DCS turnover rises for third consecutive year on back of high number of interim appointments

62 director of children's services appointments were made across the 153 local authorities in 2023-24, the second highest total since records began, finds ADCS annual report

Black file on a desk with the words 'employee turnover' written on it
Photo: Yurii Kibalnik/Adobe Stock

The turnover of directors of children’s services (DCSs) rose for the third consecutive year in 2023-24, on the back of high numbers of interim appointments and leaders moving between councils.

In total, 62 DCS appointments were made across the 153 local authorities over the past year, up from 50 in 2022-23 and a recent low of 39 in 2020-21, revealed the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’  (ADCS) annual update on the role.

This is the second highest figure since ADCS started recording the data in 2007-8.

While the number of appointments of new DCSs (21) was in line with the average per year, the number of interim appointments, 28, was significantly above the previous annual norm (19). The same was true of the number of directors moving between authorities, of which there were 11, above the previous average of seven.

High number of interim DCS appointments

The changes of role happened across 49 authorities, with 13 experiencing two DCS changes during the year, largely because of interim appointments. On a regional basis, turnover was greatest in the South West, where there were 12 changes across eight (53%) of the 15 local authorities.

Half of interim appointees (14) were assistant directors from the authority in question, while nine were former DCSs.

As of the end of the year, 17 DCSs were in interim posts, nine of whom had been in post for six months or less. Overall, the average tenure of current DCSs in their current role was 33 months as of March 2024 – 35 months for permanent appointees and eight months for interims.

Drivers of DCS turnover studied

The news follows a report by leadership training body the Staff College last year examining the reasons behind the relatively high turnover of DCSs, among whom the average tenure is about three years.

This identified four key “frustrations” in the role: council-based bureaucratic, political, financial and workload pressures; disappointment with government children’s services policy; concerns about the status of children’s services among local partnerships, and the impact of inspection and regulation.

Among its recommendations, the report called on government to improve the priority it gave to children, Ofsted to take a more “constructive” approach to inspection and councils to promote positive and supportive cultures in which DCSs were more highly valued.

It called on councils to widen the pool of potential DCSs, including by looking beyond managers with a social work background and tackling the lack of diversity in the role, particularly in relation to race.

Lack of racial diversity in role

Though ADCS’s latest stocktake found that the proportion of white DCSs had fallen from 93% to 90% from 2022-23, this is still well above the average for the social work workforce in children’s services (75%).

Black leaders are particularly underrepresented relative to the workforce, accounting for 2% of directors, the same as in 2022, compared with 14% of the children’s social work workforce.

The report also showed an ongoing increase in the share of DCS posts held by women, to two-thirds (102), up from half in 2018.

It also highlighted the continuing decline in the number of ‘twin-hatted’ directors – those who hold the DCS role alongside the director of adult social services position in their authority. There were 13 of these as of March 2024, down from 56 in 2017.

Children’s services ‘need stable leadership’

“In an ever-complex landscape, children’s services need consistent and stable leadership to deliver for the children and families that we serve,” said ADCS president Andy Smith.

On the number of interim appointments, he said: “Most interim appointments were filled, in the main, by former substantive directors of children’s services or assistant directors. However, the role of DCS is both unique and challenging and we need to pay more attention to how we support current DCSs to ensure we retain valuable skills, expertise, and experience within the sector.”

In his inaugural presidential speech last month, Smith said improving equality, diversity and inclusion across the association, and in children’s services more generally, was a priority for his year at the helm.

He welcomed the “slight increase in ethnic diversity amongst DCSs in 2023 compared to 2022”, but added: “There is still more to do in terms of translating our words and commitment to improving diversity, in its widest sense, into actions that our workforce, and our communities, will recognise.”

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