How Rotherham worked hard to get back on its own two feet

Ian Thomas. Picture: Scott Merrylees
Ian Thomas. Picture: Scott Merrylees

It was labelled ‘the most difficult job in Britain’ – at least 1,400 children had been abused over a 16-year period and their cries for help had been ignored.

But Ian Thomas has shed a light on the turnaround within Rotherham’s children’s services following the child sexual exploitation scandal after he was recognised for his work in the New Year’s Honours.

Ian Thomas speaks to the media after the end of one of the Rotherham CSE trials.. Picture: Andrew Roe

Ian Thomas speaks to the media after the end of one of the Rotherham CSE trials.. Picture: Andrew Roe

The former Newfield Comprehensive School pupil joined at a time when the international spotlight was shining on the town for all the wrong reasons.

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Mr Thomas, 49, said: “Everyone woke to the news about the Jay report when it broke. Like everybody else, I reflected on it with sadness and then I walked into work and there was an email from the lead commissioner in Rotherham, Malcolm Newsam, and he asked if I would ever consider working in Rotherham.

“I went to see him for a meeting and he was such a smart, inspirational and passionate man I decided to pursue it.”

Dad-of-three Mr Thomas succeeded Joyce Thacker, who left the council after the publication of the damning Jay Report, which outlined ‘blatant failures’ by council and police leaders who turned a blind eye to the sexual exploitation of at least 1,400 children in Rotherham between 1997 and 2003.

Mr Thomas, who is now working as chief executive designate for the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, said: “It was very clear that we couldn’t do it was a single agency, we had to do it together.

“It was alright having a plan but if I got it wrong I would have been finished at 46 with a family to try and support. People weren’t queuing around the corner for the job.

“It’s about how you work in a multi-agency way and what Rotherham needed was a cultural shift on how it worked to protect children.”

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Mr Thomas said a chat with Chris Edwards, chief operating officer at Rotherham Clinical Commissioning Group, in his first days in the job helped kickstart the transformation.

He added: “The first call I made was to Chris Edwards about how we could join up with the council and health. Within half-an-hour, he said he would and that set tone for people to work in collaboration to do some great work.

“From day one we had international media outside and we had workers abused on the doorstep and morale was on the floor.”

Within just a few months of Mr Thomas joining Rotherham Borough Council, there was a whole new cabinet in place at the town hall, including leader Chris Read and cabinet member for children, Coun Gordon Watson.

Mr Thomas added: “We attracted some excellent staff to complement what we already had and through our transformation programme we identified problem areas first and then moved on to improving services.

“We had lots of peer support and we looked further afield for best practice and we completely revamped our model and developed that with school partners.”

Mr Thomas said the joint-up approach, working together with the NHS, voluntary sector and South Yorkshire Police, led to convictions in court and, more importantly for him, an increased confidence among victims and survivors that they would be believed and their concerns would be acted upon.

He added: “It's a long process and all sorts could go wrong so it was important for us to work with the police to make sure that people were in the best shape to give evidence.

“The first lot of convictions was so important for the town and if that would have fallen through all confidence would have been lost of any sort of recovery.”

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More support was also set up for victims and survivors in Rotherham through Barnardo’s Reach Out service, and more funding was given to Swinton Lock Activity Cente, which works with survivors, as well as charities Rotherham Rise, GROW, Rotherham Women's Counselling Service and Apna Haq.

Mr Thomas said: ““We included a number of survivors in the process because they had the experience that we didn’t. The Reach Out project exists to this day and when I left they had worked with more than 2,500 children to help them spot the signs of CSE

The former director of Derbyshire’s children’s services said the turnaround, which led to its its children’s services being assessed as ‘good’ by Ofsted a year ago, would not have been possible without the support of people in the town.

He added: “I can’t speak more highly of the people of Rotherham who should be proud of what's happened in the last four years.

“I thank the councillors who stepped up to the plate and the people who risked their own careers because they joined at a time when Rotherham was considered by many to be a basket case.

“I saw a fantastic community response and because of that Rotherham now stands on its own two feet without commissioners because of the commitment of the people there.”

Mr Thomas was made a Commander of the British Empire in the Queen's New Year’s Honours for his work in Rotherham and he dedicated it to everyone who had helped with the turnaround.

He said: “It was a big shock and surprise when I received the letter from the Cabinet Office. My first thought was for my parents who came over from Jamaica.

“But it’s a reflection of the hard work of many who I have worked for, or worked with and the victims and survivors who have shown such courage and bravery.”

He left his role in Rotherham last year to take over Lewisham Council as chief executive. 

But after just seven months he left to take over as chief executive of Kingston-upon-Thames Council last month.