‘Damaging’ turnover of children’s director posts is creating instability, warns long-serving chief

Hampshire director John Coughlan says the 'ferocity' of attention directed at directors of children's services risks making the role unmanageable

John Coughlan (Credit: UNP/Paul McCabe)

John Coughlan is a rare breed. He has been a director of children’s services (DCS) at Hampshire council for eight-and-a-half years, making him one of a small number of DCSs who have remained in the same job since the post became statutory in 2007-8.

Levels of turnover have increased to staggering proportions in recent years with one in three directors leaving their post from 2012-13.

It is a phenomenon that troubles the former joint-founding president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).

“I’m lucky to have been in a stable authority with an exceptional team but I know that I am still learning in this role. I also know that it’s taken eight years to build something that is sustainable and high quality,” says Coughlan, who is also his council’s deputy chief executive. “This is not quick work. When there’s a 30% turnover annually in DCSs across the country it creates a lot of instability in the system and I worry about that dimension.”

When there’s a 30% turnover annually it creates a lot of instability and I worry about that” John Coughlan

Coughlan sees the high turnover rate as the result of the sheer “ferocity” of attention directed at anybody who is a DCS which, especially when there is a high-profile child death, can be both unforgiving and unreasonable.

‘The risk is the role becomes unmanageable’

“The risk is it becomes unmanageable for anyone. I have no problem with the accountability and I think seniority should come with accountability. But I recently read an article in a quality newspaper about the recent Coventry case where a senior commentator was bemoaning the lack of accountability. I found it staggering they could write that because it feels like we are accountable for absolutely everything and surely the damaging turnover shows that.”

Coughlan is perhaps one of the highest profile DCSs in the country. He was chosen to go into Haringey following the Baby P case and was also part of the team that led the Family Justice Review. He has now taken on one of the first true sector-led improvement projects after the Isle of Wight asked Hampshire to take over its children’s services. Not to mention receiving a CBE of course.

While he has always been, and remains, very tight-lipped about his role in Haringey he says he is proud of being involved with the Isle of Wight partnership because it represents a vision of sector-led improvement that is a model worth pursuing.

“I personally think children’s services have got better but we’re nowhere near good enough yet and of course some places have more problems than others.”

‘The space between success and failure is too narrow’ 

But this will not fundamentally change unless the system stops measuring processes and finds a way to recognise high-quality practice, he adds.

“At the moment it feels like the space between success and failure is too narrow and that’s dangerous.”

He is deeply impressed with the calibre of newly-qualified social workers he meets these days, but also fears “we’re just going to chew some of them up”. “We have such an embattled system that they can end up becoming canon fodder.”

Coughlan is a qualified social worker although he admits he has never actually worked as one.

“I have never felt too embarrassed about that because I spent the best part of a decade working in residential child care so I feel I earned my stripes then,” he laughs.

The pull of children’s social care was, he says, addictive to the young English graduate who intended to become an English teacher.

“I got a job in a children’s home in Birmingham because I thought it would be good experience for teaching. It was difficult and challenging but I also found it incredibly addictive. I never did end up taking my teaching qualification.”

Thrust into management

After qualifiying as a social worker his bosses, recognising his management abilities, immediately thrust him into change management roles designed to improve residential child care so that services became more focused on the rights of the child.

Eventually he became a director of social services and was head of the Association of Directors of Social Services when it was urging the government to be wary of creating the DCS role.

“I was quite torn at the time. Even when I was sounding these notes of caution to the government I was privately thinking that a DCS role was a job I would love to have.

“My heart has always been in children’s services. I would be very sad to see the role dismantled.”

John Coughlan on…
A social care leader must be…as thick-skinned as they are sensitive with a readiness to get their hands dirty.

If I wasn’t a social work director I’d be…an English teacher following retirement as an uncompromising centre-half for Birmingham.

I’m most inspired by…the best frontline practice both in teaching and social care. Also the astonishing children we are privileged to help.

My staff describe me as…to my face? I think they should be allowed the privacy of their true feelings.

What keeps me awake at night? Er…curry usually. If I’m serious then the whole shebang really…everything about the system.

The government could make my job easier by…leading the recognition and acknowledgement of outstanding children’s services. We have to get out of this deficit trap. As Joni Mitchell says: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone”.

I’m proudest ofHampshire’s last Ofsted report, being involved in the Family Justice Review and the partnership with the Isle of Wight…but it is the “vice of fools” so move on, move on.

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