The new Association of Directors of Children’s Services president has a strong education background but wants to stress her integrated side. Maggie Atkinson (pictured right) talks to Louise Hunt
“It feels weird, three years after becoming a director of children’s services, to be asked which bit of the house I am in: education or social services,” says Maggie Atkinson, who has recently taken on the mantle of president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).
For the record she has an education background. After starting as a teacher 30 years ago, she moved into local government in inspection and advisory roles before joining Gateshead Council initially as director of learning and culture and, in 2005, as the statutory role of director of children’s services. Despite this she is reluctant to pigeon-hole herself as being from the education camp because “my job is so integrated”, she says.
It is no surprise that Atkinson wants to position herself as the figurehead of integration. She is the first sole president of ADCS – it was formed in February 2007 with joint presidents: John Coughlan, president of the former Association of Directors of Social Services and John Freeman head of the Confederation of Children’s Services Managers. They brought together the experiences of social services and education at a time when councils were finalising the merging of these separate functions into combined children’s services departments.
Inevitably, there has been a period of bedding down for both the ADCS and children’s services. At the time, concerns were rife that the split would prompt turf wars over funding and that the voice of social work would be diluted by the profession being divided into children’s or adults services.
One year on and Atkinson is confident that these fears have been allayed and that the association is on the right track.
“The Johns have placed us in a fantastic position,” she says. “They have modelled the integration agenda by having different backgrounds but a joint voice. You couldn’t put a cigarette paper between their views.
“I have yet to talk to a director of children’s services who has an issue with the merger. The people I have talked to say they really relish working across all the different agencies.
“It is very important that integration has taken place at a senior level and it is my expectation that children’s services directors contribute to their roles across all areas of children’s services.”
She acknowledges that “there was a lot of chatter” over concerns that people who had trained in either social work or education would be expected to work on the other side, but says this has turned out to be “an urban myth”.
“There will always be a need for highly specialist, almost purist workers, and they are unlikely to work in settings other than specialist ones. They are not going to go off to be educational officers,” she says.
But she does expect children’s services practitioners to consider all aspects of children’s lives, regardless of their background. “What I’m asking all those people to do is to stand in a virtual circle to make a stronger offer to a child because they are working in interagency teams,” she says.
One of Atkinson’s first priorities will be to increase the volume of the association’s voice. “The next step is to develop a statesman role for the 40 members of council, many of which are policy committee members,” she says. She wants to see networks of members representing the association at events “so that you don’t have to talk to the president to get a view on different aspects of children’s services”.
This approach follows on the association’s decision when it formed to take directors as members, and third tier senior managers as well. “We made a deliberate choice that we would go down to third tier. We need to grow the next generation of directors through the ranks and they will have grown up through integration,” she says.
In terms of policy, child poverty is one of the main areas exercising the association. “We are still in the territory of how difficult will it be to meet the 2010 target and eradicate child poverty by 2020? It will be about how the government can be given the best advice from localities,” she says.
In its position statement for 2008-9, ADCS suggests funding that gives schools an incentive to support the child and family poverty agenda could be an effective way of focusing resources, rather than area-based grant funding, which it says could have a damaging effect on local strategies. Atkinson stresses that working with schools is a central priority in addressing poverty.
She hopes to discuss how localities can best gather evidence to push for more resources at an forthcoming meeting with the joint DCSF and Department for Work and Pensions child poverty unit. She says this will involve using services such as Learn Direct and Sure Start that are mines of information on multiple deprivation.
Asked for her views on whether long-term strategies work, or have a tendency to run out of steam, Atkinson says: “They work if given the time and focus to work.”
Pointing to the Children’s Act 2004 she says: “We are just coming to the point where most people are working in inter-agency teams. It will be 2009-10 before we can say ‘this is what it all looks like’.”
She reinforces the message that ADCS’s top priority remains delivering on the Every Child Matters outcomes and says the association is “very much behind” the Children’s Plan as an evolution of these aims.
Specifically, the ADCS is wedded to contributing to the child health strategy, including tackling what it means to “work more closely with health”. It is working with sister body the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass) on this.
She describes her approach to influencing these policy agendas as dogged. “You get boring and say the same things over again, but in different ways – you collect good ethnographic data and hold yourself to account.”
On the ever contentious issue of funding, Atkinson has in the past been very vocal about what will happen when various streams of funding, including those for the Children’s Fund and youth offending teams, see their ring fencing disappear.
She still has concerns, but responds diplomatically: “The association works closely with the government funding departments on ensuring that settlements allow children’s departments to deliver services safely. ADCS uses a strong evidence base and a streak of pragmatism. But the days of high public sector spending have gone.”
She does acknowledge that funding for safeguarding children is still an issue. “There are a variety of challenges presented to children’s services and we would hope that as and when money comes in our direction it has had as little taken away from it as possible. Our message is ‘don’t ask local authorities to take on additional responsibilities when funding is being spent elsewhere’. This is a discussion we are continuing to engage with government on.”
In terms of bending the government’s ear, Community Care has found criticism that ADCS is a less influential voice than Adass. “This is not borne out by the evidence,” contests Atkinson. “Directors of children’s services have helped to write the Children’s Plan, so, no, I don’t find that criticism particularly constructive.”
But she does admit that the association needs a communications boost – its website looks a bit dated – and this will be remedied with a full-time press officer, she reassures. When it comes to reacting to events, the association has shown it can respond on the turn of a penny, she says, describing how, when the recent question of missing children and forced marriages arose, 14 children’s directors were marshalled to provide evidence to the home affairs select committee within 24 hours.
“Our opinions are sought after. ADCS is seen as a leadership body that is consulted on by the government. They recognise that our remit is broad and turn to us as a voice for children,” she adds.