Social services directors fear merged services will compromise child safety

If the findings of a recent survey are to be believed, the first
social services directors of the 21st century fear they will lose
out to educationists in the power struggle over children’s

They also think government reforms could jeopardise children’s
safety and force many of them to leave their current jobs.

Perhaps this rather pessimistic view can partly be explained by the
fact that the survey, by the Association of Directors of Social
Services, was carried out before the publication of last month’s
Children Bill, which waters down some of the more controversial
proposals in last September’s green paper.

However, while the greater flexibility in the bill may have allayed
the worst fears of many directors, there are still many
uncertainties about what the social services landscape will look
like in four years’ time.

The survey charts the opinions of 95 of England’s 150 social
services directors, including 33 from unitary authorities, 21 from
metropolitan, district and city councils, 19 from county councils
and 22 from London boroughs.

Despite the thrust of recent government proposals on creating
better co-ordination between the social services and education
departments, less than one-third of social services directors (29
per cent) said their local authority was preparing to combine the
two and only 5 per cent had already done so

Sixty per cent of social services directors said plans were not
being developed to combine social services and educationÊ-
although a quarter of these admitted that other changes were being
planned within the management structure in both departments in
light of the green paper.

Most directors viewed merger suspiciously. One warned against it
“if it were to result in children’s social services being taken
over and amalgamated into an enlarged education department”.

“The substantial risks would be for a loss of professional emphasis
within a large schools [institutional] department,” they

Others were more optimistic. “If the move is the creation of a
structure which brings together children’s services with a range of
non-school elements of education incorporating health elements too,
with care to maintain professional accountabilities, then there
have to be benefits and a greater ability to safeguard and protect
children,” one director said.

In relation to the proposed children’s services directors, who
would take overall responsibility for children’s social services
and education within a locality, the large majority of social
services directors working in departments likely to merge thought
they would be “sufficiently well-qualified and experienced” to
apply for the job.

However, some predicted that current directors of education would
not be comfortable reporting to them on educational matters, and
also raised concerns about whether they would even be eligible to
apply for the post.

“I would like to apply,” explained one social services director,
“but the post has already been filled as it was decided by the
council that this should be confined to someone with an education
background only. I was therefore debarred from applying”.

But the vast majority of social services directors in departments
likely to merge said they would not feel comfortable reporting to a
director of education appointed to the director of children’s
services post. They felt so strongly that reporting to an
educationist would undermine their position that almost all said
they would consider leaving their current job if that situation

This was reinforced by the fact that nearly half of the 95 social
services directors felt the changes in children’s services would
make it less likely they would be senior social care managers in
five years’ time.

Just 17 – perhaps those more confident about being well placed to
become children’s services directors – thought they were more
likely to be a senior manager in the future. Directors of county
councils were the least pessimistic, with only 36 per cent feeling
less likely to be a senior manager in five years’ time.

In terms of the likelihood of the proposed reforms improving
services for children, serious doubts remain. More than half (55
per cent) of directors felt a combined education and children’s
social services department would not significantly improve the
ability to protect children from abuse, while only one-third of
directors thought it would.

London directors were the most sceptical, with more than two-thirds
believing that bringing together responsibilities for children’s
education and welfare within one department would make their
ability to safeguard children worse.

“The education performance agenda is so large, protecting children
would be peripheral,” one director explained.

Merging departments would “significantly reduce the safety of child
protection systems – especially if there is a dominant school
improvement/universal attainment focus”, another added.

Andrew Cozens, president of the ADSS, admits the results reflect
the anxiety directors have about safeguarding children.

“A single accountable person doesn’t necessarily make things safer
throughout the organisation. Improvements in information sharing,
integration and co-location of staff are also important,” he

“There needs to be ownership of children at risk across the range
of professions, such as police and schools, that don’t see it as
their responsibility.” 

Key findings

  • 54.8 per cent of directors said merging education and social
    services within one department would NOT significantly improve the
    authorities’ ability to protect children from harm.
  • 33.7 per cent said it would improve child protection.
  • 6.3 per cent said it would, providing certain conditions were
  • 11.6 per cent did not answer.

Profile of the 21st century director

The ADSS survey shows the shelf life for social services directors
is getting shorter.

On average, directors have been in post for four years and three
months, but this ranges from a high of seven years and seven months
for male directors in county councils to a low of two years four
months for women directors in county councils.

Cozens says this confirms what a challenging time it is to be a
director, and he believes there is a correlation between the drop
in average length of service and the performance agenda.

“A lot of zero-star authorities have seen a change in director and
a lot of unitaries have seen a turnover since they were set up in
1996-7 – Plymouth is on its third director,” he adds.

The survey also reveals that male directors still outnumber female
directors 60 per cent to 40 per cent. Almost 90 per cent of county
council directors are men, but the balance has shifted in
unitaries, with 54 per cent being women.

The average age of directors is 50 years four months and 85 per
cent of them hold degrees, with 65 per cent having a second, higher

Changing face of the ADSS

In recognition of the changing role of social services directors
the ADSS is to debate at its Torquay conference this week whether
to change its criteria for membership. Following discussions it
held last year with the NHS Confederation on reciprocal
arrangements where there is an overlap between health and social
care, the ADSS is to consider whether membership should be opened
up to members of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives
and Confederation of Education Service Managers – especially if
some chief executives and chief education officers take on
statutory responsibility for children’s services under government

Three options the ADSS is considering are:

  • Dividing the association into a children’s ADSS and an adults’
  • Limiting membership to directors with responsibility for adult
    social services only.
  • Allowing membership to all those who report to the chief
    executive at chief officer or equivalent level and who are
    responsible for the delivery of social services functions in
    adults’ or children’s services.

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