department which is only just recovering following a string of tragedies including the starving to death of eight-year-old Khyra Ishaq, a girl known to social workers, in 2008.
Officially it is still on the government’s list of failing departments, but concerted efforts to transform the service under troubleshooter Eleanor Brazil and extra political focus provided by the previous Tory-Lib Dem coalition has seen improvements.
Tory leader Mike Whitby told the Post last week that the council had “taken its eye off the ball” when children’s services was placed with the education department in 2006, leaving officers equipped to deal with schools looking after an army of social workers and carers.
His solution was to set up a special task force and created an additional executive post – held in 2010 by Len Clark and then after he lost his seat by Matt Bennett – to focus on the over haul of children’s social care.
But now the Conservative opposition and several within the Labour group are questioning Sir Albert’s decision to strip that focus away – especially as Eleanor Brazil’s interim term has ended and the new director of children’s services, Peter Duxbury has only taken over this month.
Conservative deputy group leader Coun Robert Alden (Erdington) said: “We placed that extra focus on children’s services for good reason and it was beginning to deliver results. The improvement plan is still in progress and to put that at risk by messing around with the leadership is not a good idea.”
The Conservatives had already questioned the decision to merge the specialist vulnerable children scrutiny committee with its education counterpart, but this was rejected by Labour.