Town Hall reporter KEN LEE on how the replacement executive director for the council’s failing children’s services department arrives after having a role in the closure of a charity in another south London borough
Almost six months after Barbara Peacock opted to leave her £170,000 job as Croydon’s executive director for children, families and education, the council today announced that her replacement is to be Robert Henderson.
Henderson will take on Croydon’s failing children’s services department, which a year ago was placed into special measures following a damning Ofsted inspectors’ report, exhibiting “widespread and serious failures”, and which left “some children at risk of significant harm”.
Henderson is coming to Croydon after playing a lead role in the conversion of two London local authorities’ children’s services departments into a community interest company, but one which was blamed last week for blocking grant applications and the forced closure of a charity which worked to help 700 families.
An Oxford graduate in his late 40s, Henderson will join Croydon after working jointly for Richmond and Kingston, where according to the spin offered by the council press office today he has, “a strong track record in driving transformation to bring ‘good’ services to the heart of local communities”.
Yet last week, charity SEND Family Voices said of their services in Richmond and Kingston that “there is either no will or no capacity amongst decision-makers to really listen to and respond to parent voices”. Denied grant funding, the charity is to close.
Henderson will not be moving into the executive floor at Fisher’s Folly until the week before Christmas. He is, according to Croydon Council, “currently director of children’s services, and deputy chief executive of Achieving for Children, for the London Borough of Richmond and the Royal Borough of Kingston”.
Achieving for Children was established by the two local authorities in 2014 as a Community Interest Company, with Henderson part of the council team behind the process. “As part of this he has played a key role in developing an area-based model of service-delivery, bringing together early help, education support and social care services in community hubs to offer better support for families,” is Croydon Council’s explanation of what Henderson does.
Richmond’s children’s services was rated “good” by Ofsted a year ago, and Henderson was also involved in overseeing Kingston’s children’s services go from “inadequate” to “good” within two years.
Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini, the Croydon chief exec who gave Peacock her job and has approved Henderson’s appointment, said today, “I’m delighted to announce Robert’s appointment. I’m confident that he shares our vision for high-quality services for our children and families in Croydon and that his extensive experience and expertise will be invaluable as we continue our improvement journey.”
“Continue our improvement journey”.
According to council leader Tony Newman, “One year into our children’s services improvement plan we have made significant progress.”
Which is at variance with the views expressed by Ofsted inspectors when they have returned to the borough to check on the work of the council’s social workers. Only last month, the latest Ofsted report found some children left in “neglectful circumstances”, and the was critical of the slow pace of improvements in Croydon’s children’s services.
Newman also claimed that the council is “laying down some solid foundations, but we must keep up the momentum and maintain our focus on the priority areas”.
Croydon’s children’s services today remain under the supervision of officials from another local authority because of inadequate staffing and poor work practices.
Alisa Flemming, the cabinet member appointed by Newman in 2014 to take care of children and education, continues to shirk responsibility for the children’s services failures on her watch, today claiming that, “We have made children’s services a top priority for this council, and I and my cabinet colleagues are determined that we transform them to put children and young people at the heart of everything we do.”
Flemming did at least admit that “we still have some way to go”.
For his part, Henderson, as well as being “on a journey” with “some way to go”, is apparently “passionate” about his work.
“I’m passionate about achieving the best we can for our children, protecting them from harm, promoting their well-being and supporting them to achieve their full potential,” he is supposed to have said.
Henderson, and the council’s departments overseeing children, its special educational need – SEND – provision and schools, will continue to be under close scrutiny, from agencies and groups both within and outside the borough.
Certainly, back in Kingston and Richmond, where Henderson has been in charge, one charity is less than impressed with the provision by their local authorities.
It was when Henderson was setting up the councils’ CIC in 2014 that SEND Family Voices was established as a charity, they say “in response to the opportunities offered by the SEND reforms”.
But after four years, the charity has been forced to close because those “opportunities” do not appear to exist in reality.
Run by a group of around 20 trustees, all volunteers, SEND Family Voices has managed to engage and represent some 700 families across the two boroughs.
In a statement issued on Friday, Family Voices said, “All of us volunteered in order to improve the lives of vulnerable families in our community. We hoped that by bringing the parent voice into the heart of decision-making, systemic change for the better would follow. This has not happened.
“We increasingly feel that despite making considerable efforts to represent parent views in consultations and feedback to Achieving for Children (our most significant partner) and regularly bringing constructive ideas for solutions, we are either not listened to, or there is no scope for modifying plans to reflect parent input. Whatever the reason for this, it makes a mockery of the concept of co-production, which the SEND reforms aimed to promote, and the concept upon which SEND Family Voices was founded in 2014.”
The charity accuses the council’s children’s services company, Achieving for Children, of effectively blocking their application for grant funding, the charity’s only significant source of money. When the charity asked why they were being blocked, Henderson’s organisation responded with: “SEND Family Voices is using every opportunity to criticise our services and highlight our deficits.”
Family Voices reject this, and said that Achieving for Children wanted “to exert control over what we do and say and therefore we had no option but to step away from the funding so as to preserve our absolute independence”.
They tried to continue as a community support group, but concluded, “Unfortunately, in this climate of austerity, there is either no will or no capacity amongst decision makers to really listen to and respond to parent voices, even though parents and young people were supposed to be at the heart of the SEND reforms.”
Family Voices’ criticism of what has happened in Richmond and Kingston is stark, and highlights the difference between the warm words uttered (possibly about “journeys”) and the realities of non-delivery of essential and statutory services.
They said, “We now believe that continuing to operate in this climate risks lending a veneer of legitimacy to decisions taken by service providers that we feel is undeserved.”
The charity is to close on October 1. It’s not known whether Robert Henderson has been invited to the Family Voices closing party.
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