Baby Peter’s tragic death spawned much industry, if not quite an industry. Legal cases are an inevitable element, most recently the verdict of the High Court application for a judicial review by Haringey’s ex-director of children and young persons services, Sharon Shoesmith, into her unceremonious dismissal without compensation.
Mr Justice Foskett’s ruling (against Shoesmith’s appeal) was as disturbing as it was surprising. The judge found much to criticise in the behaviour of Ed Balls, the government’s children’s secretary, who required Haringey Council to dismiss her summarily after withdrawing her powers as a DCS. The judge criticised Christine Gilbert, the head of the inspectorate Ofsted, for mishandling the case by personally and publicly criticising Shoesmith. He criticised Ofsted’s inept handling of its obligation of candour before the court, and he expressed concern over Ofsted’s instruction to delete emails relating to the inspection. He criticised Haringey Council who ultimately isolated Shoesmith to defend its own interests. He even advised Shoesmith that she might have grounds for winning a case against unfair dismissal by Haringey Council at an employment tribunal. Yet, yet, Judge Foskett still found against Shoesmith, on the narrow remit of whether the Ofsted report was erroneous in its findings as a result of political interference by Balls and the Department of Children, Schools and Families, their being unduly pressurised by tabloid media hostility towards Shoesmith.
Ofsted’s investigation had been conducted too hurriedly, the judge claimed. Its report had allegedly been rewritten 17 times to beef it up [though this could indicate thoroughness rather than external political pressure]. Criticism in early versions of others’ responsibility in the case – especially by the police, doctors and lawyers – was said to have been removed from later versions, leaving the council and Shoesmith more exposed. Foskett highlighted evidence showing that the final report was changed “in a way that shifted the responsibility … from a combined failure on the part of members of the council and officers to an entirely managerial failure”. Yet, yet, Foskett concluded that, on balance, and given the evidence he saw, the report’s conclusion was fair. It was not within his remit, he said, to comment on whether a beefed-up report had unfairly strengthened the report’s conclusions. Why not, one might ask? Barry Sheerman MP, who chaired a Commons Select Committee investigation into the affair, was amazed at the judge’s decision. As were many others.
As one troubled commentator expressed it: Shoesmith was ‘guilty of leading Ofsted to give a ‘good’ rating when (previously) inspecting her department by concentrating on the surface appearance, the presentation and the paperwork. That, above all, is her crime in the eyes of politicians and bureaucrats … revealing that a department can get a ‘good’ rating despite the staff shortages and ludicrous case loads. Revealing that all the expensive inspection is no more than a tissue of fabrication and abstraction’. But some might argue that Shoesmith was simply beating Ofsted at its own game, as hundreds of managers have done to gain Investor In People status. We should blame the game and the incentives before the players who get wise to it. No wonder Ofsted would welcome a chance to get its own back. Foskett commented, too lightly, on the public denouncement of Shoesmith by Gilbert, when Ofsted rules require the focus be on the department and not on named individuals. Being married to a government minister may not have helped some people’s perceptions of Gilbert’s leadership of an Ofsted required to be ‘independent’ of government.
Where does that leave matters? Shoesmith will reflect on her loss and consider an appeal or a claim to an employment tribunal (already lodged but stayed pending the outcome of the appeal for a judicial review)? Recall the irony that in 1995 the ‘disgraced’ social worker Lisa Arthurworrey who was involved in Victoria Climbie’s death won a legal case to reclaim her professional standing following her earlier dismissal by Haringey Council. That court decided that the Council’s system had failed her and not the other way round. Shoesmith isn’t finished yet.
The outcome from the application for a judicial review is a loss, not just to Shoesmith, but to all those who hold a systemic perspective of how organisations work. Judge Foskett may have been aware of that himself when he wondered aloud why anyone would now want to become a children’s services director: “The prospect of summary dismissal, with no compensation and a good deal of public opprobrium, is hardly likely to be an inducement for someone thinking of taking the job.” His own decision hasn’t helped matters. Beyond that issue lie some others that need deeper exploration. Key systemic leadership questions that arise from this case are:
1. What does improved strategic leadership look like in senior posts like Shoesmith’s?
2. How can a fair system of accountability operate when the organisation comprises a complex system?
3. How can a fairer system of justice operate for cases of this nature?
4. What could Balls have done other than removing Shoesmith from her position?
Over the next few days we will answer those questions.