Should children's directors come primarily from a social care background?
- Yes (83%, 212 Votes)
- Background isn't important so long as they have the necessary skills (15%, 38 Votes)
- No, they are currently overrepresented (2%, 4 Votes)
Total Voters: 254
Councils are being urged to look beyond social work for potential directors of children’s services (DCSs), after a survey found two-thirds had a background in social care.
In a report examining reasons for the high turnover of DCSs, leadership development body the Staff College said that authorities risked losing out on talented leaders from other service areas due to a belief that a social care background was a necessity for the role.
Of 116 current and recent directors surveyed for the study, 64% had a social care background, with 55% having been a specialist director specialising in social care and safeguarding prior immediately to becoming DCS.
Baby P effect
It said this trend had taken root following the Peter Connolly (Baby P) case – which came to prominence in 2008 – and other subsequent high-profile child deaths.
It quoted directors interviewed for the study as saying that “you are seen as a risk if you are not from a social care background” and that this “reduces the talent pool”.
This echoed findings from a 2021 Staff College report on the barriers to education leaders taking up the DCS role, in which participants said that “social care risks [had] come to dominate” the role, potentially deterring those from educational backgrounds from applying.
In its latest report, the college said there was “a need to consider the loss of talented colleagues from disciplines other than social work” and to “nurture the talent pool across the full workforce”.
Director role ‘does not need technical expertise’
While a background in any of the children’s professions provided a strong foundation for understanding some aspects of the role, the college’s latest report stressed: “The DCS role itself does not actually need technical expertise in service delivery; it is a strategic leadership role, and the DCS has a senior leadership team which supplies the necessary expertise in the different service areas.”
Key DCS skills
Directors, chief executives and lead members for children’s services interviewed for the research identified the following as key DCS attributes:
- Being a good communicator;
- Critical thinking and expert questioning skills;
- The ability to demystify and boil down complex issues;
- The capacity to network across the council and with partners;
- Resilience, tenacity and stamina;
- Emotional intelligence and empathy.
This was manifest in the gulf the report identified between the assistant director (AD) and director roles, with the abilities to network with leaders within and beyond the council, battle for resources corporately and lead the system, rather than a service, being key gaps for ADs.
The Staff College said this needed to be addressed through improved work-based leadership development programmes within councils that provided ADs with the opportunity to shadow, and be coached by, DCSs, as well experience of working across the council and in multi-agency contexts.
While its own leadership programme for aspiring directors, upon, was widely praised by contributors to the research, just 58% of DCS respondents had completed it or its equivalent. On the back of this, the college said it would “address possible issues of access”.
Lack of diversity
The study also reiterated longstanding concerns about the lack of diversity among DCSs. While 61% of respondents to the survey were female – reflecting a trend towards more women being appointed than men in recent years – just 6% were from an ethnic minority group.
The report said this reflected a loss of talent and councils needed to be addressed through targeted leadership development. It also urged action to tackle racism, misogyny and other forms of discrimination “so that people feel welcomed and valued in the workplace and that the pipeline of talent through to a DCS role is as wide as possible”.
The study was inspired by the relatively high level of DCS turnover – with the average tenure lasting three years – and its potential impact on the quality of children’s services.
Biggest frustrations of role
Respondents identified a series of “frustrations” in performing the role, with the top four being:
- Council-based bureaucratic, political, financial and workload pressures (33% of respondents).
- Disappointment with national government policy commitment to children’s services (25%).
- Frustrations about the status of children’s services within the council and with health partners (22%).
- The disproportionate impact of inspection and regulation (13%).
Directors told the college that the current Ofsted inspection regime was “destructive and poorly delivered”, generated a “fear factor” that influenced DCS recruitment and retention and consumed significant capacity within services.
On the back of this, the college called for the DfE to ensure inspection becomes more proportionate and for Ofsted to adopt a more constructive approach that reduced “the damaging fear factor and blame culture associated with inspection”.
DCSs also criticised central government for not understanding the funding pressures they faced, for the time they had to spend bidding for resources and for “silo working” across departments that led to disjointed policy for children and frustrations for directors.
The college said this meant the government needed to tackle the “negative effects of multiple government departments generating policies around children” and improve funding for new duties for councils.
Council culture ‘most important driver of satisfaction’
However, college chief executive Jane Parfrement said that, while the DCS role faced numerous external pressures, the most significant influence on recruitment and retention was internal, in terms of council culture.
She added: “The culture and the behaviour within many local authorities is a positive one where those leading children’s services feel valued, supported and constructively challenged however what this report also highlights is that for a number, possibly many, this is not the case
“The message from this report to chief executives and elected political leaders is clear – if you want to recruit, retain and enable a DCS to succeed they need your support and they need to feel they are working within a council where the culture is a healthy enabling and open one and where diversity of leadership is welcomed and celebrated. This is within your gift.”
In response to the report, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said it contained “important messages”, including for central government departments on the “workload burdens” they generated for councils.
Pressures limit scope to improve leadership development
Workforce policy development committee chair Rachael Wardell said that, while councils “would like to make more time and space for shadowing, and similar opportunities, to support aspiring leaders to experience the DCS role, but the financial and workforce pressures we currently face make this challenging”.
She added: “Our own data shows excellent succession planning in practice, nearly all permanent DCS appointments in 2021-2022 were assistant director/second tier level stepping up into the role. Local authorities are working hard to recruit a workforce to reflect the communities we serve; this is important in direct work with children and at a senior level. We do not have enough directors from Black or minoritised backgrounds across the country, and there is more work to do on this.”
For local government leadership association Solace, managing director Graeme McDonald said the “excellent report” illuminated “a workforce crisis increasingly impacting on frontline delivery”
“More needs to be done to create attractive and supportive working environments in these most challenging of contexts,” he added. “Only with renewed focus and investment can councils create a workforce capable of rising to wave after wave of expectation.”
DCSs ‘generally satisfied with inspection’
An Ofsted spokesperson said that, while inspection and regulation should be “proportionate”, they needed to “reflect the importance of leadership across children’s services”.
The inspectorate said that surveys of DCSs following inspections or visits since June 2021 have found that 100% of the 63 respondents said they agreed the experience would improve services and 90% that the burden of inspection was about right.
“These inspections provide regular opportunities for constructive professional discussions with local leaders, so that we have a shared understanding of what is happening locally for children,” the spokesperson added.
Planned review of DCS role
The DfE is planning to review the DCS role this year as part of its response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, for which it published a draft strategy earlier this month.
In response to the college’s report, the DfE pointed to the £4.5m it invested in leadership programmes each year, including the upon scheme, which trains 40 aspirant directors each year, and the Pathways social work leadership programme. Launched last year, this will train 1,000 social work managers and leaders a year at four different levels: practice supervisor, middle manager, heads of service and practice leaders (equivalent to assistant directors).
A DfE spokesperson added: “Our children’s social care implementation strategy sets out ambitious plans to reform the system to improve outcomes for children and families, and our continued support for social workers and their leaders will underpin the success of those reforms in the years to come.”