Story updated 25 June 2020
Tributes have been paid to Dave Hill after the Surrey director of children’s services sudden death at the age of 61.
Hill was one of sector’s most recognisable faces, gaining a reputation for turning round children’s services during a 15-year career as a director at four authorities. This followed a long social work career – he qualified in 1983, having started work in a children’s home in 1977.
Joanna Killian, Surrey’s chief executive and also Hill’s boss at his previous authority, Essex County Council, described him as “an amazing colleague and friend”.
“At the heart of it he was just a great guy whose passion in life was his family – wife Jo, and daughters Laurel and Lydia whom he adored – and doing the very best he could for vulnerable children. My heart goes out to his family and to all his colleagues and staff who I know will be as devastated as I am that we have lost this amazing, talented man.
“His passion for doing the right thing by children and just getting things done shone through and he was the architect of the most brilliant transformation I have ever seen. He worked so hard and I know that his inspirational leadership, sheer energy and drive put us in the position we are today, with a service we can be proud of.”
The transformation Killian referred to was Hill’s role in turning round Surrey following two ‘inadequate’ ratings from Ofsted after taking on the DCS role in April 2018, shortly after the inspectorate had said that “too many of the most vulnerable children in the county are being left exposed to continuing harm for long periods”
A monitoring visit in December 2019 illustrated how far things had changed since, with inspectors saying senior leaders had made “substantial progress” in improving its response to children at significant risk and those receiving service through radically reduced caseloads, strong oversight and many more permanent staff, underpinned by the family safeguarding practice model.
This approach – which involves domestic abuse, mental health and substance use practitioners working alongside children’s social workers to tackle the root causes of harm to children in families – embodied Hill’s philosophy of intervening early to prevent children needing to be in the state’s care.
His role in turning round Surrey followed a longer transformation of Essex, where he spent eight years as director, bringing it from ‘inadequate’ to the brink of an ‘outstanding’ grade in 2019, achieved the year after he left.
Hill’s improvement focus also extended to other authorities, acting as government-appointed commissioner for Norfolk and Birmingham Children’s Trust, which improved from longstanding ‘inadequate’ status to ‘requires improvement’ under his watch.
Hill was also a champion of social work after he went into senior management, joining the board of the College of Social Work during its existence and promoting direct work during his time as Essex.
In 2018 he was awarded a CBE for his services to children’s social care and he also spent a year as president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services in 2015-16.
Surrey council leader Tim Oliver said: “Dave was a tower of a man who was held both in respect and affection by those who worked with him at Surrey and across the whole of children’s services.
“He was thoughtful, inspirational, committed and self-deprecating. He will be irreplaceable.”
‘A focus on love’
Association of Directors of Children’s Services chief officer Sarah Caton said she was “devastated” to hear the news about Hill.
“A big man with a big heart and an even bigger talent, Dave was a charismatic and inspirational leader,” she said. “Dave’s presidential year was unique and will always be remembered for its focus on ‘love’, based on the simple premise that all children deserve to be and to feel loved by those who care for and work with them. Dave also cared passionately about changing the narrative about the care system in England.”
His former council, Essex, also paid tribute.
“Dave will be remembered for his enthusiasm and for the leadership and support he gave to his colleagues,” said chief executive Gavin Jones. “His presence and strength of personality, and his commitment and passion for everything connected with children’s services, adult social care and education will be greatly missed.”
‘He understood what eye-wateringly good services looked like’
Going back to an earlier phase of his career, when he was assistant director of children’s services at Tower Hamlets council from 2000-05, the then social services director Ian Wilson said: “The transformation of Tower Hamlets children’s social care services from arguably the worst in the country to arguably the best, was led by Dave and delivered by the extraordinary team that he attracted to the borough.
“He understood, better than anyone I ever met, what eye-wateringly good services looked like. He unfailingly, and good heartedly pursued that standard wherever he went.”
Alongside his time at Tower Hamlets, Hill undertook the director’s role at two London boroughs, Croydon and Merton. Paying tribute on behalf of the Association of London Directors of Children’s Services, its chair, Martin Pratt, said: “Words are inadequate to express the sense of loss that London Children’s Services and the DCS community feel at the very sad news of Dave Hill’s untimely passing.
“His kindness, compassion and deep commitment to improving outcomes for children are examples to us all.”
Hill has received further tributes on Twitter from children’s minister Vicky Ford, fellow directors and current and former colleagues:
Such sad news of the death of Dave Hill, former Director of Children’s Services at @Essex_CC
His work & legacy has helped thousands of vulnerable children in Essex & across the country
My thoughts are with his family, friends and those he worked withhttps://t.co/0k5FuejGT3
— Vicky Ford MP (@vickyford) June 24, 2020
Extremely sad news to hear about Dave Hill. Dave was supportive, thoughtful, kind & compassionate. Thank you Dave for all you did for social work, for families, for children & young people. You will be hugely missed. Thoughts are with his family & all social workers who knew him.
— Claudia Megele (@claudiamegele) June 24, 2020
I am just so sad – this is a loss of a wonderful man – always the extra mile and always with a smile . What a space you leave Dave . With thoughts for your family xx @JackyTiotto https://t.co/TIVQQL8pIy
— jacky tiotto (@JackyTiotto) June 24, 2020
Dave Hill was great to work for, to learn from, and he made a difference to people lives. A good man to be remembered. https://t.co/pulaBEPic2
— James Bullion (@JamesBullion) June 24, 2020
Awful news. Thoroughly loved spending time with @DCSSurrey and hearing his commitment to children and young people. Thoughts are with everyone at @SurreyNews , Essex and those in the profession lucky enough to have spent some time with him https://t.co/AmSgzuH9RQ
— Jonny Hoyle (@Jonnyhoyle1) June 24, 2020
Shocking and saddening. Dave was generous, brave, thoughtful and fun. He gave me plenty of sage advice over the years. He put his all into improving social work and that will have left a lasting legacy for so many children & families in England. https://t.co/bXeOiwUveM
— Josh MacAlister (@JoshMacAlister) June 24, 2020
More on Dave Hill
- ‘I’m not that bothered about Ofsted. If you want to make a big improvement you’ve got to own it’
- ‘Defiance, enthusiasm and commitment: Birmingham’s social workers post-Dispatches’
- ADCS president aims to improve public image of care and end ‘formulaic’ social work
- ‘Direct work is what these social workers came into the job to do’
- ADCS President: ‘I’m not holding my breath for more funding’