Hampshire director John Coughlan, the former ADCS president, tells Judy Cooper how a leadership college will help children’s directors
“I don’t think we can avoid the fact that the role of the director of children’s services was created, in part, as a buck-stopping facility.” John Coughlan has no illusions about why many professionals might be put off the idea of becoming a director of children’s services.
The children’s director at Hampshire has a wider experience than most. A founding president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), he is probably still best known as the man parachuted into Haringey’s troubled children’s services department after the Baby P case entered the public domain.
Coughlan has maintained a discreet silence about his experiences there. But he does remark that all councils will, at some time or another, go through “challenging times”.
“It’s the nature of the work that we do. We have to cope with very serious pressures and all very much in the public eye. So you need a very thick skin.”
As a result, councils and children’s services departments cannot afford to be “naive” about the challenges in recruiting children’s services directors.
“Recent events and media coverage of high-profile failures will make people think twice about moving into this position. It’s badly exposed and can feel as if the world is on your shoulders. I don’t doubt some good people are holding back.”
He points out that councils are also understandably nervous about who they appoint as their children’s services director “because it is a role which can, in effect, make or break a council”.
Combined with this is the sheer scale and complexity of the job of a director. This includes the line management of staff in often challenging circumstances and ensuring children are safeguarded in an era of reduced money and increasing referrals. Exercising responsibility for schools is another major task. But perhaps the responsibility is being accountable for outcomes which can only be achieved with the support of departments and agencies over whom directors have little leverage.
“It’s an interesting and dynamic construct…although I’m not entirely sure how well thought through it was when it was invented,” he laughs.
The challenge of knitting together children’s services was massively underestimated, he says. But the changes are now showing the green shoots of improved outcomes which he believes has made the children’s director role politically secure.
“We really need to look at how we ensure the right people are coming through. For that we need a strong leadership agency.”
To this end he has accepted a position on the board of the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services which last September changed its name and widened its remit to include children’s services.
“My role is to bring the practical experience of being a children’s services director and working in councils to their knowledge of what works in creating a good leader,” he says. “What I’m keen to ensure is that models of leadership don’t outpace, or lag behind what is actually going on in councils.
“It’s such a privileged position to have the opportunity and ability to influence outcomes for children and families. I really hope, that with the college’s support, we can bang the drum more about what is the most exciting and challenging job I’ve ever done.”
➔ Quickfire Q&A with John Coughlan www.communitycare.co.uk/106115
● Director of children’s services in Hampshire Council since 2005. In 2009 he was appointed deputy chief executive.
● Previously director of social care at Telford and Wrekin Council and assistant director for children and families at Dudley Council.
● Professional background gained working with children in care in Birmingham.
● Founding joint president of the ADCS in 2007.
● Adviser to the parliamentary select committee for children, schools and families.
● The National College for Leadership of Schools and Children’s Services offers a 12-month, self-directed leadership programme for directors with an executive coach who provides six coaching sessions.
● A mentor-plus scheme where current or recently retired directors mentor newly appointed directors.
● An aspirant directors’ programme – starting later this year – supporting and preparing those close to stepping up to the role.