Haringey children’s chief: “I’m here for the long haul”

In an exclusive interview, Jon Abbey outlines Haringey's ambitions for children and importance of workforce stability

Jon Abbey, director of children's services, Haringey Council; Photo by Phil Adams

While Haringey council can’t forever be defined by its past, it is also true that two events that occurred within its boundaries have had – and continue to have – enormous implications for the shape of children’s services in England; the deaths of Victoria Climbié, aged eight, in 2000, and that of 17-month-old Peter Connelly, ‘Baby Peter’, in 2007.

The impact of the latter case has been felt across the country, and in Haringey in particular through a lack of stability in its children’s services workforce, notably in senior management roles. But in Jon Abbey, its director of children’s services, the authority may have found the man to put this right, and to improve performance as a result.


Abbey, who took over his role permanently in July, and Haringey council’s leadership have set an objective for its children’s services to be in the top quartile in London. “That’s a massive challenge but the ambition is there,” he says.

The scale and scope of the challenge facing Haringey was outlined in last year’s Ofsted inspection report, which rated Haringey’s children’s services overall as requiring improvement. The report did highlight some strengths, notably in ensuring good educational outcomes for looked-after children and in reducing referral rates, but weaknesses were identified in a number of areas, including that three-quarters of looked-after children lived outside the borough, and the low number of families receiving early help via the common assessment framework.

Haringey has, however, made progress since in a couple of key areas, reducing its number of looked-after children from 520 a year ago to 450 (though proportionately this is still above the average for London and for Haringey’s “statistical neighbours”).


Abbey points out that the council can’t always control the number of children taken into its care – unaccompanied asylum-seeking children being a case in point – but Haringey is also rolling out a new operating model for children’s services which places increasing emphasis on early help in an effort to prevent problems in families escalating, and to ensure social workers are focused on the most complex cases. Early help has been a feature of the authority’s work for some time, but its new model will be based around six locality ‘network learning communities’, with nine children’s centres offering a wider range of services to families.

“We’ve now got to be good at seeing what the impact of this is,” says Abbey. “How are we de-escalating need and making families more resilient? It’s sometimes about helping the family to help themselves.

I think children’s services in the past have always thought they were a service to do to families, but we’re a service to facilitate and help families become a little bit more resilient and know how and where they can get that help.

Good social workers ‘make things happen’

Abbey sees social work as having an integral role to play in raising performance standards and expectations in the borough. “Whenever I was in a school and I would hear a head teacher saying ‘well, what do you expect from kids like this?’, that’s totally unacceptable. You see the passion of good head teachers and good social workers, they make things happen.”

This is particularly important in a professional environment characterised by rising demand but a reduction in resources. Haringey children’s services face a £16.7m budget cut by 2017/18, but the number of children and young people living in the borough is increasing (almost 60,000 were aged under 18 at the end of 2014), and issues such as child sexual exploitation, gangs and radicalisation – Haringey is a priority authority for the Prevent anti-radicalisation agenda – are increasingly significant.


Abbey is Haringey’s fifth director of children’s services in seven years, his position becoming permanent in July this year after he took the role on an interim basis in October 2014. Previous holders of the post departed for a variety of reasons; Sharon Shoesmith was very publicly sacked in December 2008 after details of the Peter Connelly case were revealed (though the appeal court later ruled that her dismissal had been unfair), while Abbey’s immediate predecessor, Lisa Redfern, left in 2014 for personal reasons.

Abbey joined the council in January 2013 as assistant director for schools and learning, and says he “started working in Haringey with a view not to becoming DCS but with shaping the education portfolio”. But when Redfern left, “I put myself forward to say I know the backdrop. This was around the time we were looking at our medium-term financial strategy for three years. It needed stability and good leadership.”

Abbey returns to the theme of stability at various points in the interview. “You can see where and why Haringey potentially hasn’t moved forward very quickly,” he says. “It’s because of a lack of stability at senior tiers. If you look at the most recent good Ofsteds [inspection reports] – Enfield, Salford, Kingston, Trafford – why has that happened? It’s because they have a stable team with a good culture. Stability comes from the top and ricochets through the organisation.”

Education background

A PE teacher by training, Abbey was head teacher of three primary schools in Enfield before working in Hackney from 2009 to 2012 as head of school performance. Although his background before his current role has primarily been in education, he points out:

I’ve lived and breathed children’s services for the whole of my professional career. I’ve been accessing social services, utilising early help, and been dependent on the cadre of services out there.

He also set up a children’s centre at Bush Hill Park Primary School in Enfield as part of his efforts to remove it from special measures.

One of his greatest concerns is to change perceptions and promote Haringey as a good place to practise social work, in the process introducing more stability into the social care workforce. Progress has already been made on this front; this time last year only one of 10 heads of service was a permanent employee, but now six of seven heads under its new structure are permanent. At the end of June almost 30% of the social care service’s qualified workers were agency staff but this number has been falling as it continues its drive to recruit permanent workers.

“London wide there’s such a challenge around recruiting good quality social workers, senior practitioners and team managers,” said Abbey. “We and other local authorities crave stability.”

Signs of Safety

To encourage this and attract more permanent children’s social workers, Haringey has, among other things, introduced the Signs of Safety assessment framework, endorsed by Professor Eileen Munro in her 2011 report.

“In Haringey we couldn’t articulate an offer so we were hoping people would come here for fresh air,” says Abbey. “We’ve now put together an invest to save proposal, with Signs of Safety, links with higher education, and we’re setting up our own social work academy to look at investment in a way of working.

“Before Signs of Safety we did the Haringey way of social work. That’s just not safe, it’s not secure, it’s not assertive. If I’m trying to sell being a social worker in Haringey I’ve got to be able to articulate a way of working and we know this [Signs of Safety] is tried, tested, Munro backs it and no one can argue against it. I’m always looking when I put things in place that they would stand the test of time.”

Partnership working

The Baby Peter case did not just highlight failings in social work practice but also in other agencies, notably health services and the police, as well as in communication between the organisations. Abbey says partnership working in the borough has, however, been reformed by Sir Paul Ennals, the former National Children’s Bureau chief who was appointed chair of Haringey Local Safeguarding Children Board last year.

“My word, he holds us all to account,” says Abbey. “We’re also trying to foster an understanding between agencies. It’s not perfect out there, we all know that in social care we’ve had a relatively high proportion of agency workers. That would concern partners so we ensure we keep them abreast of how we’ve been recruiting and improving stability.”

The ‘S’ word again. “Hopefully me as DCS brings some stability that we’ve not had for some time,” says Abbey.

I love my job. The ambition from our leaders is burning and I share that.

“I know Haringey, I know the context, I know a lot of the infrastructure and the people. I want to be able to capitalise on that and get the best out of our workforce. I’m here for the long haul.”

Executing the strategy

There are some notable differences between his previous role and this one, though. “In schools and learning, when the schools close over the summer, the emails drop down and contact with governors reduces. But there’s just a relentless pattern of business and need here. Demand has not reduced but resources have. That tension, concern and anxiety remains there a lot.”

Abbey likes to go out for a run to “clear my head”, and also plays golf “very badly when I can. I love the strategy but sometimes it’s the execution of the strategy”.

Ultimately, this is how his tenure as Haringey’s director of children’s services will be judged. The strategy is now in place, but there’s still much work to be done if it is to bring lasting improvements.

Haringey council is the congress sponsor for Community Care Live London, which takes place on 3-4 November at the Business Design Centre. 

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2 Responses to Haringey children’s chief: “I’m here for the long haul”

  1. Mark Fraser October 8, 2015 at 4:05 pm #

    Really positive story, thank you.

  2. Cristina Fantaza October 15, 2015 at 5:22 pm #

    I agree that stability at senior level is important but equally important is the professional integrity. The senior manager are suppose to be role models and sre suppose to motivate member of staff.
    My experience of being managed by certain manager and senior manager in Haringey was absolutely appalling to the point where it almost drove me out of social work. I have been qualified and practiced as social worker for more then 10 years ( about 9 years work experience when I joined Haringey).
    If you are treated with respect then you are more likely to enjoy your job and be ‘a good social worker’ that brings about change. if you work in a hostile and bullying environment where the senior manager is accepting and enforcing such behaviours the change cannot be achieved. I hope Jon Abbey will have years to listen to the voice of the social workers