Interview: Roger Thompson takes over at Doncaster children’s services

Bedevilled by warring councillors, poor management and a worse reputation, Doncaster children’s services are a mess. Roger Thompson is the person charged with sorting it out. He spoke to Mark Hunter

With Doncaster’s children’s services rivalling Haringey’s as the place a social worker would least like to work, you might expect the man recently installed to help sort out the mess to be a little daunted by the prospect.

Not a bit of it. In fact, the only concerns Roger Thompson had in taking on the chair of Doncaster’s Local Safeguarding Children Board in April was whether he could fit it into his crowded schedule. As chair of the City of York’s LSCB, a lay member of the General Medical Council and chair of the York branch of Mind, Thompson is a busy man. And he’s getting busier by the day.

“Clearly we have a lot to do in Doncaster,” he says. “But I’ve never considered that as a reason not to take on the role. I view it more as a challenge.”

The extent of that challenge cannot be underestimated. Doncaster has become a byword for the archetypical “rotten borough”, bedevilled by warring councillors and mismanagement. It is the council that, for three years, employed a former frozen food manager as its director of children’s services, where opposition councillors complain of a culture of secrecy and where, in June, the newly elected English Democrat mayor used his first radio interview to admit that much of his manifesto could not be implemented and some of it was illegal.

Serious case reviews into a number of high profile deaths of children over the past five years have highlighted gross inadequacies in the workings of nearly every agency involved in Doncaster’s children’s services. Weak leadership, underfunding and conflicts between councillors, managers and other agencies have been blamed for the failings and earlier this year the government ordered a new senior management team to be appointed, overseen by an external improvement board.

“There have been considerable problems,” says Thompson, clearly aware of the understatement. “But I think we have made improvements already. We have been given the money and the scope to do it so I’m hopeful that we can bring about the consistency that will improve the service.”

Note the use of “we”, not “they”. Thompson played no part in Doncaster’s troubled history, but he has made the decision to stand shoulder to shoulder with the children’s services professionals who remain. He is careful not to apportion blame.

“I can’t really comment on the political situation in Doncaster but I wouldn’t say the problem has been weak leadership so much as inconsistent leadership,” he says. “The biggest problem has been in an extremely high turnover of staff right the way through the organisation. A lot of people are in acting positions and there is a very high use of agency staff. That all results in a lack of consistency which affects the service.”

Thompson believes that if high quality staff can be brought into Doncaster and persuaded to stay, improvements will follow. The council is advertising for a new leadership team and further appointments will follow throughout children and young people’s services.

“We are appointing third and fourth tier managers, which is a start, and we are addressing the recruitment of social workers,” says Thompson, although he admits there is a “morale issue” affecting recruitment of social workers.

Thompson himself began his career as a social worker in the East End of London. He has worked in social services management for a number of authorities and was northern regional director of the NSPCC, where he worked for 15 years. He also chaired a number of the area child protection committees that pre-dated the LSCBs.

The boards have been under fire recently but Thompson has no doubt that the new system is an improvement on the old.

“The old ACPCs weren’t statutory bodies so we relied on a lot of goodwill from other agencies to get things done. But now LSCBs have become high-profile bodies with statutory status. So we do have a lot more power and that does make a difference.”

Indeed, Thompson remains optimistic that LSCBs can improve children’s services both nationally and specifically in Doncaster. He is adamant that he will be there to see the job through.

“I’ve not been parachuted in. I’ve got a three-year contract, so I’m here for the long haul.”

This article is published in the 30 July 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Here to Stop the Rot

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