Leadership training for directors of childrens services

Children’s services directors are set to follow their health and education counterparts and go back to college to improve their leadership skills. Andrew Mickel reports

Good leadership may seem like an elusive quality to try to instil in people, but training head teachers and NHS managers in leadership skills has been credited with helping to drive up standards. Now it is social care’s turn: from this autumn, 24 directors of children’s services will use the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) to hone their skills.

With the directors’ training plan only announced in December, the details about what it will consist of are yet to be decided – even the criteria for picking the first intake is up in the air – but it is worth noting that the Nottingham-based NCSL has built itself an excellent reputation since its inception in 2000. Its efficacy – 87% of school leaders say that the college has pushed up standards in their schools – has meant that all aspiring head teachers must now receive a qualification from the college before they take up a headship.

A partnership between the NCSL, Children’s Workforce Development Council and the Association of Directors of Children Services is yet to map out the content of the social work course.

On-the-job training

The college’s work is more typically about on-the-job training than classroom-based learning, it is unlikely to involve directors clad in army fatigues clambering over cargo nets. “What we do know is that the training has got to be personalised, taking account of the needs and context of the individual children’s directors,” says NCSL chief executive Steve Munby. “In some cases it’ll be [learning about] political leadership and how to work with corporate colleagues on the council while with others it could be about forming partnerships as part of the children’s trust working more effectively with headteachers safeguarding and holding people to account or how to build a leadership team.”

One of the first tasks is to decide what makes a director of children’s services. Some idea can be gained from looking at the job’s inherent tensions. “It’s a people-led role,” says Elly Layfield, practice development manager for workforce at the Social Care Institute for Excellence. “There’s something about being a champion for service users but at the same time, families need that protection element. From there, you have to motivate others to follow that value base.”

Chief executive of Kent Council Peter Gilroy agrees that there are two sides which need balancing in the role, but says “It doesn’t matter how good you think you are: ultimately, you are only as good as the worst person at the frontline.”

Social work and education tension

Some commentators have flagged up tension between social work and education, illustrated by Sharon Shoesmith, who had a solid record in education but lacked social work experience. So is the biggest issue facing children’s directors that many need a broader familiarity with their remit?

Maggie Atkinson, president of the ADCS, says plans for the training were in the pipeline long before the Baby P case made the headlines. “This is not about whether a director comes from an education or social services background,” she says, “but about ensuring that leaders are in a position to lead the development of services for children and young people across the board – including health and police services that impact on them.”

The NCSL will also be training middle management to ensure that the next generation of children’s leaders will be well-versed in both education and social care.

Peer leadership

In the meantime, Gilroy says that peer leadership between directors of children’s services with different backgrounds – say, one from schools and another with expertise in child protection – could provide the common ground that can make training effective. That example is similar to the strategic partnership that Gilroy orchestrated between Kent social services and struggling Swindon in 2004, when he was social services director at the former. “We would meet for confidential and frank exchanges,” he says, and is keen to point out that bringing peers together to share their experience is more effective than bringing in private sector consultants.

There are public agencies who already help facilitate that, and there are predecessors to the NCSL’s training which give clues as to what directors of children’s services may come to do. The ADCS’s Virtual Staff College has included some director training. Scie has also run a social care leadership development programme since 2006, which until last year catered for children’s service heads.

Scie success

Layfield says that Scie’s programme has been a success because it is integrally based on social care. “People need to be thinking about the value base of leadership in social care because it’s unique,” she says. “It should be more than just copying courses from the NHS and education.”

Scie decided to drop the children’s training in preparation for the launch, at the end of March, of the Skills Academy for Social Care which will only work with staff from adult services. But the existing programme still provides pointers as to what the NCSL course may cover.

The three-part Scie programme includes an examination of what good leadership is in partnership with Birmingham University personal and organisational leadership with the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust and a close look at meeting the needs of the community by addressing real problems in east London.

The need to pool those skills and for children’s directors to be good leaders is going to be all the more pressing this year. They will be taking over responsibility for 14- to 19-year-olds’ education, dealing with a new inspection regime and handling the continuing fall-out of the Baby P case.

But Layfield says that whatever the particular challenges are at a given time, a director of children’s services has to keep focus on the staff and the people they are serving. “It’s about taking your experience to lead your community, and building a philosophy within that. It’s about who you are and how you inspire others.”

Online background

 More information on the college

 Join the discussion on what the training should include

 Community Care coverage of the training for children’s directors

 The Kent/Swindon work

Case Study on using NCSL

NEIL WILSON Head teacher, Wythenshawe, Manchester 

Newall Green High School head teacher Neil Wilson has used the National College for School Leadership’s services. He says it has helped with a wide array of topics, including management and child protection.

To meet the many responsibilities of being a head teacher, the college offers trainees the opportunity to step back and reflect on their everyday work, as well as the opportunity to examine what their counterparts are doing with similar challenges.

“The great thing is that you get to meet other professionals who are looking at the same challenges who will have a reservoir of knowledge on a given topic,” says Wilson. He particularly appreciates the collaborative web service, WebEx, that the NCSL uses to bring head teachers from around the country together online to discuss Every Child Matters and multi-agency working.

Beyond collaboration between peers, the college also connects head teachers with government officers, charitable trusts and other agencies to gain a different perspective and has also helped schools make connections with local industry.

Published in the 5 February 2009 issue of Community Care under the heading ‘Follow the Leader’

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