Ian Thomas, speaking publicly for the first time since taking the role in January at a CYP Now conference this week, said: “I found it astonishing that in Rotherham, some schools see themselves as being outside of the problem, throwing darts at the local authority. That’s the reality of what we’ve been dealing with in Rotherham over the years.
“Many of the head teachers will have taught the perpetrators and the victims. One school head has told me point blank he doesn’t have a CSE problem.”
He revealed the school with the highest rate of pupil exclusions was attended by many Gypsy Roma children. “Our most vulnerable kids are being excluded so I’m tackling that,” he said.
Thomas echoed calls by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England and others to make personal social and health education a statutory subject in all schools. “I don’t know why the Department for Education won’t just make that move,” he added.
He said he “concurred” with the view expressed in the report by the government’s troubled families tsar Louise Casey last month that there was a sense of denial in the borough about the scale of CSE. “Having worked in Rotherham for the past few months, I can say that she’s right. There is a sense of denial, we need to accept what’s happened, and we do need to respond with efficacy to support our most vulnerable children.”
The Jay Report last summer uncovered “blatant failures” in addressing sexual exploitation of at least 1,400 children in the town over several years. But the report praised the work of outreach youth project Risky Business in attempting to identify and support young victims of CSE in Rotherham although Jay concluded it was "too often seen as something of a nuisance, particularly by children's social care”.
Thomas told the conference: “Quite often it is a youth worker who young people will trust and engage with – less so social workers, who are working within a statutory framework.”
He revealed the council was “auditing with rigour around 900 Risky Business files”.
He also called for a national review to “reclaim youth work” along the same lines that Professor Eileen Munro was commissioned to review the child protection system and social work in 2010.
On questions of leadership, Thomas said the influence of Rotherham’s children’s social care commissioner Malcolm Newsam - appointed by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan before his own arrival from neighbouring Doncaster – had been positive in generating some urgency.
He revealed Rotherham would launch a Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) on 1 April and had awarded the tender for a new IT system. “That’s happened within three months, which is unheard of, but if you’ve got someone who can bring partners to account, it can happen.”
Thomas stressed he was determined to “cultivate a learning culture” in Rotherham. On his specific approach to leadership, he said: “I use appreciative inquiry… [David] Cooperrider’s model to celebrate success, galvanise action and generate ideas.
“When I was in discussions about joining Rotherham… I found no shortage of action plans and reviews. Where we were short was on action. If you don’t have the leadership to translate words into reality for kids, it’s not going to happen.”
Thomas also revealed he was “restructuring” the children’s services department to improve early help services and was working with Barnardo’s on a project to identify needs early.
But he said some professionals in Rotherham continued to fail to focus on the child in their decision-making. For example, 48 per cent of looked-after children are placed outside the borough. Citing the case of one, he said: “Yesterday, I was looking at the management case notes of a child we had placed far away from Rotherham. The file just said ‘place X as far away from Rotherham as possible’. Where she was placed was near a dock.
“Docks often have a thriving sex industry, so what was the rationale of placing her far away from Rotherham when you’re not addressing the vulnerability in the child? What are we doing in terms of our thinking and our analysis when we make those decisions?”
Also speaking at the conference, Carlene Firmin, research fellow at the University of Bedfordshire, challenged professionals to ask what “safety” means. She said that too often the focus was on “movement of the victim” rather than to “disrupt the risk they are facing” from perpetrators.
Firmin said this just “creates a victim vacuum for young people to move into” and that often the movement of sexually exploited young people was “stripping away protective factors of the home environment”.