“An iron fist in a velvet glove”: this is how the new president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) describes herself. She might come across as a softer, more diplomatic leader than her predecessor, but Alison O’Sullivan insists she’s no pushover.
“Every president is going to have a different style, but that doesn’t mean I’m not determined and quite firm at times,” she says.
The organisation’s previous leader, Alan Wood, alienated many social workers and academics by accusing prominent institutions of turning out “crap social workers”.
O’Sullivan stands by his comments. She says initial training is too variable, but acknowledges more needs to be done to encourage social workers, once trained, to stay in the profession.
“It’s important we do continue to work to improve the consistency of initial training,” she says. “But the quality of supervision and first-line management are also really important. It’s a difficult job and you do need the right kind of supportive environment in order to do it.”
Aware of the pressures
As a qualified social worker O’Sullivan, who is currently director of children’s and adults’ services in Kirklees, says she is aware of the pressures: “I was a practicing social worker many years ago now – I qualified in 1978 so I don’t in any sense regard myself as being able to comment on current practice.
“But I have been out there. I’ve knocked on people’s doors, I’ve sat on their sofas and I do know first-hand what some of those challenges are.”
O’Sullivan started her social work career as a welfare assistant, delivering coal to vulnerable people for the winter, something she described in her inaugural speech last week as “the forebear of the winter fuel allowance all pensioners receive today”.
Mental health services for young people
Over the next year, she hopes to focus on further clarifying the expectations of local safeguarding children boards and improving mental health services for young people.
While O’Sullivan plans to continue the work the ADCS has be doing around practice leadership and teaching partnerships, she also intends to champion a personal goal – extending the Staying Put provisions so that young people in residential care can also stay there until they turn 21.
Key to retention
She is also a champion of a strengthened framework for continuing professional development, believing this is key to retention. The profession can ill afford to lose more of its workforce, she says.
“We’re all coping with increasing demand, local authority budgets are under serious pressure, and I am concerned about the potential to lose capacity for early intervention services,” she says. “If we lose critical capacity for intervening early then we are storing up problems for the future.”
With the general election just around the corner, O’Sullivan says the ADCS will be seeking to influence the incoming government and their policy agenda to make sure children are a priority.
And with demand continuing to rise and the capacity for early intervention being on what she calls “the cusp of being in quite a worrying situation”, this influence could be more important than ever.