An advocate for children

work has lost one of its most distinguished leaders. Brian Roycroft, a highly
successful former social services director and a force for change in the care
of children was a hugely popular figure, writes Bob Holman.

Roycroft, who has died aged 68, was both a great children’s officer and an
outstanding director of social services.

He was born in 1933 in Cheshire where his
parents were distinguished houseparents with the National Children’s Homes.
After training at Leeds and Birmingham Universities, he became a child care
officer with the Hertfordshire children’s department in 1957.

In Hertfordshire, he was much inspired by the
children’s officer, Sylvia Watson. His supervisor was John Stroud, later a
successful novelist. They both liked a pint so supervision sessions often took
place in a pub. Brian Roycroft said – in an interview he gave me for the book Champions
for Children
– that Stroud taught him three lessons: "One, to be
totally focused on your client. Two, to create the right environment – it could
be in the car, or sitting on a swing in the garden. Three, not to ask leading
questions but to let the child talk at their pace." He always regarded
personal relationships as the core of social work.

In 1961, Brian went to the London County
Council as an assistant area officer. Simultaneously, he participated in the
Association of Child Care Officers’ campaign that culminated in the Children
and Young Persons Act 1963 and which placed a duty on local authorities to undertake
preventive work.

At the age of 30, Brian was appointed
children’s officer for Gateshead. At council meetings, the chief officers, all
in bowler hats, sat in order of importance. The children’s officer sat next to
the baths’ superintendent. Brian soon demonstrated his skill of working with
politicians when he persuaded them to close some children’s homes, to sack
unsuitable staff and to boost foster care. His success was such that in 1967 he
was poached by Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. He was passionate about the value of
training and, within four years, he raised its percentage of trained child care
officers from almost zero to 60 per cent.

Brian Roycroft was an active member of the
Association of Children’s Officers where he backed Barbara Kahan’s campaign to
reform the semi-independent approved schools. Opposed to corporal punishment,
he was confronted by a lady manager of a local school who told him: "I
would never dream of training a horse without a whip and boys should be trained
in the same spirit". Never one to back off, he continued campaigning until
the Children & Young Persons Act 1969 changed the nature of the schools.

Following the reorganisation of personal
social services in 1970-1, Brian became director of the Newcastle social
services department. Before long he established a well-run department with good
services for a whole range of users. His abilities were such that, for a while,
he was also acting director of education. In addition, he was secretary and
president of the Association of Directors of Social Services where he
consistently and publicly advocated the well-being of the most disadvantaged
members of society. He was a popular member, always ready with a good story.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, social
services departments were facing a shortage of funds and ever increasing
demands. Brian Roycroft found it devastating to cut services. He retired in

In retirement, Brian became involved with a
number of voluntary bodies that were small enough for him to feel close to both
staff and users. He was the founder of a small housing association, helping
mental health patients with housing problems, which expanded to embrace other
homeless people. He particularly valued being chairperson for seven years of
the Alzheimer’s Society where he saw growth and improvements.

Last year, Brian wrote to me to rejoice that
his beloved partner, Pat, was in good health. Then he revealed that he had been
diagnosed as having bowel cancer. Typically, he asserted that he would beat it.
The letter also contained news of his daughter, Emma, of whom he was immensely
proud. Brian also had two other children by a former marriage. Brian did beat
the cancer but not a heart attack.

His passing deprives us of one of the giants
in social work. He was perhaps the most rounded social work leader of our time.
He was an able practitioner, a competent administrator and a charismatic leader
who won the loyalty of staff.

Above all he was a national advocate not just
for children but for many user groups. One thing is sure, social work
desperately needs people like Brian Roycroft.  

Bob Holman is author of Champions for
Children – the Lives of Modern Child Care Pioneers
, Policy Press, 2001.

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