Why having a director of children’s services still matters

The principal of the Staff College, Jo Davidson, reflects on the changing nature of the director of children’s services role.

A lot has changed since the 2004 Children Act made it a legal requirement for every upper tier local authority to have a director of children’s services (DCS).

From the rise of social media, online grooming and exploitation to the current pandemic, the pressures on everyone working in social care has never been greater. One thing which has not changed is that the DCS is – and always will be – a champion for all children.

While the issue around accountabilities has become ever more complex, it’s always been a position of influence. The DCS role first and foremost is about creating an environment, where children thrive.

One of the more notable changes, particularly over the last year, is the understanding that the DCS role is much more than about what happens in social care. It is also about what happens in education, health and the local economy.

Many people do not have jobs now or have had their income slashed.  That has a direct impact on the quality of their and their family’s day-to-day lives. If people cannot access mental health services, or decent housing that also has a direct impact on children and young people and their ability to thrive. The pandemic has brought this to the fore; it is sadly all too easy for children and young people to get lost in the midst of everything else.

By having the DCS, whose job it is to champion children, and engage others, local authorities not only provide a real safeguard, they show children their interests are represented at officer level, and also in the political arena as well through the lead member role. The DCS role helps create the conditions for a thriving place and community, by nurturing our youngest citizens through to their adult years. What better investment could you hope for?

From our vantage point at Staff College, we’ve seen a massive amount of collaboration and changes to the way services have been delivered over the last 12 months. The early months of the pandemic galvanised partners around a common cause in a way that some people have been struggling to achieve for years. The innovation and managed risk taking has been significant.

2 women in blue and gray sweaters

A lot of people think that it’s the social workers who provide the safeguarding; actually the vast majority of safeguarding is done by the community at large. We’ve seen a lot of leaders better understand how complex safeguarding work is and how social workers and others thrive when they are part of a high support environment with appropriate challenge. DCSs are responsible for leading and influencing a multi-facetted children’s workforce of many thousands of people. Doing that where even those teams who are within your direct line management responsibility remain remote will be one of the big issues for the DCS going forward.

The DCS has to influence very many different aspects of place. The relationship between citizens and the public sector has been changing for a number of years now. It’s been less about what are the services that are provided to communities, and more about shifting the balance of power in terms of what communities do for themselves and encouraging that.  Look at the growth in community support during the pandemic which many places have seen a life for beyond the current crisis. DCSs are looking, with children and young people,  at how to nurture  new community approaches which have begun to emerge to recast the notion of youth and family support.

Local authorities need leaders who are totally comfortable with ambiguity and can make sense out of it. DCSs have come to the fore during the pandemic because they are so used to managing complexity and risk; to navigating through uncertainty and accepting volatility. Because of the nature of the role, DCSs are adept at being sometimes on the balcony, and sometimes on the dance floor.

Needing to be business savvy, comfortable with short and medium term financial planning and investment strategies for multi-million pound budgets; welcoming scrutiny and the checks and balances of leading some of the most publically regulated services in local government, all go with the territory of DCSs.

There’s another angle though to the DCS of now and the future, which needs to become a way of being rather than just a task. That’s the DCS as an inclusive and culturally competent leader.  Both the pandemic and Black Lives Matter have shown up the leadership necessity of creating the conditions where everyone feels they belong. Where diversity of thought, concepts, ideas and action is encouraged, welcomed and celebrated. Where inequity is addressed.

These are undoubtedly challenging times for all of us in children’s services, but,what opportunities as well.  We see a sector not just responding but meeting these challenges head on, with the DCSs convening, chivvying others and championing children, proud of the positive difference they and so many others make.

Photo Credit – Juliane Liebermann


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