Born: 1942, Sheffield.
Educated: City grammar school, Sheffield and Leeds University.
1965-70, Aycliffe Approved School (teacher, senior master then deputy head).
1970-1: tutor, training residential homes staff.
1971-4: assistant director of social services, Durham Council.
1974-84: deputy director, Barnardo’s.
1984-2005: chief executive, Barnardo’s.
“No one can remember a time when I wasn’t here,” says the outgoing chief executive of Barnardo’s, Roger Singleton.
It is hardly surprising after a career with the children’s charity spanning 31 years, 21 of them as its chief executive.
But the Barnardo’s of today is almost unrecognisable from the organisation he joined in 1974. He has been described as “a steady hand on the tiller” but such a lengthy period at the helm has its perils. But no one could accuse Singleton of allowing Barnardo’s to drift. He has steered the charity through the waters of turbulent change as it exited the orphanages and transformed itself into a modern service provider with a sharp campaigning focus.
It all began with a summer holiday job working with young offenders at one of the old approved schools, a role which stretched into his gap year. While studying history at Leeds University, he kept a link with his former employer and the work experience he gained proved crucial when he successfully applied for a full-time post as a teacher at another approved school. By the time he rose to deputy head he was set on a course in children’s services, later moving to the role of assistant director of social services.
But then he made what was to prove a life-changing decision to join Barnardo’s, though not everyone believed that he was doing the right thing.
“People said I was committing professional suicide in choosing Barnardo’s rather than a local authority,” he recalls. “In the post-war period the big children’s organisations were not seen to have moved with the times. They just weren’t engaged with the new agenda.”
In the 1970s, the Barnardo’s leadership was becoming aware of the need for change, but was less clear on how to achieve it. Singleton’s predecessor, Mary Joynson, brought him in as her deputy with a remit to “stamp out this notion of the ‘Barnardo’s family’.”
The traditional view had been that once children arrived in Barnardo’s they no longer needed their own family. As a result they were shunted around the country – and earlier in the century some had been sent abroad to start a new and “better” life in countries such as Canada and Australia – with little understanding of the effects of separation and loss.
“It was the era of ‘the professional knows best’,” says Singleton. “The notion at the time was that there was nothing a good dose of social work couldn’t put right.”
By the time he joined Barnardo’s the culture of the organisation was changing, although it was still mainly focused on residential care. “Barnardo’s then was based in some rather posh locations across the south of England,” he explains. “We decided we needed to get out of the leafy lanes and into the urban centres which were the areas of greatest need.”
Shutting the orphanages was a daunting task. For staff it was a treble whammy: they lost their jobs, their homes and the children they had grown close to and, in some cases, brought up as if they were their own (some staff ended up fostering the children).
Difficult decisions had to be made, but Singleton knew it was the right thing to do. “We couldn’t allow staff needs to come above children’s needs so the homes had to go. There was a human cost, but it wasn’t slash and burn – we tried to look after people.”
At the same time it was important to keep the public on side and reassure them that the organisation as a whole was not closing, otherwise the charity’s income might have dried up. Traditionally, much of Barnardo’s funding came from donations generated by local committees. These groups tended to raise money for “their” local home, which was used for fund-raising events such as garden parties.
Singleton says: “When you announced closures you expected a reaction from the staff and children but the most terrifying prospect was telling the local Barnardo’s helpers’ group. They just couldn’t understand it.”
It was in the late 1970s that inflation hit 26 per cent. Income had to rise by that amount just so services could stand still and this had a devastating effect on all voluntary organisations, including Barnardo’s. It was Singleton’s toughest time. To see off the crisis, new methods of fund-raising were developed – Barnardo’s opened high street shops and was a pioneer of postal appeals.
Meanwhile, the home closures continued, although some were kept open longer to see children through to leaving age. A plan was made with each young person and teams of social workers were set up to support young people in schemes that were the forerunners of today’s leaving care projects.
Next on the to-do list was to help bring the 11,000 or so Barnardo’s children with learning difficulties out of the old mental handicap hospitals and either care for them in small domestic scale homes or return them to their families. This reflected the organisation’s changing focus towards supporting children in their own families and communities.
As time passed, Singleton says he became persuaded that solely providing services was failing to maximise his organisation’s expertise and so Barnardo’s began to move into research and evaluation, laying the foundation for its later campaigning role.
“Ministers might not have liked what we were saying but they couldn’t claim we didn’t know what we were talking about,” he says. Over the years the charity has gradually found its campaigning voice, raising awareness of complex issues such as child suicide, drug taking and the sexual exploitation of young people. This trend culminated in a series of adverts that Barnardo’s ran a couple of years ago, featuring disturbing images, such as the heroin addict baby. The Advertising Standards Authority received complaints and even some of Barnardo’s staff were uncomfortable with the shock tactics, but no one can deny that they made people take notice of Barnardo’s.
Singleton is unrepentant. “Advertising is a waste of money if it doesn’t have impact,” he says. And moving with the times has also meant that Barnardo’s has responded to the new “listening to children” agenda, involving youngsters in staff recruitment, policy direction and shaping the services it provides.
On this, Singleton believes voluntary sector organisations have led rather than followed. “For example, the introduction of the children’s commissioners would not have happened without the children’s organisations pushing for it.”
He supports the current reorganisation of social services but is concerned at the increasing influence of those with an education background. His main concerns are that they have little tradition of engaging with the voluntary sector and that the needs of vulnerable children may not be enough of a priority. But overall he is optimistic, taking the view “we’ve just got to make it work.” Singleton and his senior team will sit down this month with his successor, former prison service head Martin Narey, to brainstorm the key challenges ahead.
Singleton’s departure coincides with the centenary of the death of the charity’s founder, Dr Tom Barnardo, whose last words were reputed to be “there’s still so much to do…”
This remains true today, although most retiring chief executives would be happy to be handing over an organisation in as good a shape as Barnardo’s. And perhaps retiring is the wrong word as Singleton has no plans to put up his feet. He lives with his wife of 40 years in an old house on the Essex-Suffolk border and yes, he says, he will spend a little more time “keeping the house up and the garden down” and seeing his two daughters and two grandsons. But he plans to keep busy with a portfolio career of trusteeships plus a place on the board at the new Home Office-backed agency, Capacity Builders, charged with improving the capacity of the voluntary sector.
As a qualified mediator and one of the country’s leading experts in charity governance, his services will doubtless be in high demand.
But isn’t it a wrench leaving Barnardo’s after spending half his life there? “Yes, I shall miss it enormously, and the whole charity fraternity that I’ve been part of for so long,” he says. “It’s one thing planning to leave, but when you see your job advertised it hits you that you’re really going. I’ve had 32 years attending functions wearing a badge that says ‘Roger Singleton – Barnardo’s’. I’m not sure that ‘Roger Singleton – Capacity Builders’ has quite the same ring. But I dare say I’ll get used to it.”