The Tower Hamlets council official who was in charge of that borough’s schools when Shamima Begum and two other girls were radicalised and escaped to Syria to become “jihadi brides” has just been appointed by Croydon as the borough’s interim executive director for children, families and education.
Today, 70-year-old Debbie Jones said, “I’m delighted,” after it was confirmed that she had landed the £800 per day appointment in Croydon.
She ought to be double-delighted, because as hundreds of Croydon Council staff are losing their jobs, Jones is to be allowed to keep a second, part-time position with the government, too. Cushty.
According to Croydon Council’s press release, Jones “has a wealth of experience in senior leadership roles for children services, with a strong track record of driving improvement, leading transformation and modernising services to deliver for local communities”.
Which all sounds perfect.
But those who remember Jones’s time in Tower Hamlets recall the controversy caused in 2015 when Begum and her school mates were able to flee the country without anyone at the local authority noticing that they weren’t turning up for school. Begum left Britain when just 15 alongside 15-year-old Amira Abase and 16-year-old Kadiza Sultana.
She was found in a Syrian refugee camp in February 2019, heavily pregnant with her third child and wanting to return to London. Lawyers for her family accused their local authority (and therefore Jones) of failing in their duties to safeguard the girls.
Extraordinarily, under Jones, Tower Hamlets failed to conduct any serious case reviews into the three girls who were radicalised at Bethnal Green Academy.
And when Jones – a former senior Ofsted official – saw inspectors at her former government department declare children’s services in Tower Hamlets “inadequate”, she shrugged off these serious shortcomings in her department as simply being sent to “the naughty step”.
A Tower Hamlets news site, The Wapping Mole, has pilloried Jones’s five years in charge at the east London borough mercilessly. It’s just a pity that no one at the Croydon committee, who met on Tuesday morning to confirm the appointment, bothered to read it or even simply Google Jones’s name and previous jobs before making their decision.
Jones arrives in Croydon with its own children’s services department only just allowed off a “naughty step” of its own, after nearly three years and £30million of extra spending to manage to achieve a “Good” rating. But sources inside the council suggest that that revised rating was a close-run thing, and with the council’s current cash crisis and resulting job cuts, they question whether the department can uphold best practice.
Jones will find in her in-tray two new adverse rulings on her department from the Local Government Ombudsman, published today, as well as mounting problems in terms of staffing in schools where teachers have either contracted covid-19 or have needed to self-isolate.
Then there’s the eight of 12 schools under council control who, according to an internal audit, have serious issues with their budgets. These include Virgo Fidelis, which next July will be the second Croydon secondary school to be forced to close inside a year.
There are also growing concerns within Fisher’s Folly over the ending of contracts for a number of experienced social workers, who had been hired through agencies. Casework volumes for social workers within the children’s services department have already started to rise – from 12 when Ofsted inspectors were still visiting regularly, to 14 now.
Council sources suggest that in the past fortnight as many as 25 social work students have been flown in from South Africa, flights and hotels all paid for by the council.
Some of the South African students have been assigned to the Work With Families Central Team 2, others in Assessment Teams 5 and 6.
“Everyone knows that using agency staff is a very expensive way to run a department,” the source said. “But flying in social work students from halfway around the world to plug the gaps might seem cheaper, you have to wonder whether this is fair on the students, or the vulnerable youngsters placed in their care.”
Recruitment of staff remains an on-going issue throughout the council.
Jones replaces Rob Henderson, who was widely admired among council colleagues but stayed in post for less than two years.
Given that Henderson, in a £180,000 per year job, might have been expected to provide at least three months’ notice of his intention to leave, the appointment of Jones as an “interim” raises the question of why recruitment of a permanent replacement did not take place over the summer.
The council statement issued this morning says that Jones’s appointment “will ensure robust leadership for this vital service until the council recruits permanently to the post, during what is an important time for Croydon as the borough transforms to become financially sustainable while continuing to respond to covid-19”. Which is nice.
The council statement deals with the septuagenarian’s age delicately, referring to “a career spanning several decades”. Jones has worked at Lambeth, Luton, Stoke-on-Trent, Durham, Slough and Oxfordshire. At Tower Hamlets, it took Jones and her staff two years to recover their children’s department’s “Good” rating.
According to the council, “Debbie also holds a post with the Department for Education as local authority facilitator for safeguarding reform, which she will continue alongside her new role at Croydon.”
The appointment of Jones is understood to have been approved by Alisa Flemming, the council cabinet member for children, young people and learning since 2014, on whose watch children’s services was given its “Inadequate” rating.
The council quoted Jones as saying, “I’m delighted to be joining Croydon at this time and look forward to working with members, staff across the service and organisation, and all of the council’s partners, all of whom have played a vital role in transforming and improving children’s social care to date.
“Croydon has made much progress in the last two years and put some solid foundations in place, creating the right environment for high-quality practice to flourish. I look forward to working with the team across children’s services and education to build on these and together, drive forward even further improvements in a way that is sustainable for the council we want to become.”
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